INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Subtitled ‘Farewell to Manzanar’ Ready for the Holidays

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By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON

According to Maria Kwong, the director of retail enterprises at the Japanese American National Museum, the final copy of the initial run of 5,000 DVDs of  “Farewell to Manzanar” was sold last week.

Kwong also noted that with the next bulk shipment of the DVD, which will still be available via JANM (look in your mailbox for the holiday catalog!), there will be a new feature: subtitles in Japanese, something she has wanted since the saga began of how the 1976 telefilm finally became available for the home market after a more than 35-year-long commercial absence.

So, the good news is that if you’ve just ordered a copy of “FTM,” it will have the Nihongo subtitles in the setup menu, which is good news for native Japanese speakers and readers interested in this movie who might otherwise have had trouble with the English dialogue. And, for anyone doing holiday gift shopping now, the new shipment will be of this version of “FTM.”

Kwong credited Mitsue Watanabe, JANM’s manager of Japan marketing and PR, for leading a group of volunteers who did most of the translation for the subtitles on their own. “They finished it in record time,” she said. “I felt bad about not being able to produce it.”

It would take until the initial batch looked like it would sell out that the work Watanabe’s group had begun would reach fruition with a new order of DVDs, with the subtitling work done in-house. Then, with some final tweaks by a professional who works with subtitling in Japanese, the new DVD was ordered — and the names of everyone who helped will be printed on the back of the DVD case wrap.

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Since October 2011, I’ve been following in this space the saga of how the “Farewell to Manzanar” telefilm became available on DVD after being absent —inexplicably, it seemed — since it aired on NBC in 1976.

The telefilm “Farewell to Manzanar” was an adaptation of the 1973 book of the same title written by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and her husband, the late James D. Houston.

The late Nobu McCarthy stars as Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s mother in “Farewell to Manzanar.”

During those three-and-a-half decades, VHS came and went, DVDs (and Blu-Rays) went from cool to commonplace and commercial streaming of movies and TV shows rose to the fore — but “Farewell to Manzanar,” which was directed by John Korty and starred a who’s who of Japanese American acting talent like Yuki Shimoda, Nobu McCarthy, Mako, Pat Morita and Clyde Kusatsu, was unavailable. (Sadly, of that list, only Kusatsu is still with us, as is Akemi Kikumura Yano. Dori Takeshita, the actress who played young Jeanne Wakatsuki, has no other credits, according to IMDb.com. There is also Frank Abe, who had a small but memorable part as the victim of an angry mob.)

The book is probably the best-known and most-read amongst the canon of Japanese American novels, memoirs, and histories of the “internment” experience, since it was written from the perspective of a child and became assigned reading by many high school teachers. The telefilm, meanwhile, remains one of the few attempts — and still the best, to me — by a Hollywood studio (with the only other two that come to mind being 20th Century Fox’s 1990 “Come See the Paradise” and Universal Pictures’ 1999 “Snow Falling on Cedars”) to relay the story in a mainstream way what happened to a large chunk of the Japanese American population living on the mainland in the aftermath of imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1941.

That “story,” of course, was the mass removal and incarceration during WWII of anyone with as much as one-eighth Japanese ancestry from the West Coast, U.S. citizen or not. The lofty words contained in the United States Constitution no longer applied for some Americans who looked like the enemy. American ideals fell victim to war hysteria, race prejudice and a failure of political leadership. In today’s climate, the story, sadly, is as relevant as ever.

The DVD has been available commercially since 2011, with an exclusive license to the Japanese American National Museum. For the backstory to all this, I suggest you read the following links: www.rafu.com/2011/10/itns-17/www.rafu.com/2011/11/itns-19/ and http://tinyurl.com/b47lhbc.

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Thanks to Maria Kwong’s detective work that came about thanks to a serendipitous query to her friend, Jane-Ellen Dawkins, who worked at Universal’s film archive in Pittsburgh, Pa., “Farewell to Manzanar” became available commercially and exclusively to the Japanese American National Museum, the best steward for this work.

The original terms of the deal between JANM and Universal Home Entertainment gave the museum exclusivity for five years, during which time it had to pay off the music royalties, which was the reason why “FTM” had been unavailable for so long. Universal, from a return on investment perspective, had no economic reason to pay the music royalties for such a niche, seemingly obscure work that only academics and Japanese Americans might be interested in buying.

In a way, Universal’s cold calculus was correct; even now, JANM is still paying off the royalties and, according Kwong, “the license actually expired in April 2016.” She noted, however, “we’ve paid our royalties regularly on a quarterly basis” to Universal and for the JANM gift shop, the DVD has been a steady seller, with several being sold and shipped each month. Meantime, the shop at the historic site of the Manzanar WRA Center buys copies of “FTM” from the museum and resells them to visitors.

One interesting bit of news on sales, according to Kwong, is that “since the election, we have sold more, faster.” Not only that, she said that attendance figures at the Manzanar National Historic Site has also “ramped up quite a bit” since the election. “As they got more visitors, they got more sales,” she said.

Meantime, with the original five-year deal having expired, Kwong had been trying to make a new deal with Universal — but nearly everyone she had been dealing with in 2011, including her friend, was no longer at the company or was in a different area. Getting the right people with the institutional memory on this very small part of the Universal Pictures empire was proving to be difficult.

Not only that, Kwong said, “We didn’t reach the figure that they had in the original contract. They said that if we didn’t reach that, then we would have to renegotiate the whole thing.”

Finally, however, Kwong said things got back on track in January 2016 and by April 2017, updated terms were reached. She said they decided that rather than renegotiating a whole new contract, they would extend the existing contract, which they would revisit annually, with the current terms good through December 2018.

I asked Kwong if there would be any reason why Universal would not renew the deal each year, and she didn’t think there was a compelling reason why they wouldn’t — with one exception. “The only thing I can think of that would impact it, and probably in a good way, would be if someone did a remake,” she said.

That, of course, is an excellent idea — why shouldn’t Universal Pictures do a big-budget remake, perhaps even a multipart series for a streaming outlet, of “Farewell to Manzanar”? After all, between 2000 and 2010, we had two “Hulk” movies and between 2005 and 2010, two different versions of “The Fantastic Four,” with the original even spawning a sequel. With more than 40 years between the telefilm “FTM” and today, an updated “FTM” makes more sense than those examples.

Possibly more likely, however, is a future version of the telefilm version of “Farewell to Manzanar,” but on a higher-definition Blu-Ray disc. Kwong said that the director of photography, Hiro Narita, told her “he would like to take the whole thing and remaster it. That would be fantastic.”

Maybe it will be time to again say hello — to “Farewell to Manzanar.”

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

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George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2017 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.

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