By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Japanese film director Junichi Suzuki turned his attention to the Japanese-American experience during World War II, for his “Nisei Trilogy” of documentary films, playing at SIFF in May with the director in attendance. “Toyo’s Camera” concerns itself with the late Toyo Miyatake, who illegally documented life in his incarceration camp with a homemade camera. “442: Live With Honor, Die With Dignity” covers the 442nd Infantry Regiment, composed mainly of Japanese-Americans, fighting for the USA while many of them had relatives in the camps. “MIS: Human Secret Weapon” concerns the mostly-Nisei intelligence operatives working for the Army. Suzuki took some questions over email.
NWAW: Where did you grow up, and what are your most crucial memories of your youth?
Suzuki: I grew up in Chigasaki, a kind of Santa Monica beach town, and my crucial memory is my middle school time. I trained very much and won the city tournament of table tennis. At that time, I ran very fast and was able to do any kind of sports.
NWAW: What films, books, and other forms of art influenced you the most growing up, and how?
Suzuki: I was influenced by Director Tatsumi Kumashiro in my university time, and decided to enter the movie industry. He made a kind of soft porno movie, but it’s not only for the erotic tones but a very subjective theme of human beings.
NWAW: What made you decide to make a trilogy about the Japanese American internment camps?
Suzuki: When I started living in L.A, I was very shocked learning about Japanese American history, because we Japanese didn’t know that history very well. It’s shameful and we have to know and understand the situation. So I decided to make this kind of film even if there were no investors.
I thought this was my kind of destiny to make the film and tell the history, because I lived in L.A. and met a lot of Japanese American people. This was the last chance because they were in their eighties and nineties. In fact, after filming, many interviewees passed away.
NWAW: How are the three movies different, and which stories do they address?
Suzuki: In the beginning, I had no idea to get funding from these kinds of movies, so I packed a lot of histories into “Toyo’s Camera.” Because I thought I couldn’t make the next films with my own money. Maybe the movies become better one by one; each theme is focused on the main title.
NWAW: Which of the films was the biggest challenge, and why?
Suzuki: Maybe the first one, “Toyo’s Camera,” because our team didn’t have any experience about making documentary movies and no credit to Japanese Americans.
They couldn’t believe I could make a Japanese-American history movie. I heard they said behind my back that Suzuki would make “Sanga Moyu” again.
“Sanga Moyu” is a NHK TV program which was televised about 30 to 40 years ago about the Japanese-American story in WWII, and Japanese American people hated it very much because there were so many misunderstandings about their heart and thought.
At that time, UTB, the TV broadcasting company in LA, was televising “Sanga Moyu” but I heard that they had to stop televising it because of the angry reaction from the Japanese American community.
NWAW: For “Toyo’s Camera,” how did you secure permission to use Toyo Miyatake’s photographs?
Suzuki: I went to talk about it, to Toyo’s son Archie Miyatake. He was happy to hear from me and I got the permission to use the photos.
NWAW: What’s in the future for you and the trilogy?
Suzuki: I am making a new movie about Japanese Overseas Cooperation Volunteers entitled “Crossroads.” This year, is the 50-year anniversary of JOCV, a kind of Peace Corps. And this film is not a documentary but a feature drama. We’re editing in May and June.
I have no idea of my future, but I believe my trilogy movies will become more and more important to us because otherwise we can’t hear from the people who lived through it. (end)
For more information about the screening of the films in the trilogy, visit http://www.siff.net/cinema/visiting-programs/nisei-trilogy/toyos-camera.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.