By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
The Manzanar War Relocation Center housed at its peak 10,000 Japanese internees during World War II. Forcibly relocated from their homes on the West Coast by a government order, the internees toughed it out against desert heat, cold weather, dust, and constant wind between 1942 and 1945. Barbed wire fences surrounded the camp and armed guards monitored the camp from towers, with orders to shoot anyone trying to escape.
What people don’t know is that many internees did escape Manzanar, under the cover of night. But they always returned in the morning. They did not breach the barbed wire to secure lasting freedom, or for any subversive purpose. They did so to fish.
“The Manzanar Fishing Club,” a documentary film directed by Cory Shiozaki, tells the story of Japanese internment, but from a distinctive and inspiring point of view. The men and women who risked their own lives for the sake of fishing did so for the thrill of rule-breaking. However, they also risked their lives for the tranquility that a few hours of casting a rod into a stream provides. They found a cause to live for amidst their tough life and the painful knowledge that their own government had turned against them.
The film’s creative team, including Shiozaki, writer Richard Imamura, cameraman Lester Chung, and executive producer Alan Sutton, all share a love for fishing. Shiozaki and Imamura, especially, also share an ongoing fascination with the Manzanar camp. The film grew out of their research into its history and the stories of surviving internees.
Shiozaki filmed as many surviving internees as he could locate, along with children and grandchildren of deceased internees who could pass along family stories. Each internee is identified by his or her block, barrack, and apartment number within the camp, to give the viewer a sense of the camp’s size and regimentation.
The film relies on archival footage. Newsreels and newspaper photos from the time sketch in the ugly reality of anti-Japanese sentiment after Pearl Harbor. Other archives, most notably the still photos of internee Tōyō Miyatake, give a sense of life inside camp, what internees faced every day, and what they escaped, however fleeting, with their fishing expeditions.
Recreations of certain crucial scenes also help tell the film’s story. Shiozaki hired actors, both Japanese and Anglo, to play internees and guards, showing the callousness of the army personnel mixed with a few moments of unexpected kindness and mercy. Sometimes, actors are used to illustrate a specific story that an interviewee relates in words. A few scenes use low-budget animation to fill in scenes involving people on both sides of life in Manzanar. The crude animation is regrettable, but such scenes allow the filmmakers to portray sweeping action under a limited budget.
The film makes the shock and tribulations of the internment camps palpable, but it differs from other films on the same topic in its approach to the internees’ transcendence. Some were caught breaking the rules, and were punished harshly. None of this stopped the fishing.
Each fishing internee has a distinct story. But internee Tom Ikkanda sums them up with a few simple words. “When you’re fishing,” he says, with the warmth of memory, “you forget everything that’s wrong.” (end)
“The Manzanar Fishing Club” is currently playing at the Seattle’s Varsity Theatre, 4329 University Way N.E. For prices and showtimes, call 206-781-5755 or check local listings.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.