by Robert Payne
Cut, no. 37, July 1992, pp. 51-55
After 45 years, Hollywood has finally made a theatrical feature about the Japanese American internment during World War II. The forced evacuation and incarceration of over 110,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry (or Nikkei) in prison camps — an act of legalized racism which directly violated their Fourteenth Amendment rights — remains one of the darkest chapters of United States history. But until the advent of Alan Parker's COME SEE THE PARADISE (Twentieth Century Fox, 1990), the U.S. film industry apparently considered this important and illuminating event to be unfit for the big screen. The dilemma of representing U.S. concentration camps is plain. This internment not only foregrounds the underlying racism of a nation whose mythos disavows racial inequality, but it also exemplifies the vulnerability of "unalienable rights" when those rights become politically inconvenient. On one level, COME SEE THE PARADISE stands as a courageous and somewhat subversive film simply for portraying this disturbing historical event. But what is the viewer to learn from Parker's interpretation of history?
The question is important because the United States still has difficulty confronting its lingering racial intolerance and acknowledging its shifting demographic makeup. The increasing influx of Asian immigrants into the United States and the economic rivalry with Japan have been met with increasing hostility against Asian Americans — hostility perhaps exemplified by the death of Vincent Chin, a killing which many believe to have been racially motivated.[open notes in new window] Because the United States' dominant Eurocentric culture has difficulty discerning differences among its own Asian populations, issues of Japanese American representation are bound to larger Asian American issues. But, the term "Asian American" is itself Eurocentric because it is "an externally imposed label" that distinguishes some U.S. citizens from others "primarily on the basis of race rather than culture." Still, the unique position of Parker's film begs the possibility of a uniquely Asian American perspective on this crucial moment in Japanese American history. And Parker instantly frustrates this possibility by centering his drama around an interracial love story.
If COME SEE THE PARADISE were only one more entry into an on-going filmic exploration of the internment, it could be welcomed without hesitation into a cinematic exchange of issues and ideas focused on this historical event. But the internment's paucity of representation in Hollywood gives Parker's film the de facto status of a definitive history. In an interview with National Public Radio on 21 January 1991, Parker deflected criticism of his film by offhandedly suggesting that Japanese Americans make their own movies about the internment.
Unfortunately, the interviewer neglected to ask why no Nikkei-produced features depicting the camps predated Parker's. Many books and plays written by Japanese Americans have dramatized the internment and its unresolved consequences, but none of these has been brought to the big screen. Clearly, Hollywood would rather trust its millions to Parker, an Englishman with no direct personal connection to the camps, than encourage Japanese American filmmakers.
Although Hollywood has been slow to acknowledge the injustices of the internment, it was quick to cash in on the racist war hysteria that spawned the camps. The same year that the Nikkei were imprisoned for unproven acts of espionage, Twentieth Century Fox released LITTLE TOKYO, U.S.A. (1942), a drama which attributes "fictitious acts of betrayal" to the Japanese Americans. But of course, COME SEE THE PARADISE isn't the first time that the internment has been represented audiovisually. A number of documentaries have chronicled the subject, ranging from a TV report by Walter Cronkite to more critical examinations by independent Asian American filmmakers. Before Parker's film, however, John Korty's TV movie FAREWELL TO MANZANAR (broadcast by NBC in 1976) was the only popularly accessible drama depicting the camps.
The few independently produced Japanese American feature films — such as Duane Kubo and Robert A. Nakamura's HITO HATA: RAISE THE BANNER (1980) — could dramatize events in direct reference to the internment, but lacked the financial resources necessary to naturalistically re-create the camps. Still, putting the prison camps on the "silver screen" was enough of a novelty for Parker's film to publicize itself by playing on the internment as a little-known footnote in U.S. history.
COME SEE THE PARADISE begins in 1936. Jack McGurn (Dennis Quaid) is a labor organizer on the lam from authorities in Brooklyn. He lands in Los Angeles and takes a job as a projectionist in a Japanese movie house — "The Paradise" — in Little Tokyo, where he meets U.S.-born Lily Kawamura (Tamlyn Tomita). It's love at first sight, and the two begin an affair behind the back of Lily's large family. But when Lily's father (Sab Shimono) finds out, Jack and Lily elope to Seattle (interracial marriage being illegal in 1930s California). Five years later, Jack and Lily are settled in Seattle with a daughter, Mini (Elizabeth Gilliam), but Jack continues his labor activism in the cannery where he works. Over Lily's protests, Jack leads a demonstration at the cannery, where he is subsequently beaten by police and arrested.
When Jack doesn't come home that night, Lily feels neglected and returns to L.A. with Mini. By the time they arrive, the Japanese have already bombed Pearl Harbor. Because of their cultural ties to the new enemy, Japanese Americans throughout the West Coast are attacked as disloyal by white Americans, and Mr. Kawamura has already been arrested on vague suspicion. Lily is tearfully reconciled with her mother (Shizuko Hoshi) and welcomed back into the family. On parole from Seattle, Jack finds Lily again, and they make up. With Mr. Kawamura gone, Lily's brothers and sisters greet Jack as a family member. Promising to return to Lily, Jack has to leave for Seattle to report for parole. But once there, he's told that his parole has been suspended and that he's being drafted.
Meanwhile, the Kawamuras, along with hundreds of other Japanese Americans, are railed off to an internment camp in the desert, where they suffer innumerable humiliations in the cramped, dusty confines. Mr. Kawamura rejoins his family in the camp, but he is too dispirited to feign a normal life. Jack occasionally visits the camp on leave from basic training. But one day, when Mr. Kawamura is ill, Jack appears unexpectedly by the bedside of his estranged father-in-law. Jack says that he has deserted the Army, believing that he can be of better use to the family in the camp. Showing Jack affinity for the first time, Mr. Kawamura tells him to return to the Army, that the best way he can help the family is to "just love Lily." Jack goes back to the Army, but he's arrested for his Brooklyn union activism and sent to jail. Sick and dejected, Mr. Kawamura commits suicide. As the war draws to a close, the family survivors are released from internment in early 1945 with the rest of the Nikkei. This story is told in flashback by Lily to a ten-year-old Mini (Caroline Junko King) as they wait in a train station for Jack's return from prison.
COME SEE THE PARADISE recognizes itself as the first feature film about the internment, thus recognizing itself as an important means of educating its audience. The dialogue and mise-en-scene drop copious facts about the United States' racist past laws forbidding native Japanese from becoming citizens or owning property, laws forbidding interracial marriage, wartime authorities singling out the Nikkei while being more lenient towards German Americans and Italian Americans, the daily humiliations of the camps, etc. The film honestly seeks to broaden the viewer's understanding of U.S. racism and its institutionalization in the past, but it does this by subscribing — perhaps unconsciously — to the institutionalized racism of Hollywood today.
Although COME SEE THE PARADISE sincerely sympathizes with the plight of the Japanese Americans, the issues raised by these characters are severely blunted by the film's focus on its Caucasian main character, Jack. While probably intended as an avenue of identification for white, "mainstream" audiences, Jack proves to be a distraction from the ethnic, cultural, and historical issues raised by the internment. As a result, these fascinating issues are reduced to an exotic, elliptical background for the familiar romance between a white leading man and his non-white love interest. Falling back on this tired cliché might have been agreeable if the love story were compelling, but instead, Parker gives his audience a superficial romance based on physical attraction and little else. Why are the two lovers so drawn to each other? Why do they bother going against the institutionalized segregationism of the time? The viewer can only answer these questions by looking off-screen.
The mainstream entertainment industry only reluctantly recognizes racial and cultural difference as a source for articulating alternative perceptions of a discriminatory society. Whenever dominant, mainstream narratives raise issues of race, they usually treat Western racism as a transient aberration in an otherwise egalitarian civilization. Perceptions of the West as inherently racist (for example, portraying U.S. democracy as dependent on the neocolonial exploitation of Third World countries) are traditionally discredited. In the case of Hollywood cinema, narratives of racial issues frequently remain circumscribed within the spectator's identification with a Caucasian lead (or with a Western surrogate, including Hollywood's motion-picture apparatus). Parker employed this strategy in his previous film, MISSISSIPPI BURNING (1988), which portrayed white FBI agents as heroes of the Civil Rights movement. DANCES WITH WOLVES, THE LONG WALK HOME, and COME SEE THE PARADISE are only three of the most recent examples of refracting, and thereby distorting, U.S. racial and cultural history by focusing on a white main character.
The entertainment industry continues the dominance of the white protagonist by insisting that audiences won't usually pay to see actors of color in leading roles, despite notable examples to the contrary. Jack is the main character of COME SEE THE PARADISE only because Hollywood caters to a racially discriminatory viewer.
But much more fascinating than either Jack or Lily is the character of Lily's brother, Charlie (Stan Egi), whose imprisoned bitterness dramatically transforms him from a contented U.S. citizen to a defiant Japanese nationalist. An engrossing character like Charlie, growing out of a specifically Japanese American context, has seldom been seen in the U.S. cinema (despite the efforts of several Asian American filmmakers to bring John Okada's 1957 novel No-No Boy to the screen). Still, COME SEE THE PARADISE relegates Charlie's tantalizing transformation to the obscurity of the background. The film eurocentrically assumes that its audience will find the familiar romantic dilemmas of the white male lead more interesting than the rare, penetrating glimpse into the United States' past that Charlie might have provided had he been a leading character.
The film appears to mitigate its own eurocentrism by structuring its narrative as Lily's flashback. Because Lily narrates the story in voice over to ten-year-old Mini, Parker seems to offer a Japanese American point of view by suggesting Lily as the film's controlling voice. But the camera's dominating visual narrative splits off from Lily's voice over, most dramatically in the scene where Jack and Lily first make love. The camera dwells on the eroticism of Lily's near-naked body, which visually obscures Jack's nude torso. The camera, then, sides with the spectator aroused by (Asian) female nudity, rather than representing Lily's perspective by identifying with her arousal by Jack. The film humorously widens the divergence between the camera's visual narrative and the woman's aural narrative when Mini (who is too young to hear about her parents' sex lives) is told by Lily that, rather than making love, she and Jack "stayed up all night talking." While Lily's narrative conceals eroticism, the camera's overriding narrative lingers over it. Lily does not have the controlling voice after all.
Furthermore, this meticulously researched film elides the issue of legalized racism with an egregious historical lie. The Kawamuras and the other Nikkei are finally freed from camp when, according to Lily's voice over, the United States Supreme Court found the internment unconstitutional. So, the film teaches us that U.S. justice stands by the underdog. In the end, the benevolent U.S. legal system bestows rights upon the minorities. The white viewer may now be comfortably absolved of any responsibility for the legacy of U.S. racism. Unfortunately, the historical record teaches a different lesson. Not only did the Supreme Court uphold the constitutionality of the internment, but its decision on the matter, Korematsu v. the United States (1944), was used to defend the Nazi death camps during the Nuremberg Tribunal.
While publicizing the film's opening, Parker remarked that his primary interest in making the film wasn't to give a history lesson, but to tell a specifically interracial love story. Yet, this seems strange because the film dramatizes little conflict that Jack and Lily face as a couple; for instance, they aren't portrayed as an interracial Romeo and Juliet. Lily's father is the greatest obstacle to their romance, but he is kept on the periphery of the dramatic action. After a subdued scene in which Jack tries to reason with Mr. Kawamura, the lovers simply avoid confronting him by eloping. And Mr. Kawamura's misgivings about the marriage are resolved off-screen, an intriguing change in character which isn't revealed until the sickbed scene. Furthermore, in the only scene where Jack and Lily go out in public as an interracial couple — they crash a gala wedding after their own modest nuptials — race never becomes an issue. The only moment in the film where Jack dramatically confronts racism is when he argues with a department-store Santa Claus who won't let Mini sit on his knee. So, although interracial issues color the film's historical background, these issues are rarely foregrounded by the characters.
Rather than probing interracial conflicts, Parker observes the cultural tensions between Jack and Lily. According to his interviews and production notes (included in the press kit for the film), Parker views Jack's hot-headed union activism as a product of his Irish American upbringing, while Lily's culture has taught her a sense of resignation. The film dramatizes this cultural clash when Lily argues with an angry Jack to give up his labor activism:
By the film's conclusion, the lovers' personalities have partially rubbed off on each other: Jack has become more fatalistic as Lily learns to be more vocal about her anger. Or as Parker described the film in a December 1990 interview on ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT: "In a way, it's [Lily] expressing her Americanness and leaving behind a little bit of her Japanese [culture]."
So, as his character "develops," the aggressive Jack, moved by Mr. Kawamura's sickbed advice, becomes willing to submissively turn himself over to the Army after going A.W.O.L.. Lily, on the other hand, absorbs enough of Jack's aggressiveness to shout at the camp administrators, but there's no dramatic consequence to this scene: Lily has changed, but not significantly. In the end, Jack's past as a union organizer, and not the camps, stands between the couple and must be "resolved" before they can get back together.
Parker's interracial romance seems to advocate Jack's fatalistic abandonment of his union ideals; in this way, the film serves as little more than a parable against political activism. This interpretation is supported by the film's oblique portrayal of Charlie's pro-Japanese revolt in the camp, an event whose organizational roots are only implied and whose results only get Charlie "repatriated" (Lily's word) to Japan, a country he's never visited before. Charlie's futile activism, then, merely confirms his "foreignness."
But the film's implicit warning against political action stands in sharp contrast to an historical event which is never acknowledged on-screen: the redress and reparations movement. In 1988, after a decade of marches, rallies, demonstrations, and organization, Japanese-American political activists "spit against heaven" by forcing the federal government to recognize the gross injustices it inflicted upon the Nikkei during World War II. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was a direct result of their agitation. The law mandated an official apology and a check for $20,000 in reparations to each of the 60,000 camp survivors. So, while COME SEE THE PARADISE eurocentrically views the internment as a learning ground of passive resignation, to many Nikkei off-screen, the camp experience has provided a unique channel for empowerment and for the crystallization of a Japanese American identity.
However, the inability or unwillingness of COME SEE THE PARADISE to recognize the internment's broader, less complacent implications seems to reflect a general conservative backlash against ethnic consciousness in the United States. In his NPR interview, Parker responded to Japanese Americans' unfavorable criticism of his film by attributing such criticism to "inverse discrimination." With one vaguely defined phrase, Parker portrayed himself as the underdog in a struggle against a self-proclaimed "politically correct" ideology, one in which the sensitivities of nonwhites oppress established Eurocentric traditions.
"Reverse discrimination" and "political correctness" are becoming increasingly popular rallying cries of conservatives to dismiss the grievances of people of color. In the case of the mainstream theatre, when Actors' Equity, responding to protests from its Asian-American constituents, prevented the musical MISS SAIGON from casting its ostensibly Asian lead role with a white actor, the union's action was condemned by the show's producer and much of the press as "racist" without examining Broadway's long history of anti-Asian discrimination. However, "inverse discrimination" must assume that absolute racial equality is a practiced reality in U.S. society; only then could people of color effectively discriminate against the white power structure. Clearly, the concept of "inverse discrimination" serves as a tool to help whites maintain their dominance and Parker's subscription to it questions his intentions of portraying the internment in the first place.
But as of this writing, Parker's film has quickly vanished from the movie houses and appears to be a financial disappointment. If the past is anything to go by, rather than being viewed as a reflection of the film's inherent weaknesses, the fiscal failure of COME SEE THE PARADISE will only be used by Hollywood to confirm its convenient belief that movies with Asian American subject matter are unmarketable. This will probably mean that, for the foreseeable future, Hollywood won't finance any more mainstream movies that seriously investigate the internment or other Asian American issues (although Hollywood currently plans to revive the old ethnic stereotypes of Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto). But even if the film's failure helps perpetuate the low profile of Asian Americans in mainstream culture, it will more than likely have no negative impact on the career of either Alan Parker or Dennis Quaid. Japanese American feature films will probably continue relying on PBS as theft main source of funding and exhibition — as did Michael Toshiyuki Uno's THE WASH (1988) and Emiko Omori's HOT SUMMER WINDS (1991) — but this will not guarantee attractive budgets, theatrical releases, or receptive audiences.
If it seriously wants to develop its viewers' openness to Asian American subject matter, Hollywood will have to develop films that spring from Asian American perspectives and that cultivate Asian American creative talent, rather than just distorting and exploiting these for the advancement of established white careers. Only with greater Asian American involvement in and control of the creative process can Asian American representation in Hollywood more accurately reflect a multicultural society. COME SEE THE PARADISE stands as a negative example: in attempting to make bitter Japanese American issues palatable to a white audience, Hollywood has once again contributed to their further misunderstanding and further marginalization.
1. This is the subject of Christine Choy and Renée Tajima's 1988 documentary, WHO KILLED VINCENT CHIN?
2. Elaine H. Kim, Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982), p. xii.
3. I haven't seen LITTLE TOKYO, U.S.A., but I draw my description from Larry Langman and David Ebner, An Encyclopedia of American Spy Films (New York: Garland, 1990), p.219. The film was written by George Bricker and directed by Otto Brower. Preston Foster and Brenda Joyce headed the cast.
4. For an informative catalogue of shorts and documentaries about the internment and other Asian American subjects, see Renée Tajima, ed., The Anthology of Asian Pacific American Film and Video (New York: Film News Now Foundation, 1985).
5. But this TV movie raises its own troubling issues of eurocentrism. See Raymond Okamura, "FAREWELL TO MANZANAR: A Case of Subliminal Racism," in Counterpoint: Perspectives on Asian America, ed. Emma Gee (Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 1976), pp. 280-83. Okamura also mentions a 1945 serial, ESCAPE FROM MANZANAR, but I've been unable to find any more information about this film. For the record, Hollywood also passingly mentioned the internment in Robert Pirosh's GO FOR BROKE! (MGM, 1951), John Sturges' BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (MGM, 1954), and Etienne Périer's BRIDGE TO THE SUN (MGM, 1961). And George McCowan's TV movie IF TOMORROW COMES (ABC, 1971) examined the post-Pearl Harbor racism that led to the camps.
6. For example, ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT publicized Parker's film by treating the internment as a late-breaking news story.
7. The day the Supreme Court handed down Korematsu, it also handed down another decision, Ex parte Mitsuye Endo. The second decision ruled that "loyal" Americans couldn't be detained against their will. But Endo's labyrinthine logic left the internment's constitutionality intact. See Michi Weglyn, Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps (New York: Morrow, 1976), esp. p. 75.
8. For example, in a vindictive cover story, Newsweek portrayed cultural consciousness in the universities as the "new McCarthyism." See Jerry Adler et al., "Taking Offense," Newsweek 24 December 1990, pp. 48 ff.
9. See Michael Omi's analysis of the MISS SAIGON controversy and neo-conservatism, "The Issue Is About Race and Racism," Hokubei Mainichi (San Francisco), 25 September 1990, p. 2.