Sunday, October 17, 2010

Memories of Manzanar

It’s a long stretch back to 1990, and that’s where today’s musings have led me. From the shelves of movie DVDs available at the library, the other day I picked up an old chestnut from twenty years ago, an Alan Parker film called, Come See the Paradise. It stars a mix of American and Japanese actors, but the headliner is Dennis Quaid. I have seen only one other film treat the question of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, possibly because it is a rather shameful chapter in modern American history. A much more recent movie, one made in 2007 and titled American Pastime covered much the same ground as Alan Parker’s earlier film.

Such potent issues as interracial marriage and the wholesale internment of 110,000 Japanese-Americans are drama enough and should provide enough to work with. But for reasons hard to understand, Alan Parker chose to cloud the story of Come See the Paradise by adding a third ingredient of labor union protest to his already bursting screenplay.

The time is 1936 and Jack McGurn (Quaid) is on the run after his union activities in New York result in an unintended fire in a crowded movie theater. He winds up in Los Angeles, where he gets a job as a movie projectionist in a Little Tokyo movie theater. It’s no great shock that he soon falls in love with the beautiful Japanese-American daughter of the theater owner. But in the California atmosphere of 1936 interracial romance is a no-no. Jack is fired and told he can no longer see the daughter, Lily Kawamura. Jack and Lily run away to Portland, Oregon where Americans are allowed to marry Japanese-Americans. Jack finds work in a fish cannery, and in due time he and Lily have a daughter. But then the past suddenly returns to Jack when union organizers picket the cannery, and Jack jumps into the fray, getting himself arrested and hauled off to jail. Lily returns to Los Angeles with their daughter.

Then comes Pearl Harbor and Executive Order 9066 sending all Japanese-Americans to internment camps. The remainder of the movie focuses for the most part upon the Kawamura family’s time in the camp. Jack meanwhile, is given a choice of joining the army or being sent back to New York to answer for his past sins. Choosing the first alternative, he obtains leave in order to see the Kawamura family off to the internment camp.

In an unfortunate choice, director Parker retreats from the heart of his story to follow Jack in his struggle to see wife and child. The real story is with the Kawamuras as their lives are dismantled by fear, alienation and injustice. Too much of this tragedy is seen through the eyes of Jack, who as an American is an outsider to the humiliation of his wife and family. True to the Hollywood formula, Jack, Lily and their daughter are reunited in a superficially happy ending. Too late for Lily’s father who dies a broken man, and her brother who renounces America and ships off for Japan, a place he has never been. The story of Japanese-American internment has potential rich enough for powerful filmmaking, but one is led to think that Alan Parker allowed himself to be sidetracked by secondary themes, and the desire perhaps to make a ‘feel good’ movie.

On the plus side…

Tamlyn Tomita as Lily Kawamura is both gorgeous and wholly believable. Her only difficulty is in dealing with the director-screenwriter’s shallow choices. The music, the songs, the soundtrack are all achingly beautiful. Admittedly, I have a fondness for music (both Japanese and American) of the 30s and 40s, so I was pretty much carried away by the complete soundtrack. The production design too is exceptional and the many scenes in Little Tokyo have a convincing ring of truth. Actor Stan Egi as Lily’s brother Charlie, also deserves mention. His transition from loyal American to anti-American Japanese nationalist is impressive. I only wish his change from one to the other had been better supported by the script.

For those who know little about this dark episode in America’s history, Come See the Paradise will fill in some of the blanks. I would also point out the more recent American Pastime by Japanese-American writer-director Desmond Nakano.

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About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America