Reflections on ‘Come See the Paradise’ 30 Years Later

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Dennis Quaid as Jack, Caroline Junko King as Mimi and Tamlyn Tomita as Lily in “Come See the Paradise.”

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Shimpo

Since 2020 marked the 30th anniversary of “Come See the Paradise,” this might be an appropriate time to look back on the film — Hollywood’s first big-screen, big-budget treatment of the WWII camps — and see how much progress has been made since then.

The story focuses on the relationship between Lily Kawamura (Tamlyn Tomita), who lives with her parents and siblings in Little Tokyo, and Jack McGann (Dennis Quaid), a union organizer who gets a job as a projectionist at a movie theater owned by the Kawamuras. The two fall in love and elope to get married in Seattle because of California’s anti-miscegenation law.

When WWII breaks out, the couple are separated. Lily and their daughter Mini (played at different ages by Elizabeth Gilliam, Shyree Mezick and Caroline Junko King) are sent to camp with the rest of the Kawamura family and Jack is drafted into the Army. Jack goes AWOL to visit Lily in camp, and her father (Sab Shimono), who had opposed the marriage, is convinced that Jack is a worthy husband.

Jack is later arrested for desertion and for a labor-related arson he was involved in before the war. The movie ends with Lily and Mini being reunited with Jack after he has served his time.

The peculiar title comes from a Russian poem, but this is never explained in the film.

The writer and director, Alan Parker, who died last July, was already known for such films as “Bugsy Malone,” “Midnight Express,” “Fame,” “Birdy,” “Angel Heart,” and “Mississippi Burning.”

San Francisco Memories

I covered a screening of “Come See the Paradise” in January 1991 in San Francisco Japantown, presented as a fundraiser for the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California and Nihonmachi Legal Outreach. The director and cast members were not present.

JCCCNC Executive Director Paul Osaki admitted to having “very mixed feelings” about the film. “To be honest with you, I really did not care for the love story aspect of it. And yes, there are some historical inaccuracies. But despite all that, what struck me, what constantly kept coming back into my mind, was the one scene of the evacuation.

The Kawamura family in happier times.

“Just the massiveness of that single event on the big screen brought a whole new perspective to the evacuation … Although I have read about it, seen photos of it and heard stories about it, seeing if for the first time, seeing it happen right before my Sansei eyes, brought a lump to my throat, a twist to my gut, and a deeper understanding of what our community actually went through.

“That scene will stay fixed in my mind forever. Movies come and go, and if a movie, if only for a brief moment, can educate us, motivate us, make us laugh, make us cry, and help us to understand a little bit better, then it’s done its job … Despite whatever criticism, I salute Alan Parker for his courage to bring our story to the big screen.”

The late George Iwao, a Gila River, Ariz. incarceree, gave the movie a 6 out of 10. He felt that some issues in camp, such as the loyalty questionnaire, were not adequately explained. In the movie, brothers Charlie and Harry Kawamura (Stan Egi and Ronald Yamamoto) part ways, with one being shipped to Japan and the other joining the Army.

Iwao, who answered “no-no” to the questionnaire, said that the reasons for answering “no” — such as being asked to forswear allegiance to Japan despite not having such allegiance in the first place — should have been laid out more clearly.

Carol Takagaki, who was born in Gila River, said, “My parents saw the movie and they said the camp scenes were authentic. It was interesting for me. I liked it.”

However, she added, “I would’ve preferred to see a Japanese actor in the role of Dennis Quaid.”

Japanese Americans, with only what they can carry, are sent to camp. Some viewers said these images were particularly haunting.

Lois Ohwa, whose mother’s family was incarcerated, said that the film is “important because it reaches a totally new audience … The impact is going to be on people who don’t know anything about the camps.”

Diane Matsuda of NLO said she would recommend the film to those who are unfamiliar with the subject. “At least it shows a little bit of history and it doesn’t distort the facts.”

Personally, I was annoyed by a scene where someone announces that the camps have been declared unconstitutional. Nothing like that happened. The Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Mitsuye Endo was that the government could not continue to detain a citizen if his/her loyalty was not in question. It was not a decision on whether it was constitutional to confine Japanese Americans without due process; in fact, previous rulings in the Korematsu and Hirabayashi cases upheld the government’s actions.

Interracial Relationships

“Come See the Paradise” was not the only mainstream production about the camps that included an interracial relationship.

In “If Tomorrow Comes” (1971), a made-for-TV movie set in California before and during WWII, David Tayanaka (Frank Michael Liu) and Eileen Phillips (Patty Duke) secretly marry. Since Eileen’s father (James Whitmore) is a bigot who would never accept the marriage, she fakes her own death, intending to run away with David, but David hears the news of her death and kills himself.

In “Farewell to Manzanar” (1976), a made-for-TV movie based on the memoir by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James Houston, there was a romance between Richard Wakatsuki (James Saito) and Lois (Gretchen Corbett), a nurse. Richard later joins the Army and is killed in action in Europe.

In “Snow Falling on Cedars” (1999), based on the novel by David Guterson, the protagonist is Ishmael Chambers, a reporter. In younger days, Ishmael and Hatsue Imada (Reeve Carney and Anne Suzuki) were romantically involved. After the war, Ishmael and Hatsue (Ethan Hawke and Youki Kudoh) meet again, but now Hatsue is married to Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune), who has been charged with murder.

In the Broadway musical “Allegiance” (2015), Sam Kimura (Telly Leung), while held with his family at Heart Mountain, falls in love with nurse Hannah Campbell (Katie Rose Clarke). Sam joins the Army, not knowing that he will never see Hannah again.

In AMC’s “The Terror: Infamy” (2019), Chester Nakayama (Derek Mio) is in a relationship with Luz Ojeda (Cristina Rodlo), who is pregnant. When Chester and his family are evacuated from Terminal Island, Luz decides to go with them.

Interracial relationships are undeniably a part of our community and history, but the complaint I have heard about “Come See the Paradise” is that Jack seems to be there to give audiences someone to relate to, the assumption being that the Japanese American characters alone could not carry the movie. That was the thinking behind casting Van Johnson as the lead in “Go For Broke!” (1951), a movie about the 442nd RCT, but that was nearly 40 years earlier.

Community Input

Guy Aoki, founder of Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), gives the following account of meetings between the director and community representatives regarding “Come See the Paradise.”

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Alan Parker had been accused of whitewashing “Mississippi Burning” by giving undeserved credit to two white FBI agents for bringing the murderers of three civil rights fighters to justice, ignoring the role of the black community. Nevertheless, the movie got seven Oscar nominations.

Many of us in the Japanese American community didn’t want him, a Brit — an outsider to American culture and its struggles with civil rights — to do the same with “Come See the Paradise.”

In interviews about it, Parker said he wanted to make a film that the Asian American community would “embrace.”

I just spoke with Neil Gotanda, former law professor at Western State, who said he’d been in a meeting with the director with about 10 people. Casting hadn’t yet been solidified, but Parker was considering a Chinese American actress who was well-known at the time. The activists told him he needed to cast a Japanese American for the lead role of Lily Kawamura. He eventually hired Tamlyn Tomita.

The Kawamura family is initially incarcerated without their patriarch, who was taken away along with other Issei community leaders.

Shooting began in August 1989. When others saw the script Parker wrote, they all had the same concern: Why was he making the focus of the film a superficial love story between a future Japanese American internee and a white guy? There was more drama if he just concentrated on what the internees went through in camp. We were our own heroes. We didn’t need a “white knight” to save us.

In December 1989, a new group of people met with the director at [L.A. City Councilmember] Mike Woo’s office. Future California state treasurer and candidate for governor John Chiang later told me that as a staff member, he set up the pow-wow. Gotanda may’ve been the only repeat. Richard Katsuda and I represented NCRR (this was almost 2½ years before MANAA formed), Robert Smolkin, Mariko Tse, Sue Embrey (whom Parker hired as a consultant), were also included. There were maybe 10 of us.

We were all in agreement about the romance being superficial and that it hurt the film. After a long discussion, Parker folded his arms and said, “I’m not changing a damn thing!”

So much for wanting to make a movie we could all embrace. What a bulls**t artist.

At one point, Parker called us some over-the-top phrase like “racial terrorists.” Gotanda took great umbrage with that and called him on it, saying, “C’mon, Alan!,” asserting Parker knew it was uncalled for. Parker smiled, nodded for a while and admitted Gotanda had caught on to what he was doing …

Embrey told the press how impressed she was that he’d recreated the camps so well, she thought she was back in Manzanar. I can’t blame her and other former internees for being happy that someone was telling the story of the JA internment experience (though pushed somewhat in the background). But the rest of us felt our concerns were justified when we saw the movie a year later in December ’90.

Within two minutes of Jack and Lily meeting for the first time in 1936 Little Tokyo, they’re kissing. Yeah, totally realistic. What a white male fantasy.

There was a totally unnecessary scene where a young Japanese American man talks to a young JA woman and she’s not interested. Her girlfriend proudly declares, “She just turned you down flat!” Why with such glee?

Parker said he wanted to portray an interracial relationship with a Japanese American woman. Was he against Japanese American men being with them?

The movie cost $17.5 million to make and was a big flop, taking in only $5 million. And unlike some of his past films, it got no Oscar nominations.

Parker told The L.A. Times he’d met with groups but nobody could agree on what they wanted. My letter to The Times set the record straight: We all agreed on one thing, but he didn’t want to change it.

The director just wanted to cover his butt hoping to avoid the same kind of backlash he received for “Mississippi Burning.” So he went through the motions of meeting with community members and (as far as I know, except for casting a Japanese American as Lily) acted on none of the feedback.

Like I said, Alan Parker was a great bullsh**t artist.

Closing Thoughts

J.K. here again. Thirty years later, the body of work about the JA wartime experience — nonfiction books, novels, comic books, documentaries, short narrative films, and plays — has expanded greatly, with many scholars and artists from the community telling the community’s story.

But we still pay attention to Hollywood/mainstream depictions because they have the potential to reach wider audiences. That’s why 10,000 copies of “Farewell to Manzanar,” plus a curriculum guide, were distributed to California public schools and libraries in 2003.

At a 25th anniversary screening of “Farewell to Manzanar” in San Francisco Japantown in 2001, some speakers said that it was better than “Come See the Paradise” or “Snow Falling on Cedars” because JAs were the main characters in their own story.

The same can be said for “Allegiance” and “The Terror: Infamy.” One uses song and dance to tell the story and the other uses the supernatural, but in both cases the protagonists are mainly the incarcerees themselves. (I include “Allegiance” because it’s available on DVD, though that’s a film of the play and not a film adaptation.)

Occasionally a TV series will devote one episode to the subject —  examples include “Lou Grant,” “7th Heaven,” “Cold Case” and the new “Hawaii Five-0” — but those are quickly forgotten. So in the last 50 years, we are basically talking about two TV movies, two theatrical movies and one TV series.

Some progress has been made, but as Asian Americans gain larger roles both in front of and behind the camera, hopefully we will be seeing more in the near future — without having to negotiate or present a list of demands just to get an accurate portrayal.

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