INTO THE NEXT STAGE: The Man Behind the ‘Nikkei Trilogy’

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By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON

Earlier in the year, I had a bit part in Cal State University Dominguez Hills’ program “And Then They Came for Us … ,” held in February. It was in held conjunction with the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066. While the main event was on Thursday, Feb. 9, my part was related to arranging the screenings of three movies: “Farewell to Manzanar” on Monday, Feb. 6; and on Tuesday, Feb. 7, “Going for Honor, Going for Broke: The 442 Story” and “MIS: Human Secret Weapon.”

The latter film was directed by Junichi Suzuki, a Japanese national who worked and lived here locally in the U.S. with his wife, actress Rumi Sakakibara, for 11 years before returning in the summer of 2012. (Read my past columns about Suzuki at: tinyurl.com/y8l3pccu and tinyurl.com/y8oszaz5.

Suzuki used that decade and a year to complete what I call his “Nikkei trilogy,” three feature-length documentaries that put his lens on aspects of the Japanese American experience. They are 2008’s “Toyo’s Camera: Japanese American History During WWII,” 2010’s “442: Live with Honor, Die with Dignity” and 2012’s “MIS: Human Secret Weapon.”

That’s quite a sustained, prolific run in just a few years and really shows what an efficient filmmaker Suzuki is. Together and individually, they represent a valuable collection of stories that preserve Japanese American stories for decades to come for disparate audiences.

It’s also worth noting that Suzuki defied the conventional wisdom that Japanese in or from Japan don’t think much about their “cousins” whose ancestors left Japan decades ago for Hawaii, North and South America.

Junichi Suzuki

Ironically, Suzuki told me in an interview a few years ago that by doing these documentaries and learning about Japanese Americans, it helped him better understand on a personal level what it meant to be a Japanese.

In order to show “MIS: Human Secret Weapon” at the CSUDH event, I reached out to Suzuki via email and got his permission and that of producer UTB to publicly screen it. In an email from Suzuki, he wrote: “If you have a chance to see me in Tokyo, please call me.”

I had no plans to visit Japan, but I had to make an unexpected visit to Japan this summer for a family-related medical emergency (all’s well now). It was so unexpected that I didn’t realize that my passport had expired, and I needed to scramble to get a new one at the 11th hour!

But I made it over there and after things settled down, I took time to visit Suzuki, meeting him at a coffee shop for a couple of hours on a rainy Tokyo day.

Japanese poster for Junichi Suzuki’s documentary “MIS: Human Secret Weapon.”

The first thing to say about Suzuki is that he appears to be healthy, considering he was almost killed in a 2010 car accident that occurred while traveling between Los Angeles and Las Vegas for a screening of his 442 documentary.

Someone meeting him for the first time might not even know he was hurt badly — but the scar on his arm where a metal rod was surgically implanted shows otherwise.

To be honest, my visit with Suzuki was social and I didn’t take notes for specific dates of upcoming screenings and his other activities, but he did give me three flyers for past screenings of his films held at Yokohama’s Jack & Betty theater, including his 2004 comedy “Aozora-e-Shoot!” (also known by its English title “Go Rascals!”); it was just nice to spend some time with this talented director.

I’m not sure what Suzuki and his production company have in store for his next project; since returning to Japan, IMDb.com shows him having completed a couple titles, “Crossroads” and the documentary “Wa-shoku Dream: Beyond Sushi,” both from 2015. I can say that Suzuki would be a great resource for an American movie producer who might need someone to direct a movie — or part of a movie or miniseries — in modern-day Japan, or maybe something historical that included Issei in the U.S. or that involved present-day Japanese living in the U.S.

No matter what, we are all richer for Junichi Suzuki’s “Nikkei trilogy.”

Poster for Junichi Suzuki’s comedy “Aozora-e Shoot!” or “Go Rascals!”

Come See the Letters Dept.: Thanks to Rafu readers Gerald Sato and Benjamin Butler, both of whom wrote me after last column, which was about the 1990 movie “Come See the Paradise,” which I found for sale on DVD for three bucks at Big Lots. Sato inquired why filmmaker Alan Parker gave the movie such a cryptic title and Butler noted that he was able to get a DVD of the movie at his local Big Lots, also for three dollars.

Armed With a Camera Dept.: Last week I mentioned the launch of Universal Pictures’ Universal Writers Program (see UniversalTalentDevelopment.com to apply).

Now, Visual Communications has its 16th Armed With a Camera fellowship, applications for which are due Oct. 6. For details, visit https://www.vconline.org/awc. If you need a tax deduction for a worthy cause, you can visit https://www.vconline.org/donate  — a suggested amount is just $25.

Vietnam War Dept.: Have you been watching “The Vietnam War” on PBS? I’ve been watching (and recording) this documentary directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and thus far, it’s as compelling as I had hoped it would be. Check your local PBS listings to watch it on the air; you can also stream it at www.pbs.org/kenburns/the-vietnam-war/home/. Interestingly, you can choose the broadcast version with cleaned-up language, the “explicit language” version, the Spanish language version and the Vietnamese language version.

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

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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