INTO THE NEXT STAGE: JANM’s ‘Manzanar’ DVD Enters 2nd in 5-Year Deal

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By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON

(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on Dec. 20, 2012)

A little more than a year ago I wrote a two-part column about how the Japanese American National Museum’s Maria Kwong, who now holds the title of director of retail enterprises, helped solve a vexing, decades-old mystery and make available on DVD for the first time ever the 1976 telefilm “Farewell to Manzanar.”

If you’re unfamiliar with the back story of the preceding, I suggest you visit the following URLs: www.rafu.com/2011/10/itns-17/, followed by www.rafu.com/2011/11/itns-19/ — but in a nutshell for Rafu readers without Web access, an adaptation of Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s 1973 memoir of what happened to her family when it was uprooted and sent to the Manzanar concentration camp during WWII was made  — and then it disappeared.

Houston’s book, written with her now-deceased husband James, would become the most accessible and mainstream telling of the West Coast Japanese American experience during the war. I’m told it is required reading in schools across the country.

That “Farewell to Manzanar” would become adapted into another medium seems both inevitable and incredible; inevitable because the story would become a stand-in for anyone who experienced or was curious about the forced evacuation and incarceration that Japanese Americans experienced during the period, yet incredible that it was made at all, given how the true-life saga still has yet to reach the same level of recognition in TV and film that has been granted to, for example, the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s, or Europe’s WWII-era Holocaust.

But “FTM” was produced and it aired on American network television in the bicentennial year. Then, it just sort of disappeared and many of those who watched it began to wonder if it was nothing more a dream.

Clyde Kusatsu (right) and Akemi Kikumura, future CEO of JANM, in a scene from the 1976 made-for-TV movie “Farewell to Manzanar.”

It was no dream. “FTM” was directed and co-written by the socially conscious John Korty, who also directed the acclaimed telefilm “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” from 1974. “FTM” boasted a cast of Japanese American acting and behind-the-scenes talent that included Yuki Shimoda, Nobu McCarthy, Pat Morita, Clyde Kusatsu, Mako and Akemi Kikumura, as well as cinematographer Hiro Narita and composer Paul Chihara.

It was a work for the ages, yet three waves of the home video revolution — video cassettes, DVDs and Internet-delivered content — would come (and go in some formats) in the years after “FTM” was produced and aired — but it just sat in a vault, never getting commercially released.

Until, that is, last year. (Visit those aforementioned links for the answers why.)

Since it has been more than a year since the DVD release of “FTM,” I was curious about its status. I spoke on the phone with Kwong, who was very accommodating with her time. I learned quite a bit, more than I have space and time to relate here. But overall sales are solid at JANM’s retail shop and earlier in the year, the museum’s store developed a presence at LAX, thanks to a deal with the Hudson Group, which operates book stores and other retail shops at airports.

One fascinating bit that Kwong told me was that because of a very small mention with a photo in the Auto Club’s Westways magazine earlier this year, JANM’s retail department received major sales of a bento box it carries. Never doubt the power of AAA.

As for “FTM,” it has sold about 3,000 units thus far, retail and wholesale, including to institutions like schools and libraries. “Of those 3,000 copies, less than 100 have been ordered directly from libraries and schools across the country,” Kwong said. (I was pleasantly surprised to see it on the shelves at two different branch libraries in Santa Monica.)

Kwong said the rest — about 2,900 — were purchased by individuals. “That tells me that we haven’t really gotten the word out to schools and libraries around the country,” she said.

Kwong noted that 20 of 50 states have institutions that have ordered “FTM,” but states that haven’t done so yet include Colorado, Arkansas, Arizona and Utah, all of which had confinement sites. Even Hawaii hasn’t purchased any copies, which is odd given its high population of Japanese Americans. (She added that Mississippi, which perennially gets lowest marks in poverty levels, literacy and so on, actually bought one DVD, which puts the aforementioned states to shame.)

According to Kwong, the deal JANM made with rights holder NBC Universal gives the museum a five-year exclusive license, conditionally renewable upon expiration. JANM had to spend some money to get the DVD made, pay for music rights, etc., so it needs to sell at least 4,000 a year to meet NBC Universal’s goal of selling 20,000 DVDs over the five years. Once the up-front costs are paid off, the DVD will become a profitable revenue stream for the museum.

So, with Christmas almost upon us, it occurs to me that a DVD of “FTM” could make a great stocking stuffer for someone who still needs one. The retail cost is $24.95; FYI, the DVD has features additional to the movie. If you’re local, the best bet is to go to the Museum Store in Little Tokyo so as to not miss Dec. 25.

Kwong said the reaction from buyers has been very positive, relating how one woman wrote to tell how she remembered watching it when it aired in the 1970s with her father, who began crying as the story unfolded. He had never spoken of his own camp experience. She had wanted to buy a copy for him but it was unavailable. He died before JANM was able to obtain it from NBC Universal.

In our conversation, I suggested that JANM somehow work with JACL chapters across the nation, in a scenario in which a chapter serves as a sponsor to its local community to buy copies to be donated to schools and libraries. She actually liked that idea.

If you’re a JACLer reading this, I’d say take the initiative, call (213) 625-0414 and ask to speak with Maria. If you order in quantity, maybe you could get the wholesale rate (but don’t quote me on that!) to sell at the retail price to interested members (while raising a few bucks for your chapter) and for donating to schools and libraries in your area.

Another goal going into the coming year is to make “FTM” available for the Japanese market in a subtitled version. Kwong also said that the revival of “FTM” has also given a boost in interest in director Korty.

It occurred to me during our conversation that what the “Farewell to Manzanar” DVD really needs to become a big seller is coverage not unlike the Westways magazine mention on the bento box the museum carries. Other than what has appeared in The Rafu Shimpo, the improbable story of how “Farewell to Manzanar” came to DVD after so many years of being unavailable hasn’t made the radar screen of any major media outlets. That story, combined with the movie itself, is fantastic and it deserves to be told on a bigger stage.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s” Dept.: The Library of Congress has seen fit to include in its 2012 list of 25 films deserving addition to its National Film Registry the 1961 movie that starred Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard and, unfortunately, Mickey Rooney in one of the most-blatantly yellowface and racist post-WWII caricatures. I’m referring to, of course, Rooney’s portrayal of the bumbling, buck-toothed and bespectacled Mr. Yunioshi.

I watched the movie years ago and minus Yunioshi, it’s a nice picture with a memorable song in “Moon River,” which was an Oscar and Grammy winner, and would become the signature song of the late Andy Williams. But the sequences with Mr. Yunioshi completely degrade the movie for me.

There’s a scene from 1993’s “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story” where Jason Scott Lee, as Bruce Lee, is shown enjoying the movie until Yunioshi shows up. He gets stone-faced and his future wife, Linda, is aghast while the entire rest of the audience laughs at Yunioshi’s antics. I wish that scene could be tacked onto the version of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” that the registry archives. Better yet, maybe “Farewell to Manzanar” could make it into the registry eventually.

R.I.P., Daniel Inouye Dept.: When I heard the recent news that Daniel Inouye had been hospitalized, I have to admit I thought it did not sound promising, especially at his age. Then, as we all now know, he died and his last spoken word was “aloha.”

I met and chatted briefly with Inouye on a couple of occasions at different events over the years. I have to admit, I didn’t have much to chit-chat about — what do you say to a U.S. senator and bona fide war hero? “How about those Lakers?” I was out of my league.

The best story I remember about him was a speech he gave a few years ago at a Go For Broke dinner. He related how the 100th Battalion/442nd RCT, of which he was a member, was almost disbanded. Too much fighting, as in physical altercations, between the Hawaii Nisei and the mainland Nisei.

Sounds odd, but the shared Japanese ancestry was overshadowed by differences in the culture of Hawaii and that of the mainland. For example, the Hawaiian Nisei spoke pidgin, while the mainland Nisei spoke standard American English. Plus, the mainlanders seemed standoffish and uptight. The Hawaii boys hadn’t a clue why.

Someone, Inouye said, had an idea. They got all the Hawaii boys training at Camp Shelby, Miss., to take a trip to one of the confinement camps in Arkansas. On the way, everyone was happy, singing, playing cards, looking forward to meeting and dancing with young women at the camp. They had no clue what was to come.

The buses pulled into a prison camp, guarded by men in uniforms like their own. They were guarding men and women who looked just like their fathers and mothers back home in Hawaii, as well as younger folks who looked just like their own kid brothers and sisters.

They ended up having a fun time — but something changed. It was quiet on the way back to Camp Shelby. They now understood that the mainlanders carried a burden they did not.

The fighting stopped.

The kicker to the story was that Inouye, whose battlefield exploits would have him lose an arm but win a Distinguished Service Cross that was later upgraded to the Medal of Honor, didn’t know whether he would or could have done what the mainland Nisei had done, namely serve the nation that kept their own families incarcerated.

In other words, under different circumstances, maybe he, Daniel Inouye, could have been a no-no boy. Maybe he could have been a resister of conscience. He simply didn’t know.

That sort of candor and honesty was no doubt what kept Sen. Dan Inouye popular in his home state and on the mainland.

Aloha, sayonara and fare thee well, senator.

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 © 2012 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.

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