INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Maria Kwong Solves the Case of the Missing ‘Manzanar’

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By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON
(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on Oct. 28, 2011.)

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Ever since seeing the telefilm adaptation of “Farewell to Manzanar” at the Japan America Theater in May of 2001 when it was presented as the closing motion picture of that year’s VC Filmfest (now known as the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival), I’ve wondered why it was not available for the home video market. I’m not alone in that regard.

According to Maria Kwong, director of retail and visitor services at the Japanese American National Museum, “FTM” has by far been the most asked for movie when people call the JANM gift shop. “I’ve worked here for 12 years and from day one, it was the most-requested video that people wanted to see,” she told me Saturday when JANM presented the first of two special screenings of the movie prior to its DVD release.

Yes, if you haven’t read it elsewhere, “Farewell to Manzanar” is finally ready to make its bow, 35 years after its network TV screening, 25 years after home video became a reality and more than 10 years after the advent of the DVD.

The commercial absence of “FTM” has seemed so odd. Socially conscious movies, TV series and telefilms that relate the plight of oppressed people or communities — “Roots,” “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” “Stand and Deliver,” “The Diary of Anne Frank” — can be easily obtained via Netflix, iTunes or Amazon. But not “Farewell to Manzanar,” despite the fact that both it and “Pittman” shared the same director, John Korty.

Maria Kwong holds a copy of “Farewell to Manzanar.” (JK YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

We now live in the era of “the long tail,” a theory that says digital delivery of books, movies, music, TV shows and other digitizable mass media and pop culture ephemera can find an audience and make the owner some money. The TV adaptation of “Farewell to Manzanar,” however, was an exception. Why, though, was a mystery.

If you’re unfamiliar with the telefilm “FTM,” it was based on the book by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and her husband, James Houston. It came out in 1973 and was her recollections of her childhood and family’s life before, during and after President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 — including their years of incarceration at the Manzanar WRA Center in California.

The book is still in print and it is taught in schools around the country. It has become an American classic because, by the author’s telling of the specific story of her family, “Farewell to Manzanar” also told the story for all Japanese Americans whose lives underwent the massive disruption imposed by the U.S. government.

For everyone else, “FTM” relates a true story that is almost unbelievable by today’s standards in this country: A group composed (mostly) of U.S. citizens that is singled out, forcibly removed from their homes and imprisoned in harsh conditions by their government for the crime of sharing ancestral heritage with a nation the U.S. was fighting a war against: Japan.

What gives the “FTM” its power and longevity is that it’s told from the perspective of a child, a young girl whose family and community are swept up in something bigger and more powerful than anything they could imagine, especially for those raised on the American principles of freedom, liberty and rule by law.

For Houston, writing her experiences and recollections was a purgative of sorts — things she had repressed for decades poured forth when she finally began relating the stories to her husband, who urged and helped her to preserve her family’s history in written form.

So, it was no surprise that by 1976 the book had been adapted for mass audiences in the most powerful mass medium ever: television. Although its budget was small and production values in some areas meager, “FTM” had a quite a pedigree: the script was co-written by the Houstons and Korty, who also directed it. It was Korty’s next project after coming off the triumph of the telefilm adaptation of “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” which won eight Emmys in 1974.

The “FTM” cast, meantime, boasted some top Japanese American acting talent doing their heartfelt best work: Nobu McCarthy (in two roles), Mako, Pat Morita, Yuki Shimoda, Clyde Kusatsu and more. It helped launch the careers of cinematographer Hiro Narita, assistant director/production manager Richard Hashimoto, composer Paul Chihara and others. It was a long-awaited opportunity to tell a story that needed to be told, and everyone delivered, especially Shimoda.

In the intervening years, the redress movement picked up steam, culminating in 1988’s Civil Liberties Act. Whether there is any direct correlation between “FTM” airing and that event is speculative — but it sounds reasonable, at least indirectly.

Nevertheless, “FTM” was MIA, unavailable for the home market. No one seemed to know why. Korty himself had for years been trying to get Universal Studios Home Entertainment to release it, to no avail. To some, “FTM” the movie seemed like a distant, hazy dream.

Still, there was some hope. Around the time of the May 2001 screening, then-Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante managed to get Universal to donate 10,000 VHS cassettes of the movie to California schools. But if you wanted to buy a good quality, legit copy on DVD of “FTM,” you were out of luck. It simply wasn’t available, and Universal had nothing more to say on the matter. According to Kwong, “nobody really knew why” this was the case.

She was as curious as anyone as to why Universal wouldn’t make “Farewell to Manzanar” available commercially. “They were not giving any answers,” she said of Universal’s stance. “We just sort of accepted that.” Unlike everyone else who wondered why it was unavailable, however, Kwong was in a position to do something about the situation — but it came about by serendipity.

It happened when Kwong was on the phone with a long-time friend of hers, Jane-Ellen Dawkins, who happened to be a long-time employeee for Universal’s video vault in Pittsburgh, Pa. It had never occurred to Kwong before but one time when they were on the phone, Kwong said she had one of those “Duh” moments and thought to ask her about “Farewell to Manzanar,” if she could find out more about it.

“She said, ‘Yeah, we have it. Let me ask somebody.’ She gave me the name of her boss, who was in L.A. He gave me the name of Shelli Hill and he said, ‘Shelli is really good at those kinds of things. She’s a very social-minded person. Maybe you could talk with her.’ ”

Kwong finally connected with Hill via email — and Hill had the answer to the mystery of why “Farewell to Manzanar” has been unavailable for decades.

I’m going to share that amazing answer and how “FTM” finally made it to DVD in two weeks. But in the meantime, its long-awaited debut is just around the corner in November. Yes, thanks to Maria Kwong, not only is the mystery solved, the JANM gift shop is taking pre-orders for November delivery. The cost is $24.99, excluding sales tax and shipping. I’ve made it easy to get an order form; to download a copy of it, go to the following URL — http://tinyurl.com/3pttd84 — in the next two weeks.

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 (c) 2011 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.)

 

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1 Comment

  1. I agree that there is an odd commercial absence for ‘Farewell to Manzanar,’ in which the perfect example being is that I have never seen the movie although I read the book twice. Perhaps it’s a mixture of Japanese-Americans continuing to be in the minority in comparison to that of African-Americans, Hispanics, and Jewish-Americans who have more political and social influences; and also there still is sense of denial that Americans could imprison entire families based solely on their race without due process of the law. I do hope with the power of the internet that within the next ten years ‘Mananar’ will finally get its fair credit in history and literature. Thank you for the article!

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