‘Manzanar Fishing Club’ Plays to Packed House Over Weekend

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From left: Interviewee Robert Kobata, filmmaker Cory Shiozaki, and interviewee Mas Okui. (Photos by J.K. Yamamoto/Rafu Shimpo)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

Attendees at a sold-out screening of “The Manzanar Fishing Club” on Sunday had an opportunity to meet the filmmakers and some of the people who appear in the film.

The 90-minute documentary, which was six years in the making, opened at the Laemmle Monica 4-plex on Friday and runs until Thursday, April 5. It tells the story of Japanese Americans who slipped out of the Manzanar camp at night to fish in the Sierra. To get a taste of the freedom they had lost, they risked being jailed or even shot by the sentries.

Producer/director Cory Shiozaki explained, “Not only did it spawn from my interest in fishing, but mainly it’s been a lifelong goal for me because my parents never told me they were interned at the camps … I guess it was a real painful experience for them. So I just learned about this when I was in college.

“After I discovered what had happened to 120,000 Japanese Americans, it kind of helped shape my career. I wanted to become a filmmaker, so I’ve been a cameraman for over 30 years. This is my first directorial attempt at making a film, and it’s always been a goal of mine to make a film about the internment. I was trying to find a way that I could bring it in a different fashion … through the eyes of a fisherman.”

Shiozaki was joined at the 3:10 p.m. screening by Mas Okui and Robert Kobata, both of whom appeared in the film. Okui, a retired history teacher, teaches fly fishing and frequently returns to the Manzanar area to fish. Kobata described the experiences of his father, Tadao, who went to the other side of Mt. Williamson — the second-highest mountain in the Sierra Nevada — in search of trout.

Other screenings during the weekend featured others who worked on the film, including the narrators and the musicians.

Okui, who arrived at Manzanar at age 10 and was imprisoned there for three and a half years, commented, “One thing I like about this film are the people who did the film. All these guys are from Gardena High School, where I used to work. You can say all you want about public education and the quality of education that has produced the kind of misfits we have in our society, but what makes me especially proud is that all these guys graduated from Gardena High School.”

He recalled, “When Corey first told me about this, I thought, ‘What is he doing? How can he tell this story? All he has is this one picture of this trout fisherman’ … When Corey and Richard (Imamura) start getting this film going … it takes shape … These guys are pretty good at this. They seem to know what they’re doing. When Corey interviews me, he has a professional sound guy there, a professional television guy there … I’m thinking, ‘This is going to work.’”

Okui stressed that he was not one of the fishermen who crawled under barbed wire and dodged searchlights to get to the lakes and rivers. “I’m one of the people that actually walked through the gate, because once the military police were gone, we could walk to Shepherds Creek, but we didn’t fish, we went swimming. We used to fish Bairs Creek, which is a little creek that comes through the southwest corner of the camp.”

Because the Terminal Islanders, who were the first group to arrive at Manzanar, were regarded as a tough bunch, Okui had to take a roundabout route. “In order for me to get to Bairs Creek from where I lived in Block 27, we had to go all the way up by the cemetery, walk that road by Manzanar’s only nine-hole golf course — it had all greens that were not green; they were sand.”

Born in 1931, Okui grew up in Burbank and knew what it was like to live in a segregated society long before he went to camp. “We were poor. We lived in an area where we were restricted to living … Most of my friends when I was little were the Mexican kids who lived there. And the Mexican people could only live on one street in Burbank … Front Street … also the only street in Burbank that had no sidewalk and no paved road.”

He also saw Burbank’s “bum blockade” against refugees from the Great Depression. “I can remember the cars from Oklahoma, or wherever they were from, piled high with their belongings driving through town, and the police would not let them stop in town. They would direct them to a park near the outskirts of town, and there they could stay one night, and then they were forced to leave.”

As a result of such experiences, Okui said, “we kind of looked at ourselves as being less than American, although I am a citizen who, according to Article II of the Constitution, can be president of the United States. Not that I would want to.”

On the issue of camp terminology, he said, “I don’t use the word ‘internee.’ I don’t use the government word ‘evacuee’ because that means a person who was moved from a place of danger to one of safety. How can that be? We were placed in a prison camp with guns pointed at us behind barbed wire.”

A big part of camp life was lack of privacy, Okui noted. “The barrack walls were so thin that our parents would never scold us … The government allowed us 100 square feet per person. That was the living area. The walls were thin. You could hear people anywhere you were … If you were a young man courting a young lady, you never had privacy. There was always some little kid about my age hanging around … up in a tree, watching you.”

Okui belonged to a kids’ basketball team at Block 27. “I remember our coach, recently married. Because we were little kids, our basketball court was just a dirt area and they had lines on it. The backboard was a rim and no net. We would practice at 1 or 2 in the afternoon when it was really hot. Then for some reason our coach would always tell us, ‘Oh, I’m so tired. I’ve got to go back to the apartment and take a nap.’ And we would say, ‘Okay,’ not knowing what was going on. Later on as I grew older, I came to understand the need to ‘take a nap.’”

The window display for "Manzanar Fishing Club" includes barbed wire and a replica of a sign warning "evacuees" to stay away from the fence.

On a serious note, he said, “When I think back on all the films that have been made about our lives in Manzanar, I think this is without exception the most personal work ever accomplished. So I congratulate Corey, I congratulate Richard, Alan (Sutton), Scott (Sutton), all the people who were involved with the film.”

He added, “I used to fish Shepherds Creek a lot … I have no emotional attachment to Shepherds Creek, but I think when it’s time for me to go to the big trout stream in the sky … I may want some of my ashes scattered near Block 27, Barrack 12, Apartment 1.”

Kobata recalled, “I was only five when we got to camp, so my dad never took me fishing while we were in camp … He took me fishing after we got out of camp. We fished all the creeks all around that area. We used to camp, sit around the campfire and listen to all his stories … That’s how I learned about all his exploits. He actually took me to Williamson Lake No. 3 when I was 10 years old in 1948.”

His father can be seen in the film, posing with his fishing poles and cutthroat trout with the lake in the background.

Asked if his parents explained to him why they were in camp, Kobata responded, “They never said anything about it. For kids my age … it was a fun place. After a while we would be able to leave and go outside the gates … The full impact of camp I didn’t really understand until I got quite a bit older.”

In the process of editing more than 70 hours of videotape, Shiozaki had to cut some interesting stories about camp life. He shared one of them — one that ended tragically — with the audience: A group of fishermen, part of the reservoir crew, went over Mt. Williamson. One of them, Giichi Matsumura, was also an artist and decided to spend the day painting. He asked his buddies to pick him up on the way back to camp.

“But a sudden freak snowstorm broke out,” Shiozaki said. “There was a complete whiteout … They got separated … The rest of the fishing group took refuge in this cave and they said, ‘When the snowstorm breaks, we’ll look for him.’ But there was nothing but a blanket of snow. You couldn’t see footprints. So they said, ‘If the guy had any common sense, he probably made his way back to camp.’ When they went back to camp, he wasn’t there. Apparently he had gone in the wrong direction and got lost.”

Matsumura’s sweater was later found. About a month later, two hikers from Independence were in the Williamson Basin, above the treeline, and spotted Matsumura’s walking stick. Then they found his body.

Shiozaki has heard from experienced hikers that Williamson is even more difficult to climb than Mt. Whitney, which is taller.

One of those who fished on the other side of Williamson was Heihachi Ishikawa, whose photo is being used for the movie’s poster. Shiozaki estimated that the golden trout he caught were 22 to 23 inches and weighed 3 to 4 pounds. “You may be wondering how did he get these trout back. Since the goldens were at high elevations, they were near the snowline, so they packed their catch in snow and they brought it down that way.”

Reflecting on the weekend, Shiozaki was pleased that a crowd turned out despite the rain on Saturday. He reported on Monday, “We were the top draw at the Monica-4 theater and in the upper reaches of the top five for the entire Laemmle chain.”

Showtimes are 1, 3:10, 5:20, 7:30 and 9 p.m. The theater is located at 1332 2nd St. (at Santa Monica Boulevard). Parking is available across the street. For more information, call (310) 478-3836 or visit www.laemmle.com.

Fish enthusiasts may also be interested to know that “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is playing at the same theater at 1:30, 3:40, 5:50, 8 and 10:10 p.m.

Most of the audience stayed for the post-screening discussion.

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