Alan Parker, I know you’re not out there reading this, but I apologize anyway. When I decided to check out Come See the Paradise—your recent film centred around the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II–I did so thinking that the director of films such as s Mississippi Burning and The Commitments would probably do at least partial justice to this unsavory chapter in American/Canadian history. Full justice, I believed, would have to wait until someone brought a work like Joy Kogawa’s Obasan (telling the Canadian side of the story) to the screen. Obasan is lyrical and haunting and honest–not qualities one tends to associate with a lot of recent major motion pictures. But if Alan Parker was willing to tell a story few others in his position would be interested in even acknowledging, I’d be able to accept that until something better came along.
Silly me. Come See the Paradise IS something better. Visual textures and musical score take the place of Joy Kogawa’s poetic language, but book and film share a common soul. Surprising the heck (heck? Did he really say “heck”?) out of me. Come See the Paradise tells its story with the same concern for exploring themes of family and love and loss and recovery that makes Obasan so much more powerful than any simple polemic on racism and injustice could ever be. I am still amazed by Parker’s restraint. For the entire 133 minutes of Come See the Paradise I kept waiting for him to “go ballistic”—to hit the soapbox and let his lead actors explode and rant and rave and decry the victimization of the innocent and powerless by governments and bigots and opportunists.
It never happens. The film does tell the story of the Japanese diaspora in North America, but it doesn’t rant. Instead, we have moment after moment, scene after scene, of quiet beauty, introspection, loneliness, parental and conjugal love. The most moving scenes are the ones where characters wait for those small gestures or scant words that can restore whole lives or deconstruct them.
It’s all quite Japanese, that significant restraint. Perhaps it stands out even more in the contrast drawn between lead actor Dennis Quaid’s righteous union-hall/Irish rebel character, Jack McGum, and the character of his Japanese- American wife (played by Tamlyn Tomita) and members of her family (particularly mother-in-law Shizuko Hoshi and father-in-law Sab Shimano). If that kind of contrast begs for stereotyping, Parker never succumbs. The director and the actors wanted us to care deeply about their characters, not take notes on them.
Two people have really done their homework on this film. Parker, of course, who wrote as well as directed it, and his production designer, Geoffrey Kirkland. I singled out Kirkland because in a movie such as this one, set in the years 1937 to 1945, period authenticity is critical. Ensuring that all the details fit, and that they add up to a whole richer than the parts, is the job of the production designer. From the father sitting at the kitchen table washing old wax 78s, to the steam locomotives carrying the Japanese to camps in North Dakota, I would swear that for this movie Kirkland simply invented a time machine and took the entire cast and crew on location. Every frame of this film is meticulously furnished, staged, crafted. Kudos as well to photographer Michael Seresin, whose work completes the illusion.
And the music!! When was the last time you found yourself humming to catchy big band tunes for pre-war Japanese melodramas? The musical backdrop of Come See the Paradise is every bit as rich as the physical one. When Dennis Quaid dances around the concession stand singing in Japanese, you wish you could join him. When a small, spectacled young Japanese singer named Hollywood Harry suddenly comes out with a voice (and song-styling) like Frank Sinatra’s, you can only marvel at the miracles of multiculturalism.
And therein lies saddest irony of the exile of Japanese-Americans and Japanese-Canadians within their adopted homelands. They were Americans. They were Canadians. If the original immigrants, the Issei, sometimes clung tenaciously to the old ways, the younger generation, the Nisei, made themselves part of the Canadian/American dream at its finest.
The internments did not kill those dreams—witness those Japanese-Canadians and Japanese-Americans who died fighting for the very homeland which robbed them of their property and citizenship rights—but they did shatter families and disrupt lives in ways which could never be undone. Parker’s film, and Kogawa’s novel, tells those stories as well as they can be told. For those of us growing up in the Kootenays, a central location for many of the camps, this is local history that we could all be more aware of. How many Canadians know that in the United States at least, near the war’s end, the Supreme Court declared the internment camps unconstitutional and ordered that the Japanese be freed. In Canada, that never happened. In fact, after the war had effectively ended, the Canadian government displaced the Japanese a second time.
But now I’m getting into polemics. Sure, go see Come See the Paradise to learn a little history that matters. Go home and read up on it. But above all, watch the film because it’s what movies should be: a treat to eyes, ears and heart, showcasing the talents of a fine cast and committed crew. One critic wrote that Parker spent too much time on the love stories and not enough telling about the events. Not in my books, buddy.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
“You can’t spit against Heaven” –Japanese proverb
“A wasp always stings a crying face”—Japanese proverb
Since I first reviewed Come See the Paradise back in 1993, I’ve had the chance to learn more about the Japanese internments as they were carried out in the U.S. and in Canada. Most recently, I picked up a copy of Richard Reeves’ Infamy, published in 2015. Everything I’ve read has made me come to appreciate Alan Parker’s film even more on a second viewing. Come See the Paradise gets a lot right in its 138-minute running time—everything from the mechanics of displacement & confiscation (theft, really), to the challenges & tragedies of camp life, to the WRA Loyalty Questionnaire & the No-No Boys. The period detail is superb (the product of extensive research on the part of the Production Designer, the Costume Designer, the Composer, and Alan Parker as both writer and director. The entire movie is shot with soft brown tones, lending a subtle credibility to the historical setting perhaps through our unconscious association with the sepia tones of old photographs. This is one of the most visually striking films I know, a perfect complement to Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven.
Performance-wise, this time around I was particularly impressed by Shizuko Hoshi as the Kawamura family’s matriarch. Her dignity and stoicism embodied the spirit of the majority of the Issei (first-generation Japanese immigrants) who, contrary to the racist hysteria that saw every Japanese citizen as saboteur-in-waiting, cooperated fully with the authorities who stripped them of everything they owned and forced their families to live in conditions that hadn’t been seen since the settling of the prairies in the early years of the 20th century. More than an expression of “shikata ga nai” (it cannot be helped, it’s out of our control), the way most of those who were interned rebuilt their lives in miniature (schools, churches, gardens, organized sports, etc.) in the wastelands of the camps was the ultimate demonstration of strength of character and hope for the future.
But there was also a terrible cost. Dozens of suicides, internees shot by guards, a breakdown in relations between generations (many of the Nisei, the second generation, couldn’t stomach the injustice of what was being done to them), and family breakdowns due to the stresses of communal camp living. By alienating and embittering so many of the younger generation of American-born Japanese, the government’s Executive Order 9066 created the very anti-American, pro-Japanese hostility that it was supposedly a reaction to. One measure of the impact of internment can be seen in what happened when the U.S. army appealed to the Japanese for enlistment in February of 1943. In Hawaii, where internment didn’t happen because the Japanese population was almost half the island’s total population, 10,000 volunteers crowded into the recruitment offices. On the mainland, with a similar population in the camps, only 1,256 responded to the call. (In the end, the all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team would be the most honored combat unit per capita in American military history.)
The Kawamura family’s patriarch (Sab Shimono) is part of the collateral damage, but it’s interesting that he’s also brought down in part by his own character flaws. He’s addicted to gambling, and in the past has won and lost his family’s savings many times over. He’s wlling to marry one of his daughters to an old-but-rich widower to clear his debts. When rumours (more likely false than true) spread in the camp that he’s collaborated with U.S. authorities, his best-loved son disowns him. From that point on, he begins to fade away. There are no statistics to tell us how many lives were broken as a result of the betrayal of the Japanese by the government that was sworn to protect them. There was no internment for Germans or Italians. Then again, prior to the Second World War, neither German nor Italian immigrants were legally forbidden to become U.S. citizens or own businesses. That dubious distinction was reserved for the Japanese.
All of the aspects of the Japanese internment that I’ve mentioned above are touched on in Come See the Paradise. Some reviewers have indicated that the film’s claim that the camps were declared unconstitutional is inaccurate. This is the one detail I’m uncertain of. I’ve always been a fan of popular cinema that both entertains and instructs. Not everyone agrees with me. In a section (available online) of the book Screening Asian Americans, Laura Hyun-Yi Kang says that in Paradise “an atrocious episode in U.S. history—full of the ugliness and terror of human suffering, mass imprisonment, and near total disempowerment—is rendered by Alan Parker as dramatic backdrop to a more reassuring narrative of interracial romance and a multicultural picture of the American nuclear family.” I beg to differ. Combining history with a love story doesn’t automatically make for “assimilationist liberalism,” and the story of what happened in the camps is as much about empowerment as it is about disempowerment. Parker makes one interesting dramatic choice in downplaying the moment of the attack on Pearl Harbor—a single line of dialogue, with no dramatic radio broadcasts, racist invective, or sudden outbreaks of anti-Japanese violence in the streets.
Finally, I have to reaffirm that I still really, really like the soundtrack. All those old show tunes in English and in Japanese. I’ve got the original cassette recording. Here’s the link to check out the cool singing samurai from the 1939 film Oshidori Utagassan that inspires Dennis Quaid to go dancing down the hallways: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GGQIzCN22tk
Below are a few excerpts from Infamy, Richard Reeves’ history of the Japanese internment in America:
“More than 120,000 American Japanese were forced from their homes and incarcerated in ten ‘relocation centers’ and several prisons during World War I. Within months of the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent them to these ‘concentration camps’ by executive order. Most of the evacuees and prisoners, more than 70 percent of them, were American citizens, born in the United States. Their first-generation immigrant parents, however, were forever aliens, prevented from gaining naturalized citizenship by the Immigration Act of 1924. Most of them, citizens and aliens alike, were fiercely patriotic. Guarded by soldiers in machine-gun towers, none of them were charged with any crime against the United States. In fact, there was not a single American of Japanese descent, alien or citizen, charged with espionage or sabotage during the war.”
“I am from a part of the country, New York, where most of the people I know had only the vaguest notion that these events happened. I finally decided to write this book when I saw that my country, not for the first time, began turning on immigrants, blaming them for the American troubles of the day. Seventy years ago, it was American Japanese, most of them loyal to their new country; now it is Muslims and Hispanics. This story is not about Japanese Americans, it is about Americans, on both sides of the barbed wire surrounding the relocation centers, the Americans crammed into the tar-paper barracks and the Americans with machine guns and searchlights in watchtowers.”
“Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy said in a memo, ‘We can cover the legal situation…in spite of the Constitution. Why the Constitution is just a scrap of paper to me.” The governor of Wyoming, Nels Smith, shouted at Milton Eisenhower, then director the War Relocation Authority, ‘If you bring Japanese into my state, I promise you they will be hanging from every tree.’ The governor of Idaho, Chase Clark, added, ‘The Japs live like rats, breed like rats and act like rats.’”
“There were also many ordinary folks, everyday heroes, like the fire chief Bob Fletcher in Florin, California [the last location setting, as it happens, in Paradise], ‘The Strawberry Capital of the World,’ who took real risks to protect the property of his American Japanese former neighbors, while other white men were talking over their land or burning down their houses and vandalizing the depositories filled with the possessions of the incarcerated—usually churches and Buddhist temples.”
“Hysteria about spies and saboteurs had been building on the West Coast and in Washington, D.C., for years. On August 1, 1941, the Washington Post had published a ‘Confidential report on Japanese activities in California.’ The paper said, among other things, that Japanese consulates were forcing Issei and Nisei farmers to move near oil wells, instructing them to be prepared to attack them if war came; that 90 percent of Japanese fishermen were actually Japanese naval officers and seamen; and that cooks, butlers, and laundrymen were expected to ‘cripple vital utilities, bridges, and tunnels.’”
“[Immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor] community leaders, Issei, were shipped to twenty-six Justice Department facilities, prisons, around the country. More often than not, their families had no idea where their husbands and fathers were being held or even whether they were alive. Wiest coast Nikkei—aliens and citizens—were stripped of civic leadership. Thousands of women and children were without means of support; their situation was made worse when Japanese aliens and Japanese Americans learned that their bank accounts had been frozen the day after Pearl Harbor.”
“For weeks [Yoshi and Theresa Takayoshi] had bought a classified advertisement in local papers [to sell their popular ice cream shop]…The shop had machines and inventory insured for $18,000. Dozens people answered the ad, offering $100 or $20 for the whole thing. The Takayoshis finally settled with a Caucasian buyer for $1,000. They sold their 1940 Oldsmobile for $25.”