By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
“First S.F. Japanese Prisoner.”
That was a top-of-the-page headline in The San Francisco Examiner on Dec. 8, 1941. Just hours after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the FBI detained Ichiro Kataoka at his place of business, the Aki Hotel on Post Street in San Francisco’s Japantown.
Decades later, the haunting image of his great-grandfather being taken away in handcuffs inspired Myles Matsuno to produce and direct a documentary, “First to Go: Story of the Kataoka Family,” which recently won a Hollywood International Independent Documentary Award for best director and story and will be screened this Saturday at the Nichi Bei Foundation’s annual Films of Remembrance in San Francisco’s Japantown — on the same street where the hotel was located.
Matsuno’s father Mark has a framed copy of that article. “Growing up I would always see it, but I never really dug into it much until I got older and started asking my grandma questions,” the filmmaker recalled. “I came to find out the story was incredible and something that should be told. I was never really taught much about the Japanese internment camps and it’s something that is extremely glossed over in history. So for me making this film was a big history lesson as well.
“Gathering documents from the government of my great-grandfather, reading his letters, cold-calling people to ask for help, visiting museums, digitizing footage opened my eyes to a whole other level of this part of history. I thought I knew a lot, but nothing to the extent that I know now. The whole process made me appreciate my grandparents that much more and the Issei and Nisei generations that had to endure this treatment when our government reacted out of fear.”
Matsuno came to realize that the Japanese American World War II experience is not widely known. “While documenting this process and discussing it with some of my close peers, some didn’t know the extent of the camps and some didn’t even know it existed at all. I remember studying it in high school and the lack of information didn’t catch my attention eve though it had to do with my own heritage. I was more interested in America saving the day and this situation was nothing close to it.”
He emphasized that despite the subject matter, the message is upbeat. “At the core of this story there is one attribute that I would want audiences to take with them — a sense of hope. A sense of hope that is attributed to family,love, and your own personal will.
“When gathering information and filming my grandmother to document the process, she wrote in her legacy letter this sentence: ‘Just like my mother, I, too, have lived a life of shiawase.’ Shiawase in Japanese means ‘fortunate’ or ‘happiness.’ To me, that’s amazing to think about. Her mother, being kept away from her husband and family for roughly three years while living in a concentration camp, lived a life of happiness.”
Kataoka, who had immigrated from Hiroshima to the U.S. to pursue the American Dream, was singled out because he was a prominent leader in Japantown. He was held at Fort Missoula in Montana, Fort Sill in Oklahoma, Camp Livingston in Louisiana, Santa Fe in New Mexico, and finally Topaz in Utah, where he was reunited with his family.
The family returned to Japantown after the war and continued to be active in the community. Matsuno’s grandmother Mary and her siblings ran Aki Travel for decades.
“This film means more to me than just a festival submission,” Matsuno said. “It’s my family legacy and something I can pass down and share for generations to come. My intent isn’t to show how cruel America was for interning roughly 120,000 innocent Japanese people, but to show … that good can come from even the darkest of places. This is not just my film, it is everyone who played a part in it, including the viewer.
“As America is currently going through drastic changes, many Americans and immigrants are feeling fear and anger with certain outcomes within our country. My hope with this film is to help people remember a time when our great nation reacted out of those feelings and where that road can lead as a culture and country.”
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Matsuno is half Japanese and half Spanish. His father — who has his own design firm and served as art director for the film — is from San Francisco and his mother is from El Centro. After graduating from Lee University, a small liberal arts school in Cleveland, Tenn., he worked at ABC in Los Angeles as an engineer and eventually became technical director of Prospect Studios. His credits include prime-time TV shows like “Dancing with the Stars” and the Academy Awards and CMA Awards broadcasts.
“On the side I was making films and entering into contests and our team was winning awards like best director, film score, cinematography, and editing,” he said. “Growing up I was always interested in films. I was a sucker for thriller/horror films and also romantic comedies … When I decided that I wanted to pursue filmmaking, I wanted to be an editor. There’s something about splicing up a story and seeing something unfold before you that I love. So the only way I knew how to get footage of my own was pick up a camera and film something I wrote and put it together.”
His current projects include “Truth or Dare,” a short film about a couple’s first kiss; “His/Hers,” a two-part feature telling a couple’s story from two different perspectives; and “Ella,” which is about a young composer who tries to use music to say goodbye to his fiancee and their unborn child, who died in a car accident.
“Little did I know that I would fall in love with cinematography and directing, but for different reasons,” he said. “I love capturing images through a lens. For instance, with my family documentary … I loved holding the beats a little longer to see my grandma’s smile come through the frame. It makes me smile just thinking about it. I can hear her voice and picture her dimples as I type away.
“Directing I love, not for being the ‘boss’ on set, but because I love to see a team come together. I want everyone to own their roles and my movie is their movie, regardless of what role they play. My biggest thing with making films is inspiration. Inspiring through this art form so that change can happen. Good change, not something bad. And change happens both on and off the set, for both the viewer and the crew.”
Matsuno is saddened that the Nisei generation won’t be around much longer. “But their stories are so raw and most have great spirits considering what they went through. My grandmother, Mary Matsuno, is one of these people. Her laughter and personality is something that’s rare. It shines through when you meet her in person as well as through the lens of a camera.”
He added, “It’s important to know where you came from and what helped mold you into the person you are today. With technology we have today it’s so easy to document things that are most important to us, like family. But for some reason we are falling further and further away from being connected even though we have never been so connected in all of history. It’s a very strange thing. I personally feel like our grandparents sometimes get left behind and, I don’t want to say forgotten, but set aside. And I don’t want that to happen. They are wise and they’ve seen a lot of history take shape that helped mold our country. It’s important to document these experiences first-hand.”
Being able to show the film to his family “has already made the two-and-a-half-year process and headaches enough for me,” he said, “and if I can inspire a couple people with my film, than that will make it worth the festival circuit.”
In His Own Words
On April 20, 1944, Kataoka wrote from the Topaz camp to Edward J. Ennis, director of the Alien Enemy Control Unit:
“This is my appeal that I be freed from my present status as a parolee, and be released entirely from the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The reasons for my appeal are that I have one son, 21 years of age, four daughters, 28, 15, 13 and 12 years of age respectively, and they are all citizens of the United States. My son and eldest daughter are working in this War Relocation Project and the other three daughters are still attending school.
“I have noticed in my children a great deal of mental changes for the worse, since I was taken into the custody as a internee because my present status as a parolee has a very depressing effect upon my children. They have been refraining from attending all public gathering and they feel that they are being despised by their friends because of my present status. It is almost intolerable to see them feel this way.
“I intend to relocate and lead a normal life outside, instead of leading a life of inactivity and uselessness in this center under War Relocation Authority. I may be able to contribute my share to this country’s cause, but under my present status as a parolee, I cannot be accepted by the community to which I relocate.
“I conscientiously believe that my record is clear; no charge against me has ever been explained to me, and I sincerely feel that my status of parolee be terminated. I thank you for your kind consideration.”