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Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View

* 2000 COLUMNS

May 21, 2001


I recently downloaded a short film from the Internet titled "Avenge December 7." The one-minute, forty-five second clip was shown in movie theaters across the United States for one week in 1942 to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It urged citizens to buy saving bonds because they were "bonds of vengeance."

"Pearl Harbor" promises to meld the realism of "Saving Private Ryan" with the romantic core of "Titanic."
"We do honor to our beloved dead who fell before the sneaky Jap," intones the announcer as scenes of the attack's aftermath fill the screen. "Remembering is not enough… hating is not enough… avenge December 7! On to Victory!"

The propaganda film is an interesting bit of cultural archeology - a snapshot of American history that captured the rage and hatred people still felt about the bombing of Pearl Harbor a year after the attack. The wartime emotional pitch was understandable for the times, though as a third-generation Japanese American, I still felt a sense of dread welling up inside me as I watched the film.

I felt dread for the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were rounded up just months after Pearl Harbor and imprisoned simply because of their ethnic heritage, even though many were loyal Americans and Japanese American soldiers would go on to fight bravely in the war.

Buying savings bonds wasn't the only revenge wreaked on people of Japanese heritage in the US - their lives were turned inside-out, they faced unspeakable and overt racism and they were incarcerated in remote concentration camps scattered throughout the American interior, because it was assumed all "Japs" would be loyal to Japan, not to America.

I also feel the dread in advance of the release of the blockbuster movie of the summer, "Pearl Harbor," which promises to meld the realism of "Saving Private Ryan" with the romantic core of "Titanic." The trailers make it apparent that audiences will re-live the tragedy of the attack in all its bloody, explosive, gory glory.

The movie may be entertaining, and it may be romantic - I haven't seen it yet, and I'll reserve my judgment until I do. But whether it's a good or bad film, it will most certainly do big box office.

And, "Pearl Harbor" may also spark a new round of anti-Asian sentiment, because this is a bad time to re-live the start of World War II. All the Asian Americans I know are nervous about the Memorial Day weekend opening of "Pearl Harbor" - when emotion is high and nationalism encouraged.

Just a few weeks ago, the disturbing results of a survey by the Committee of 100, a Chinese American organization, found that 25 percent of Americans have negative feelings about Chinese Americans, and that one-third felt Chinese Americans are more loyal to China than to America - a frightening echo of the Japanese American internment. And amazingly, this survey was taken before the surveillance plane standoff between the US and China. I can feel the dread…

And when it comes to hatred, people don't differentiate between Japanese, Chinese or any other Asian culture - the skin color and eyes are enough to trigger the bile. Stanford University's campus was defaced in April with anti-Asian and anti-African American graffiti. A Vietnamese man I know, was taunted just last week with "Ching-chong Chinaman" and "Go home" epithets, as he played tennis with some friends.

I plan on seeing "Pearl Harbor" when it opens - I'm a fan of Hollywood blockbusters. Hollywood is more sensitive today than it was half a century ago, when it made propaganda films like "Avenge December 7." With the love story as part of its plot, I'm not sure how much history the movie can include. The 1970 film "Tora! Tora! Tora!," a a somewhat dry but factual account (with the knowledge available back then) that was made as a joint project by US and Japanese teams showing both sides of the attack, took two and a half hours just to get the facts in. With the romantic plot to deal with, the facts may suffer in this new telling.

I'm not a paranoid person, but I just hope I come out of the theater without feeling the dread.

MORE MOVIE NEWS: "Pearl Harbor" isn't the only film news in Denver. The annual Aurora Asian Film Festival, organized by the Aurora Asian/Pacific Community Partnership and Denver Film Society, runs May 31 - June 3, at the Aurora Fox Arts Center, 9900 East Colfax. The opening night film is the 1999 Chinese film "Breaking the Silence," about a single mother's attempts to raise a hearing-impaired son. The festival starts at 6 pm with a reception and Lion Dance entertainment, and continues with movies fro Japan, Korea, China, Thailand, Philippines, Laos, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and the closing night film, "Himalaya," which was made by a team from France, Nepal and Tibet.

I was lucky enough to see the two Japanese films, which are both unique and thought-provoking. "Departure" is like a visual poem, slowly following three young men in Okinawa as they spend their last evening after high school before laving to live their separate lives. On one level, it's like a Japanese version of "American Grafitti" but without the sentimentality or nostalgia.

"Gaea Girls" is a surprising documentary look at a subculture in modern Japanese society: Women professional wrestlers. Not the Sumo type, but the female Japanese version of the World Wrestling Federation. The unblinking camera captures the emotional and physical stress of the young women who want to feel special, and think wrestling is the avenue. In particular, the film follows the brutal training regimen of one woman whose only goal in life is to be a professional wrestler despite her physical limitations. This film's not for everyone, but it's a fascinating snapshot of a Japan I didn't even know existed.

Call (303) 595-FILM or (303) 361-0847 for information, or go to the DFS Web site for the full schedule. The Aurora Asian/Pacific Community Partnership also has its own Web site.


Copyright 1998-2002 by Gil Asakawa -- not for use without permission.
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