“the history of nikkeijin is nothing but the history of America.”
Today, the issue of Japanese immigration might not be under discussion in the U.S., but it was a huge concern around World War II. Junichi Suzuki, independent filmmaker residing in Los Angeles, tries to dig into the untold stories and controversy about Japanese immigrants during that time through his documentary trilogy, Toyo’s Camera (2008), 442 (2010), and MIS (2012). At the release of MIS, Mr. Suzuki talked about his new documentary film and the importance of the history of nikkeijin for both Japanese and Americans.
You’ve been making live action films dealing with drama, romance, horror, etc. What made you turn your focus to making documentaries about Japanese American soldiers?
Since I moved to Los Angeles, I met so many “nikkeijin”, Japanese Americans, and then I realized how ignorant I have been about them. Though I know who they are, I don’t know much about what they have experienced as immigrants, how they have lived and overcome hard times. I believe many Japanese living in Japan and even in the U.S. don’t have enough knowledge about this. I actually became ashamed of my ignorance. It is the history all Japanese people must know, and it is what should be told from generation to generation. It was about 7 or 8 years ago that I came to think about making documentaries on the history of nikkeijin. At the time, nikkeijin who experienced World War II were in their 80s, so it was the right time to record their comments.
In fact, there are so many films about nikkeijin made by nikkeijin, and most of the topics are about the 442 regimental combat team and the internment camp. When I saw them, I wondered why they always looked at the past and would not think about the future. However, as I talked with more and more nikkeijin, I came to understand that the wound in their minds, which was deeper than I imagined, could not be mended. But it was still an issue the way they depicted nikkeijin as victims, which was the nikkeijin’s mission. Since I am not a nikkeijin, I can be free from such responsibility and depict their history from an objective point of view.
Do you make it for a Japanese audience, then?
My target audience is both Japanese and American because the history of nikkeijin is nothing but the history of America.
Is there anything that surprised you during the course of filmmaking?
I was surprised that the historical facts, especially about the MIS (Military Intelligence Service), were unknown to people, even to nikkeijin. The story about the 442 regimental combat team is well told and famous, but not about MIS. So, it is important to tell this historical fact. Also, Japanese people can hardly connect the cause of Japan’s recovery after World War II with nikkeijin. They don’t know how much nikkeijin contributed to the fact that they could get over defeat and rebuild the foundation of the nation in such a short period of time. Japan is thriving as a nation today, but this is greatly owed to the effort of nikkeijin. That’s one message that I wanted to deliver in this film.
It is interesting that many Japanese consider nikkeijin as Americans.
Yes, nikkeijin are Americans, indeed. They look completely the same as Japanese, but they speak fluent English as natives do, and their way of thinking is American as well. I think the nikkeijin today regard themselves as American. They live as a minority in a Caucasian dominated society.
I was struck by the scene interviewing an MIS veteran and his son-in-law, who is Caucasian American.
Nikkeijin who went through World War II still have a sense that they are not Americans because they were actually discriminated at that time. No matter what their nationality is in America, they can’t consider themselves as part of America. The conversation between the father and son-in-law symbolizes that. Tragic in a way.
I also noticed that Japanese people’s kindness is inferred throughout the film.
Right. That is the beauty that Japanese people and nikkeijin have. From the preview screening, we get a lot of similar comments like, “I was reassured of the essence of Japanese people by watching the attitudes of nikkeijin in the film.”
In some scenes where Japanese MIS officers interrogate Japanese soldiers, they find something in common and finally come to understand each other when they talk about food. Were there many episodes where food helped them connect emotionally?
I think there were many. By the way, it’s not about MIS, but I find that the Japanese food industry is still doing good in America even while many Japanese companies withdrew from the U.S. market due to the recession in Japan. I think Japanese cuisine can be the vanguard to spread Japanese culture and economy internationally. That is because it has elements of global appeal and can be shared in all ethnic groups and nationalities. Take sushi as an example, it’s quickly made. American people love things made fast. Sushi is also healthy. Health is something people explore universally. To appeal to global consumers, it is necessary to have elements that are commonly appreciated by every individual.
From your point of view, what do you think about Japanese cinema today? Is there potential to capture a global audience?
I don’t think they have common elements that can be universal. In the time of Akira Kurosawa, “poverty” was the common concept. “I want to get over the poverty and become rich!” is a universal concept. Also, Kurosawa’s films are characterized as actions. Action is also popular in every culture. Now that Japan has grown rich, it is very hard to find any single element in Japanese films today that would be appreciated in the universal market.
What can the NY audience expect from MIS?
Just watching the documentary will give them a lot of historical and educational information that they have never heard or seen. I think they will discover something from the film in many respects. In a way, it’s a high cost-performance and time-performance film.
———- Interview by Hideo Nakamura
Born in Kanagawa in 1952. After graduating from Tokyo University, he joined a film studio, Nikkatsu Corporation, as assistant director. In the early stage of his career, he made a couple of films in the Roman Porno genre, an adult oriented film genre that Nikkatsu established in the 1970s. From the late 80s he has directed and produced films in various genres, including Marylin ni Aitai (1988) and Suna no Ue no Robinson (1989). In 2001, he moved to Los Angeles and continues working on directing, producing and distributing films. His latest project is to record the history of nikkeijin Japanese Americans in the time of World War II as documentaries. He has just completed MIS (2012), the last piece of the nikkeijin documentary trilogy after Toyo’s Camera (2008) and 442 (2010).
Junichi Suzuki nikkeijin documentary trilogy:
Toyo’s Camera (2008)
First generation immigrant and photographer, Toyo Miyatake, one of the many Japanese Americans interned against his will, smuggles his own lens into California’s Manzanar internment camp. During his detainment, he builds a makeshift camera and captures life behind barbed wires, as well as the resilient spirit of his companions during the devastating conditions of WWII when Japanese Americans belonged to neither Japan nor America.
The second installment involves interviews of several veterans who, during WWII, became soldiers of the 442 regimental combat team, composed of second generation Japanese Americans out of internment camps and officers discharged from the U.S. Army subsequent to Pearl Harbor. These brave men fought for a country that had branded them as enemies to prove their loyalty as patriotic Americans, overcoming discrimination and becoming the most decorated regiment in the U.S. military.
The Military Intelligence Service (MIS) was secretly formed by the U.S. Army during WWII. Comprised of Japanese Americans who were facing social and political inequalities, the MIS proved their patriotism while fighting against their own ancestry. They went on to succeed in the surrender of Japanese troops and helping many civilians avoid suicide and played a crucial role in expediting Japan’s recovery.
MIS will be screened at Quad Cinema from Apr. 6-12, 2012.
34 W. 13th St., New York, NY 10011
Tickets will be available at the theatre.
Double screening of MIS and 442 will take place at Japan Society on Apr. 21 and 22, 2012.
333 E. 47th St., New York, NY 10017
Tickets will be available at Japan Society (TEL: 212-832-1155) and Kinokuniya Bookstore (TEL: 212-869-1700)