For years, I’d only seen glimpses of “Farewell to Manzanar,” the legendary made-for-television movie that aired in 1976 and rarely again.
I remember that famous scene where a white man comes to the house of the mother (Nobu McCarthy) and makes an insulting offer for her sets of china. When he reminds her that she’s got to sell everything within two days, she gets angry and starts breaking plate after plate after plate.
Then there’s the heartbreaking scene where the father (Yuki Shimoda) returns on a bus after being kept by FBI agents because he owned a fishing boat in Santa Monica (they suspected he was sending messages to Japan). He returns a broken man, and his wife runs up to him and shrieks in horror and despair.
Thanks to Maria Kwong and the Japanese American National Museum, I was finally able to see the 35-year-old movie and get my own keepsake DVD at a recent screening.
First of all, it’s not perfect. At the beginning, we see Jeanne Wakatsuki’s present-day character (McCarthy, playing a second role) returning to the camp grounds and flashing back to her days there as a young girl, but it’s not immediately clear when we return to 1941 which of the daughters is her.
James Saito, who went became a regular on ABC’s “Eli Stone” a few years ago, is wooden here as her brother Richard (it’s his first IMDB credit, so maybe he hadn’t had much acting experience prior to this).
Some of the scenes lack context. For instance, while in camp, one of the daughters suddenly throws a fit telling her mom she wants to eat with her friends, not the family. Because there was never any hint of tension between them, this seems out of place.
Almost comical is a scene when a kitchen worker notices one of his ingredients is missing and angry yells like a samurai: “All the sugar’s gone again!” (We later learn that the inmates were getting increasingly upset about missing supplies and rations, but this should’ve been established earlier).
I never knew Jeanne’s brother Teddy (Clyde Kusatsu) had a wife let alone that she was pregnant until he gave her a big kiss before going off to join the 100th/442nd on a bus. So that was future JANM President Akemi Kikumura? OK.
There are only two quick establishing shots of the camps (even though they’re seen briefly, it’s clear they’re models) and the rest of the barracks are a bit claustrophobic because the grounds are filmed rather tightly. Obviously, this was due to budgetary restraints — they couldn’t actually build rows of housing.
But a lot of good stuff is there including the basics: Families burning anything from the old country, fathers arrested by the FBI on trumped-up suspicions, the lack of support from non-Japanese in the community, the horse stalls at camp, the protests that turned deadly, the loyalty questionnaire, the debates over whether or not to fight for a country that imprisoned you vs. trying to prove your loyalty anyway, the beating up of “inu” who helped the administrators.
Beyond covering those necessary elements, there are great scenes too, like when Ko (Shimoda), interviewed by an official, is asked who he wants to win the war: Japan or the United States. The easy answer — to prove how loyal most Japanese immigrants were to the United States — would’ve been to say the U.S. But here, Ko asks rhetorically, when your parents are arguing, do you want one to kill the other? Or do you just want them to stop fighting? Realistically, I suspect that was how many of the Issei felt.
Also nice was the little romance that develops between a volunteer white nurse and Richard (Saito). Pat Morita, as the photographer who keeps building cameras and secretly taking pictures of camp life, provides necessary comic relief.
The make-up on Nobu McCarthy was astounding. How could she look so (dare I say it?) hot in 1976 yet be able to convincingly play her own mother in the ’40s without relying solely on obvious gimmicks like wrinkles and white streaks in her hair? I was really impressed.
Of course, it’s sad that most of the principal Japanese American actors who made “Manzanar” so memorable are no longer with us. But I’m thankful for the great work they did. Also, in analyzing the famous bus scene, McCarthy comes up close to Shimoda and wails in front of him yet seems unable to express herself physically by just grabbing or holding him. Instead, her hands flit around him as if there’s an unseen barrier between them — as if it’s not her place to touch him or show public affection. Or maybe it’s an indication of their previous lack of intimacy. In any case, it was an interesting choice for the actor (or director John Korty) to make.
In the ’70s and ’80s, made-for-television movies and mini-series were all the rage. Some of the best mini-series addressed the histories of minorities like African Americans (“Roots,” “Roots: The Next Generation”) and Native Americans (“Centennial”). Asian Americans never got their own mini-series, but at least we got this movie. As ratings began to dwindle in the ’90s, only CBS was left bothering with TV movies, and they eventually faded as well as the genre moved to cable. It’s a shame that to this day, more projects dealing with the Asian American community don’t get green-lighted.
Because “Farewell To Manzanar” didn’t do great numbers when first broadcast, Universal never released it on home video because they assumed there wasn’t enough interest in it to make any money. I think they underestimated the public. Look at how many television series and movies which weren’t huge successes in their original broadcasts found a cult following in the home video marketplace.
Although it’s a very different kind of movie, the first “Harold and Kumar” film opened in seventh place when released in 2004, grossing only $5.4 million (winding up with $23 million in the end) and barely turned a profit for New Line Cinema, but it became very popular on DVD, which led to two sequels.
In any case, please contact JANM at (213) 625-0414 (Tuesday through Sunday) to get your own copy of this ($24.95) and to buy for friends and family. It’s something we should take great pride in and share and appreciate.
Christmas Comes Early Department: Speaking of which, that third “Harold and Kumar” movie opens this Friday: “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas.” It’s great seeing its movie trailer on television featuring so many Asian American faces — in addition to stars John Cho and Kal Penn, there’s also Bobby Lee, formerly of “MAD TV.”
In 2008, “Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay” opened in second place with $14.9 million and eventually grossed $43 million (and close to $24 million more on DVD), pretty good considering its $12 million budget. Alas, the best we can hope for his weekend is another second-place finish behind the Ben Stiller/Eddie Murphy movie “The Heist.”
I’ll have a review of the film in my next column, but it’s important that we support this movie. The series has always been hilarious (though increasingly blue, so it’s not for the kids), it’s the only Asian American franchise we have, and we have to help it continue so that every three years or so, we can see our favorite potheads getting into trouble and representing Asian Americans — perhaps not in a wholesome way, but in a funny one.
And we have to send the message to Hollywood that there is an audience for movies starring Asian Americans.
Till next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.