INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Japanese American Faces Racial Attacks in ‘Little Boy’



Mark Burnett may be best known for producing reality shows like “Survivor,” “The Voice,” and “Celebrity Apprentice,” but with wife Roma Downey (“Touched by an Angel”) he also produced the 2013 History Channel mini-series “The Bible,” which got over 10 million viewers for each of its 10 hour-long episodes.

Last year, a shorter version was released theatrically as “Son of God” and NBC just began airing the sequel mini-series on Easter, “A.D.: The Bible Continues” (they’re also behind CBS’ recent “The Dove Keepers”).

2014 saw an explosion of films aimed at the underserved Christian market, otherwise known as faith-based movies. Besides the big-budget “Noah,” there were smaller productions like “Heaven Is for Real” and “God’s Not Dead,” which did well considering their humble budgets.

The latest (to which Downey and Burnett added their names as executive producers after shooting wrapped) will be released on April 24, and it’s of interest to readers of this column because it has a specific Japanese American angle to it.

It’s “Little Boy,” starring Oscar winning actors Emily Watson and Tom Wilkinson and, billed third, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. The veteran actor (“Rising Sun,” “Nash Bridges,” “Mortal Kombat”) plays an Issei just released from a Japanese American internment camp who faces hostility from a small town in California during World War II.

The movie centers on 7-year-old Pepper Busbee, who’s called “Little Boy” by everyone — including his bullying classmates — because of his small size. Newcomer Jakob Salvati, who plays the sympathetic title character, looks as if he was born with a forlorn look on his face. Actress Eva Longoria reportedly predicted he was going to get an Oscar nomination for his performance, and I don’t think that was an exaggeration.

Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa as Hashimoto talking to Pepper Busbee.

Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa as Hashimoto talking to Pepper Busbee.

Pepper’s main goal is to bring his father back safely from fighting the Japanese in the Philippines. Initially, like many of the townspeople, he has a hatred for all things Japanese, saying, “If I could, I would [kill]every Jap with my bare hands.”

Enlightened priest Father Oliver (Wilkinson) convinces Pepper that he could help his father (Michael Rapaport) by checking off a list of community service tasks, including befriending Hashimoto (Tagawa). The kid eventually comes to like and trust Hashimoto, who acts as a surrogate father while Mr. Busbee remains unseen for most of the film.

Hashimoto’s part is under-written, and he doesn’t get to say much, so it was a relief when he’s having dinner with Pepper and his mother and begins talking about being mistrusted as a person of Japanese ancestry, lamenting having “the face of the enemy” and that people don’t consider how long he’s been in the United States (42 years) and how much he feels a part of American society. But before he can continue for long, the conversation is interrupted.

Tagawa, an old friend, later told me they filmed him talking about having relatives in Hiroshima, but that and a later scene — where he’s told about the bombing of the city —were ultimately cut. To his credit, at the dinner table, the actor ad-libbed information about the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team, pointing out that they became the most decorated military unit in U.S. history.

Unfortunately, that didn’t make the final cut either. It sure would’ve gone a long way toward educating the masses about our community’s contribution to the war effort despite our inhumane treatment.

Jakob Salvati and Michael Rapaport

Jakob Salvati and Michael Rapaport

I’m not giving away any major plot points here, but I will say at a Q&A following a recent pre-screening at the Japanese American National Museum, members of the audience — including Kay Ochi and Miya Iwataki of NCRR (Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress) — expressed frustration at the way the bombing of Hiroshima was presented, as reason to cheer.

Unfortunately, that’s how most Americans regarded it at the time and it’s only with the passage of time that more aware people have called it what it was — a war crime (we have the Geneva Convention for a reason: Even during times of war, both sides are supposed to respect certain guidelines, including not attacking civilians; we have soldiers to do the fighting for each side).

Overall, I think it’s a well-made, clever film. Although it’s classified as a faith-based film, it wasn’t as heavy-handed as I feared (I’m a Buddhist and quite frankly, I have a lot of things against Christianity), and it works as a thoughtful and even suspenseful work.

What’s impressive is that the movie was co-produced and co-written by its director, Mexican national Alejandro Gomez Monteverde. At the Q&A, producer Mark Joseph told me the director had learned about the internment camps by watching a video about the history of World War II. It moved him enough to rewrite his script to include the Hashimoto character.

Jakob Salvati in the title role.

Jakob Salvati in the title role.

Although nothing is said about camp life, the film shows the unfair attacks on Hashimoto (including a scary physical assault), who is a sympathetic and dignified character who even displays flashes of humor. His inclusion makes “Little Boy” a more rewarding experience and supplies a deeper layer to the overall story.

I hope people will support it when it opens in two weeks. Unfortunately, if you look at the official trailer, you’d have no idea Tagawa was in it. He’s heard a little bit in voice-over but not seen! The director paid for a second trailer that incorporates his character. Click here to see it:

At the March 26 JANM screening: Yvonne Nguyen, Gerald Ishibashi, Louisa Caucia, Imad Jamal, Sherry Yen, Guy Aoki, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, unknown, producer Mark Joseph, and Wilki Tom.

At the March 26 JANM screening: Yvonne Nguyen, Gerald Ishibashi, Louisa Caucia, Imad Jamal, Sherry Yen, Guy Aoki, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, unknown, producer Mark Joseph, and Wilki Tom.

When Is an Apology Aggravating? Department: Two weeks ago, got in hot water for Nellie Andreeva’s piece (“Pilots 2015: The Year of Ethnic Castings – About Time or Too Much of Good Thing?”) suggesting that the networks were possibly pushing diversity too far by recasting white characters with actors of color and airing grievances from agents who were having a difficult time getting work for their white actors.

Five days later, the website’s co-editor-in-chief Mike Fleming, Jr. wrote an apology… for the headline. As if that was the only thing wrong with the article (he thought it was the word “ethnic.” Oh man…).

In a dialogue with him, Peter Bart then started talking like an ivory tower philosophy professor about what diversity meant to him. It was additionally annoying especially since he himself was at the center of controversy about a dozen years ago while in charge of longtime industry trade paper Daily Variety for regularly calling people “niggers,” “Nips,” and unprintable epithets for women. In other words, why the hell should we have any confidence he gets it at all even now? Why involve him in the conversation?

Because he and Fleming worked together at Variety. Which is how this business works… it’s who you know that gets you the gig, not whether you deserve it or not… especially when it comes to whites.

What was most annoying to me is when Andreeva broke down the ethnic population of Boston in 1970, pointing out 80% were white (complete with a picture of white people!) and 16% black and asserted that casting a black woman as one of four regulars in “Broad Squad” — a television pilot about female Boston cops in ’72 — didn’t accurately reflect that time period.

Hah! If you want to play that game, how about providing racial breakdowns of minorities in major cities today and analyzing how many current series are accurately reflecting them in their casting? Most would fail.

When the reporter complained about networks changing white characters to ethnic ones in their pilots, she failed to remind her audience of the many times television and movies based on stories involving people of color (“21,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “The Last Airbender”) were “whitewashed” with white actors cast in their place.

Pretty funny when white people finally begin feeling threatened by the thought of being left out of the job pool. Hey, welcome to our daily existence! Ready? All together, now! 1…2…3… Awwwww!

’Til next time, keep your eyes and ears open.


Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.




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