by Robert M. Payne
Cut, no. 41, May 1997, pp. 67-76
Two works of video art, Rea Tajiri's HISTORY AND MEMORY (1991) and Janice Tanaka's WHO'S GOING TO PAY FOR THESE DONUTS, ANYWAY? (1992), carry obvious similarities. Both are textually dense personal "essays" that critique mainstream narratives. Both are meditations by Japanese American women on the lasting effects of the 1940s internment upon their families. Specifically, both present the perspective of a sansei (third-generation Japanese American) upon how her nisei (second-generation Japanese American) parents dealt with the internment. Both are about the fallibility of history and knowledge. And both struggle to make peace with a personal past, as they document the necessity to remember a public injustice.
The two videos share another similarity: both work to blur the distinction between the "avant-garde" and the "documentary," between the experimental and the expository. It's a distinction open to investigation. For decades, film critics have noted how Walther Ruttmann's BERLIN: SYMPHONY OF A CITY (1927) and Dziga Vertov's MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA (1929), both widely regarded as documentaries, are unconventional narratives that verge on the abstract with images more closely associated with experimental cinema. Meanwhile, to cite only one example, THE ACT OF SEEING WITH ONE'S OWN EYES (1972) by avant-garde exemplar Stan Brakhage can be viewed as a documentary of an autopsy. The slippage between these genres partly stems from the absence of any self-evident definitions of what each means. The term "documentary" implies a privileged relation between the ontology — the "reality" — of the pro-filmic referent and the means of its representation, a relation that has been hotly contested.[open notes in a new window] Similarly, not only has "avant-garde" film actively avoided any defining style or paradigm, but its very identity as a practice distinct from Hollywood has sometimes been called into question.
The medium of video art arrives as especially well-suited to occupy a space at the intersection of documentary and the avant-garde. Video equipment's ease in portability and its reproduction of synchronous sound echo two hallmarks of cinema verité, making video a useful tool for the documentary. Meanwhile, video's ability to be operated by one individual and its low cost relative to film permit an intimacy of vision and directness of voice most closely associated with the avant-garde. So, it's no surprise that many video artists — Bill Viola, Marlon Riggs, and Lyn Blumenthal, among numerous others — have gravitated towards audiovisual forms that recall and combine documentary and avant-garde traditions. The same may be said for HISTORY AND MEMORY and DONUTS.
But while their videos share several similarities, Tajiri and Tanaka approach their common subject in considerably different ways. As Tajiri wades through found footage and her parents' reticent memories to find her "own history," Tanaka centers her video around a momentous autobiographical event: the discovery of her long-missing father in a halfway house for the mentally ill and her efforts to bring him back into the family. Approaching the issue of the internment through the ambiguities and disruptions of video art, Tajiri and Tanaka cast a compelling light on a history obscured by silence and absence. But rather than repudiate silence and absence, the videos utilize these elements to open up the audiovisual image and expose it to new possibilities. Silence and absence become the means of history's illumination.
THE SILENCE OF HISTORY
These words should have protected Japanese Americans from mistreatment by the U.S. government during World War II. But they didn't. Not long after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, over 120,000 U.S. residents of Japanese ancestry — more than 2/3 of them U.S. citizens — were forced to evacuate their homes on the West Coast before they were herded into internment camps. Even though no evidence of espionage or sabotage was ever brought against any Japanese American during the war, all 120,000 were compelled to leave their houses and possessions, bringing with them only as much as could fit into a suitcase. The ten camps were located on inhospitable land with weather conditions that were sometimes punishing, and the hastily built living quarters offered only minimal protection from the elements.
But despite the transparency of this injustice, the overwhelming majority of Japanese Americans complied with the evacuation. Although a number of discontented activists fought back via the legal system and civil disobedience, many more felt cowed by what writer and former internee Michi Weglyn called "the stain of dishonor we collectively felt for the treachery of Pearl Harbor." Japanese Americans of the 1940s often resented the everyday experience of racial discrimination, but most had also been raised with the Japanese cultural precept of gaman, which taught them "internalization...and suppression of anger and emotion." Marked by white racism as people inherently "other" than U.S. nationals, most Japanese Americans ironically felt obliged to prove their loyalty to their country by surrendering the very rights guaranteed to them as citizens or legal residents of the United States.
After the war, Japanese American communities stressed reabsorption into the larger U.S. society, and former internees were encouraged to put the experience behind them. Compelled to tolerate an intolerable injustice, Japanese Americans, particularly those who lived through the internment, developed very ambivalent attitudes toward this chapter of their history. Many remained silent about the war years, telling their children little about the internment:
Since the U.S. mainstream was also uncomfortable looking back on an embarrassing breach of the Bill of Rights, knowledge about the Japanese American internment during World War II was downplayed for the next 30 years, almost to the point of being written out of U.S. history. While a few internment survivors agitated for greater public and governmental recognition of their grievances, the sansei — more confident in their national identity and inspired by the civil rights struggles of the 1960s — took the lead in seeking redress of this injustice. Thanks to their efforts, the American Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was passed, requiring the U.S. government to render an official apology and $20,000 in reparations to each of the remaining camp survivors.
Two mainstream dramatizations of the internment experience have been made by white filmmakers: John Korty based his N.B.C. television film FAREWELL TO MANZANAR (1976) on the memoirs of Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, a seven-year-old girl at the time of her imprisonment; and in his Hollywood feature COME SEE THE PARADISE (1990), Alan Parker viewed the experience through the eyes of an internee's white husband. Both films were criticized for their highly circumscribed and comforting portrayals of this discomforting event. Largely dissatisfied with Hollywood's treatment of their history, the question for Japanese American artists and filmmakers remains: How does one represent the internment in the face of the internees' reticence and the bias of the official U.S. position at the time? HISTORY AND MEMORY and DONUTS respond by presenting moving meditations on the complexity of perception and the uncertainty of experience.
But this seems to be a curious approach. Why would the artists treat a long-obscured and contested moment of U.S. history — a clear dereliction of the Constitution that must never happen again — in such an ambiguous and ambivalent manner? Why do Tajiri and Tanaka focus on the vagaries of perception, when they could use their videos to "set the record straight"? Such a question presumes a wholeness of history and a homogeneity of experience that is frequently upheld by dominant narrative forms, including the classical documentary. Since a monological narrative of history may be manipulated to soften or exclude oppositional perspectives, a contrary view will not necessarily be secured by the uncritical adoption of dominant audiovisual constructs. Instead, HISTORY AND MEMORY and DONUTS question monological power through the breakdown of dominant audiovisual and narrative forms. And the means of the artists' interrogation are traceable to alternate narrative strategies employed by other Asian American women artists.
In Articulate Silences, her study of three second-generation Asian-North American women writers (Hisaye Yamamoto, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Joy Kogawa), King-Kok Cheung investigates how silence may be utilized as an oppositional discourse in a Western-dominant society. Because Eurocentric cultures have often viewed Asian silence as a mark of "inscrutability" or "complacency," many Asian American artists since the 1960s have embraced Western-style outspokenness as a means to proclaim their critical presence. This outspokenness often results in the devaluing of silence. But although Cheung upholds "the importance of breaking [imposed] silence," she also seeks to reclaim the expressive and oppositional powers overlooked by logocentrism. The Asian American writers she studies
This "silence" isn't a weakness or self-censorship on the writers' part but an artistic and historical strategy.
Cheung describes how silence may be incorporated into a text to "subvert a monologic [concept of] reality." The silences imposed upon and utilized by some Asian American female writers, both as racial "minorities" and as women, may be theorized as a "double-voiced discourse," a term that Cheung uses in three ways:
Sharing in these legacies, Tajiri and Tanaka make use of their own "double-voiced discourse" to examine the "instability of 'truth' and 'history.'" The artists' comparable use of understatement and indirection creates another muted discourse to unstitch the "seamless" narratives of the dominant society. And through their discourses of silence, the sansei artists seek to examine, understand, and reclaim the silence of the nisei generation. The internment experience was — and remains-profound because it affected so many different people on an intimate, personal level. The internment created a dislocation of the senses, as well as a dislocation in space and politics. This is the level that the videos seek to address and explore — without the burden of lecturing the audience.
FILLING THE VOID
Janice Tanaka's WHO'S GOING TO PAY FOR THESE DONUTS, ANYWAY? becomes instantly linked to the storytelling drive of commercial media because of the video's unusual and compelling non-fiction narrative: a grown daughter finds her long-missing father in a mental institution. Tanaka's earlier videos, such as THE HEISENBERG UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE (1988) and MEMORIES FROM THE DEPARTMENT OF AMNESIA (1989), downplay traditional modes of narrative in favor of interrogating the communicative power of erratic images and sounds. So, Tanaka's earlier work suggests a certain skepticism about the very concept of narrative. However, the narrative imperative at the center of DONUTS is so commanding that it demands greater attention to elements of story and autobiography. The project's penchant for narrative treatment is best illustrated by an anecdote: shortly after the video's initial exhibition, Tanaka, an avant-garde video artist, was approached by a Hollywood producer about developing the idea into a traditional dramatic film. (Tanaka discouraged the producer's interest.)
DONUTS begins with a white screen bleeding into black, with the letters of the title appearing one by one, as they crawl across the screen. Slowly, the silhouette of a man's head emerges from the darkness. Tanaka's voice murmurs from the soundtrack:
Then, we hear the voice of President Franklin Roosevelt announcing the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the war against Japan. A collage of images follows, layering stills and stock footage of the evacuation with shots of the silhouette (whom we take to be Tanaka's father). More voices on the soundtrack read from news reports documenting the growing hysteria against anyone looking Japanese. As the man in the silhouette becomes clearer, we hear Tanaka's voice talking about receiving upsetting letters from her father. There begins another visual collage of period images and video footage, with facts about the internment and the forces behind it written on titles that crawl along the bottom of the screen.
The video's opening doesn't clearly present the exposition of the story it's going to tell. Although Tanaka's voiceover unambiguously states her search for her father, it's followed by words and images that don't unfold in an easily comprehensible fashion. The facts and footage about the internment seem to crash headlong into each other, frustrating a smooth sense of historical progression. And then, there's the narrative jump between these reported incidents and Tanaka's voice (addressed to her father) talking about the letters. When did Tanaka receive these letters, before or after she found her father? Any answer, any hint of narrative progress, is immediately thwarted by the video since it returns to events that occurred at the outbreak of the war. The layering of these sounds and images (including actors' voices re-enacting disputes among the nisei internees) overpowers the viewer's comprehension, as it portrays in-fighting among the Japanese Americans and suggests the U.S. government's ability to set them against each other. This opening is perplexing: anyone expecting a clear-cut family melodrama is instantly frustrated and overwhelmed by the onrush of sounds and images.
For a clearer view of what DONUTS is doing, it's useful to look briefly at another work on the same subject: Lise Yasui and Ann Tegnell's A FAMILY GATHERING (1988), an internment documentary that was broadcast on P.B.S.' "The American Experience." A FAMILY GATHERING falls firmly into the tradition of the "talking-head" documentary. The film interviews witnesses to past events (co-director Yasui's extended Japanese American family) and illustrates their commentary with stills and stock footage. Words and images validate each other: words provide a narrative/historical context for the images, as images provide the historical veracity of what the voice is saying. Skillfully blended together, sound and image usually combine to close off interrogation into the ontology of the history being narrated.
A FAMILY GATHERING slightly complicates this closure by having Yasui act as a first-person narrator and as an unseen "character" within the narrative as she interviews members of her own extended family. She admits to being an unreliable narrator (the film starts with a "memory" she made up). Her film project gets off to a false start, and the visuals stress the materiality of her father's home movies. But the film never questions the cinematic relation between word and image ("This is my grandfather," says Yasui's voice, as an old photo of her grandfather clearly appears on the screen). Ultimately, A FAMILY GATHERING, in the talking-head tradition, creates a coherent authorial space that structures the viewer into the subject position of the investigative filmmaker. Closure is achieved through the interview/narrative process, as Yasui goes from ignorance to knowledge, from being an unreliable narrator to a reliable one. (Closure is redoubled through the authoritative presence of T.V. host David McCullough who frames the film's P.B.S. broadcast.) While A FAMILY GATHERING is in many ways compelling, its structure elides questions of perception. For example, if Yasui is only one of the directors, why isn't co-director Tegnell also included as a character in the documentary? How is her presence manifested in the film?
In contrast, questions of perception are at the very heart of WHO'S GOING TO PAY FOR THESE DONUTS, ANYWAY? Avoiding clearly laid-out exposition, the video separates itself from the documentary tradition. This approach distinguishes the work from a classical "documentary" and marks it as "video art." Tanaka makes her own use of talking-head conventions when she interviews her uncle, Togo Tanaka, who was arrested and detained by the F.B.I. after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Wearing a suit and with the prerequisite bookshelf behind him, Togo speaks authoritatively and articulately about his experience, which the video accompanies with clippings from the newspaper he was working for at the time. While DONUTS doesn't ask us to question the truth of Togo's story, it does disrupt the convention of the authoritative witness by abruptly bringing him back later in the video to discuss another matter: his struggle with cancer. This time, Togo is dressed more informally and is seen at his home in a medium shot. Instead of talking about events long ago (as he did earlier), Togo now talks about his recent fight with the disease and how it has affected him spiritually. The video images take us around Togo's home but make no explicit connection between his cancer and the internment. This makes the viewer uncomfortable: the elevated voice of authority has unexpectedly been humanized by bringing him down from his pedestal of historical expertise and into an empathic realm of physical vulnerability.
Despite its compelling premise, DONUTS doesn't use its nonfiction images and first-person narration in a melodramatic manner. The video's opening suggests that it will withhold the clear depiction of Tanaka's father — whose name is Jack — until some dramatic crescendo in the story. But when her father does clearly appear some 17 minutes into the one-hour running time, the moment is abrupt and anticlimactic. With his withered face featured in a traditional talking-head camera set-up and with his mouth dry from years of medication, Jack is as rambling and incoherent as Togo is concise and articulate. As the visuals intercut shots of his admission forms to a mental hospital, we hear Tanaka's voice over questioning how she can interpret what her father is saying. This undercutting of Jack's authority as a witness might have been taken as condescension if it weren't for what comes next: Jack is taken to see a doctor and is asked to remember some numbers as a memory test. Jack remembers both the numbers and the order, but the doctor claims that the order was wrong. This moment heightens an issue that Tanaka has been suggesting all along: Is Jack really mentally ill, or was his illness induced by his years of electroshock therapy?
Earlier in the video, Tanaka shows a blurry close up of Jack, as a title crawls at the bottom of the screen, saying that the study of mental illness is a culturally biased science. Next, Tanaka's voice over recounts a memory as the camera scans a dimly lit room. Her mother, Tanaka recalls, told her many years ago that her father was insane because he wrote letters to the President protesting the internment. The hazy image merely accompanies the voice, rather than illustrating or affirming what is said. When the video cuts to Togo's talking-head interview, he discusses a strange moment from his F.B.I. interrogation: An agent "diagnosed" Togo's Japanese American newspaper as "schizophrenic" because it was catering to both an English-speaking readership and a Japanese-speaking readership. The rebuttal is unstated but plain: On what authority did the agent make this determination? Moreover, the video runs a subtitle at the bottom of the frame after Jack's first interview: "20 volts administered to the genitals is considered torture, 170 volts administered to the head is called treatment."
For much of the video, Tanaka contrasts Jack's inarticulate and sometimes incoherent speech with Togo's poised and articulate interviews, as Tanaka's voice over wonders what potential her father might have reached if not for the internment. The video creates a climax of sorts when Jack and Togo are reunited near the end, and the opposites are brought together. However, the moment is understated and deprived of narrative import: the brothers have some refreshment at a restaurant and make small talk. There's no grand swelling of emotions, no great truth revealed.
Instead, the moment prefigures Tanaka's own conclusion about the events. As the image track displays layered shots of a hallway and a kitchen (whose?), we hear Tanaka's voice talk about how she now realizes the internment's influence upon her, about how her mother tried to escape the shame of incarceration by moving the family to an all-white neighborhood in Chicago, about the sense of isolation Tanaka felt growing up, and about the sense of loneliness she experienced when her own grown daughter announced her engagement. The picture cuts to scenes from Tanaka's daughter's wedding as Tanaka's voice continues:
It's a heartwarming conclusion, but not one that was built up to by the video. Rather than leading up to and affirming this personal realization, the rush and confluence of sounds and images have created an inquisitive, sometimes disorienting distrust of what is said to be "true." Given the momentous events in Tanaka's life, perhaps this kind of intimate, self-reflexive affirmation is the only conclusion that could be drawn while still avoiding the untrustworthy finality of the of the traditional closed narrative. Had it ended here, DONUTS could be criticized for retreating from the internment's pressing political concerns. But the video goes on.
It gives the last word to Jack, who has gradually demonstrated his coherence, casting further doubt on the diagnosis of mental illness. At one point in the video, Tanaka asks her father, now relaxing in a domestic setting, if he understands what redress is (meaning the reparation money due to him under the Civil Liberties Act), and Jack gives a reasonable response, demonstrating his understanding of both the compensation and why he's entitled to it. This moment seems to remove any doubt about Jack's ability to be accepted back into the family. In the last sequence, Jack reads the letter from President Bush that accompanies his redress payment. We hear Jack's voice read the words of official regret, as we see old photos from the internment, each fading to white after a few seconds. We're never told who the unknown Japanese American people in the photographs are or what happened to them. But the end still affirms the resilience and political empowerment of the community. The words on the soundtrack tell of one search for justice that has reached a satisfactory resolution, and they speak of the success that Japanese Americans have achieved in attaining redress.
Anyone given to a rigorous psychoanalytic reading of the video might criticize Tanaka for simply accepting patriarchal authority through the recoupment of her father, who, speaking the words of the national patriarch, represents the larger social authority. But such a reading would accept the monoculturalism of Freudianism and its descendants. Jack Tanaka may be a father, but he is also a national subaltern whose government deprived him of his role as a patriarchal figure. The video mentions his long years on the fringes of society, where he was an outsider lost to his family. His status as both a subaltern and an outsider hardly make him an uncomplicated patriarchal figure. Rather, Jack stands as a rupture in the image of the compliant internee who (according to the U.S. propaganda of the time) "willingly" submitted to evacuation and imprisonment. Through the figure of Jack, the viewer may see the very idea of "illness" as a rupture of social conditioning, and one may wonder if Togo's cancer is in some way a rupture of his more restrained and rationalizing response to the internment.
Moreover, the enigmatic images at the end of the final scene leave the narrative in a disturbing state of incompletion. How many other stories are there to be told? What will their conclusions be like? Indeed, Janice Tanaka's question in the cumbersome title WHO'S GOING TO PAY FOR THESE DONUTS, ANYWAY? instantly signals incompleteness, something remaining to be accounted for. The title refers to a time when Jack escaped from the asylum and took a job as a deliveryman for a bakery, selling leftover donuts to policemen and billing them. Tanaka views this as her father collecting a kind of redress before it became a political issue. So, the title (referring to an object with an absence at its center) suggests that there are still amends to be made, other absences to be explored. A father has been found and a family, however imperfectly, has been reunited. But this individual story is still missing a firm sense of narrative closure that might have been provided by a more classical documentary form. Although it depicts the filling of one family absence, the video itself is left open-ended.
A viewer expecting a more polemical take on the internment might be bewildered. Given the outrageousness of what Tanaka suspects might have happened to her father — that he was institutionalized and subjected to electroshock because he was a political dissident — the viewer might wonder why the video itself doesn't exhibit more outrage. Preferring understatement to assertion, DONUTS instead uses its melange of sounds and images to question the idea of authority. Frequently, Tanaka's voice speaks over the images, raising questions and doubts about what conclusions to draw from these events. Pictures and sounds are frequently kept separate from each other, kept from creating a sense of diegetic wholeness. Old footage or stills are electronically layered with visual elements that prevent them from merely illustrating what's on the soundtrack (as in the talking-head technique). Sound and image undercut each other, interrogating their own powers of documentation. Even the verité sequences that do utilize synchronous sound usually contain internal contradictions (such as Jack's memory test) or are followed by scenes that question the validity of what has just transpired.
Still, why didn't Tanaka use her video to investigate her father's institutionalization and reach some conclusion regarding this issue? An answer can only be inferred by the viewer: apparently, Tanaka is skeptical of the "authorities" of both medical science and the mediated image. Rather than reify the conventions of the documentary in searching for the public "truth" of her father's treatment, Tanaka questions the veracity of history as communicated by the audiovisual. Therefore, any conclusions that documentary conventions (or, recalling the movie producer's interest, Hollywood conventions) might have reached about her father's institutionalization would also be suspect. Through its visual plenitude and its insinuation of the unspoken, WHO'S GOING TO PAY FOR THESE DONUTS, ANYWAY? challenges the image's ability to represent history, any history. At the same time, the creation of images — the creation of the video, which Tanaka acknowledges as a family project — can act as a means of intergenerational healing, an affirmative process that bridges the familial gap caused by this lingering historical trauma. The image can confine, but it can also liberate.
EXCAVATING THE ABSENCE
The power of representation and the elusiveness of the referent are the primary subjects of Rea Tajiri' s HISTORY AND MEMORY. Like Tanaka and Yasui, Tajiri goes in search of a history to offset the silence of her family. Unlike DONUTS or A FAMILY GATHERING, however, HISTORY AND MEMORY has no momentous family secret to reveal. Instead, Tajiri's half-hour video questions the very ability to know the past through its representations in the present, and it investigates how to create new representations that can oppose the circumscriptions of the dominant media.
Given the numbing profusion of pictures on television, a video artist is frequently hard pressed to create visuals that can resist being swept up and appropriated into the deadening deluge of televisual images. To do this, Tajiri utilizes a strategy brilliant in both its effect and its simplicity — her video begins with crawling titles. These titles describe an imaginary event: her grandfather's ghost watches her parents argue on the twentieth anniversary of Pearl Harbor. The titles move languidly up the screen, and the soundtrack's barely audible, meandering music undermines any drama in the progression of words. The use of crawling titles to take the place of photographic images is a strategy that Tajiri has used before in such videos as HITCHCOCK TRILOGY (1987). At a time when even U.S. audiences for non-Hollywood films are said to have lost the habit of reading subtitles, the relatively long duration of motile, descriptive words on a screen is decidedly "untelegenic," and it instantly suggests resistance to the representing image.
Before the titles are through, we hear Tajiri's voice over describe a picture in her mind: her mother's filling a canteen in the middle of the desert. Tajiri makes it clear that she doesn't know where this mental image came from. The video shows us a glimpse of a woman (played by Tajiri herself) filling a canteen, before the image quickly fades to black. The video layers the titles, voice, and image, so the elements compete for the viewer's attention and make the absorption of all the information rather difficult at first.
Beginning what appears to be an arbitrary sequence of events, HISTORY AND MEMORY then cuts to Tajiri's voice as she reminisces about her sister taking a photo of a classmate she had a crush on and then intermingling the photo in a box full of old movie stills. Tajiri recreates the picture taking, with two performers (Sokhi Wagner and Noel Shaw) acting the roles of the sister and the classmate. In the re-enactment, the actor playing the classmate is Asian, but when the camera cuts to the "sister's" hand holding a photo among the movie stills, the young man in the picture is white. This calls attention to the recreated status of the sequence.
After this stylistically anomalous prologue, HISTORY AND MEMORY begins its use of found footage, layered by titles and voices. Over images of Pearl Harbor — images taken at the time of the bombing and marked as such by the tities — Tajiri's voice continues:
The scenes shifts to footage from old U.S. and Japanese newsreels that employ re-creations of the Pearl Harbor bombing, including some combat clips from the Hollywood movie FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953). "There are other things," Tajiri's voice says, "which happened while there were no cameras watching, which we restage in front of cameras to have images of." As the screen goes black, the voice goes on:
The titles crawl up the screen again. This time, they describe an incident that happened to Tajiri's family before she was born: while the family was interned, the house they had been forced to evacuate was uprooted from its foundation and hauled away. The video later says that the family never learned what happened to the house.
HISTORY AND MEMORY continues this layering of image, sound, voice, and titles. The video intercuts clips from the Hollywood musical YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942) with those from a U.S. government propaganda film about the evacuation called JAPANESE RELOCATION (1942). The screen displays footage taken by the U.S. Army Signal Corps, reputed to be of the assembly centers. But we hear the voices of Tajiri's parents as they watch the footage, and they dispute what's being shown. The video goes on to acknowledge that cameras weren't allowed in the internment camps, except for those cameras controlled by the U.S. government. However, Tajiri recovers some homemovie footage of an internment camp shot with a smuggled camera by an evacuee named David Tatsuno. The rough 8mm footage is strikingly stark and beautifully simple. The unaffected naturalism of these images creates a relaxed contrast to the self-consciousness and staginess of the government films.
Through its unconventional mingling of original video material and found footage, HISTORY AND MEMORY creates a context in which it's impossible to view any image uncritically. We're instantly made aware of the camera's power to privilege a moment in history simply by being there during a photogenic instant. Our thoughts are drawn to the "need" to create images of an event in order to grant it a sense of importance and to affirm its existence. Just as important, the video stresses the power invested in images and the power exerted to create or prevent them. Tajiri isn't simply stringing old film clips together, nor is she denying the iconic power of the industrialized image. Instead, she reroutes that power to uncover an alternate history repressed or denied by dominant images-a history that informs the images just the same.
However, there's another element for Tajiri to contend with: the silence of her family about their internment experience. In contrast to A FAMILY GATHERING, Tajiri can't prod her relatives to say very much about the internment. Her mother refuses to recall anything about that time, saying only that an internee acquaintance who dwelt on the experience eventually went mad (an anecdote that may bring Jack Tanaka to mind). Tajiri's parents never even appear in the video, except in old photographs. When we hear their voices, the picture track is usually occupied by a black screen, found footage, or titles. We briefly glimpse a woman who might be Tajiri's mother as she uncooperatively dashes out of the video camera's range. With her family refusing to serve as witnesses to the past, and with the untrustworthiness of the old archival footage, Tajiri (unlike Yasui) is unable to play the role of the investigative historian who brings the family's stories together in a polished package. HISTORY AND MEMORY disallows a fluid, linear recounting of the past that is the hallmark of so many talking-head documentaries.
Her family's reticence spurs Tajiri to go looking on her own. Her voice over says:
With video camera in hand, Tajiri retraces her mother's evacuation, first to the Salinas Rodeo Grounds (the former site of her mother's assembly center) and then to the ruins of the Poston internment camp in Arizona. However, this journey doesn't endow the video with strong, Hollywood-style narrative momentum, because Tajiri continues intercutting her original footage of the trip with film clips and other visual resources that disrupt narrative progression. She compares her journey to the Hollywood film BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1954), in which Spencer Tracy plays a character who uncovers a hate crime in a small desert town, the murder of a Japanese American man named "Kimoko" after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Tajiri reflects on how her visit to Poston is like the Tracy character's visit to Black Rock: a reminder of a history that the townspeople want to forget. Although she locates the exact spot where her mother's old barrack once stood, Tajiri doesn't uncover any great secret or draw any climactic conclusion from the journey. In fact, she likens her hunt for the camp to Tracy's hunt for Kimoko, who is never seen in the Hollywood movie:
Tajiri's desire to create an image is underscored by another Hollywood film clip, this time from COME SEE THE PARADISE. However, Tajiri undercuts its expensive spectacle by having her nephew read his highly critical newspaper review of the film, and by intercutting stills and archival footage against the movie trailer. The juxtaposition of the images once again reminds us of the materiality of both the Hollywood film, COME SEE THE PARADISE, and the archival footage, of the conditions under which both were made. In this context, it's easy to view the Hollywood internment drama — conspicuously featuring an out-of-place white protagonist — as an extension of the propaganda films and their circumscribing powers of representation. This contrasting set of images allows us to reflect upon the Japanese American histories and perspectives that have been excluded or marginalized by the eurocentrism of Parker's film. Again, the absence becomes a presence, but this time the absence is palpable.
The journey to Poston does allow Tajiri to better understand her mother's "loss of memory." Tajiri returns to the recreation of the mental image she had, the image of her mother's filling a canteen and washing her face in the desert (an image intermittently glimpsed throughout the video). Tajiri's voice says that it's the one memory she has of her mother talking about the internment. Tajiri dedicates this image of the woman in the desert to her mother. The image is created to complement her family's silence and to help imagine the history still to be told.
HISTORY AND MEMORY is haunted by a desire for the internment experience to be captured and resolved by an image. Even though her video clearly and brilliantly demonstrates the unlikeliness of any image to capture and resolve anything beyond the conditions of its own making, Tajiri's desire to afirm her family's history in a specifically visual way — affirm their hardship and resilience — endures to the very end.
This relentless desire for visual affirmation is surprising because the video initially appears to be heading in a different direction. In the earlier sequence that re-enacts Tajiri's sister taking a picture of her classmate, the video seems to be critical of using a photographic image as a stand-in for its referent. Tajiri's voice over says that her sister had a crush on her classmate, but she would rather take a picture of him than talk to him. So, the image is used as a substitute for a potentially deeper form of contact-the image is created as a fetish. Moreover, the picture is taken while the classmate argues with the sister, so the image-making itself isn't depicted as a moment of communion.
As it is stored, this photograph mingles with stills from Hollywood movies, a mingling which extends the critique to dominant images. Tajiri concludes the sequence by saying,
Hollywood and the distant, fetishizing observer are compared. The sequence suggests that the dominant images are themselves fetishes for an absent desire, a desire to contain and possess something ephemeral: history, maybe, or a more glamorous self-image. Like the sister's photo of her classmate, these fetishes are likely to distance the observer from a potentially deeper experience.
The criticism of dominant imagery continues throughout the video. Hollywood's narrative authority and that of the government film clips are subverted by electronic interventions which draw our attention to the limits of the image, to what has been left out. And much of the video questions the reliance of both history and memory upon the photographed image (as the signifier of history and the evoker of memory). The video seems to be headed towards reclaiming that which is not — will not be, cannot be — imaged (the "ever-absent image") as an equally valid signifier of history and memory, something to usurp the privileged primacy of the fetishized photograph. However, going against the tenor of her tape, Tajiri abruptly shifts to affirm "the desire to create an image where there are so few." She closes the video with her own image: the sequence reenacting her mother filling the canteen. The sequence is Tajiri's "own image" in both senses: an image she created and an image of herself (as her mother).
However, this visual moment is different from the sister's photograph. This is an image that acknowledges its own creation, its own limits. It's an image that has been brought about in the absence of others. And where her sister's photo was used to keep two people at a distance, Tajiri's reenactment is used to draw the artist and her mother together.
This image acknowledges that it can't resolve the internment experience or contain the family's history, but — and here's the irony — Tajiri still wants it to. She still upholds the power of the image to validate history and memory, to validate the ontological link between the signifier and the referent it supposedly signifies (however removed the referent — in this case, the internment — might be). The tape's image-affirming conclusion is a perplexing one because the rest of the video so ingeniously uncouples this magic link between an image and its referent.
This isn't to say that Tajiri's conclusion lacks power. On the contrary, the reenactment is contextualized as a moment of healing between daughter and mother, between an individual and her family; it packs a strong emotional punch. Indeed, it could be argued that any refusal to affirm the image would surrender all pictorial power to the dominant institutions that have marginalized Japanese Americans and their history. Through her own appropriation of dominant media, Tajiri has defiantly refused such passive acquiescence. Still, despite the emotions one feels as the video fades out, one is left to wonder (with no less a sense of fetishistic yearning) what HISTORY AND MEMORY might have been if it had followed its original course and sought to reclaim the signifying power of the invisible.
Rather than reify the image as an inherently truthful and uncomplicated illustration of the past, HISTORY AND MEMORY and WHO'S GOING TO PAY FOR THESE DONUTS, ANYWAY? question the image's very ability to represent the past, as they explore a missing history. However, both videos also uphold the use of images as a means to communicate and validate an experience of history, an experience of the past and present. Instead of denying or contradicting the power of the visual, the two videos undermine the preferred dominant readings of audiovisual images. And in doing so, Tajiri and Tanaka locate alternate readings that may subtly uncover more subversive meanings.
The videos also mark moments of healing between the nisei and sansei generations. The two works come to terms with absence (an absent father, an absent history) by focusing on images that evoke absence: unclear picture tracks, a black screen, a missing photo on an institution form, a missing house. Here, absence may be seen as a visual approximation of "silence," specifically the silence of the nisei regarding their internment. Through the exploration and visualization of absence, both works reach an understanding towards the older generation's silence, how it can be a survival strategy — in Marita Sturken's words, "a memory that is often disguised as forgetting." The video artists absorb and honor nisei silence by the use of understatement and by permitting the viewer to discern the visual and historical "silences" surrounding the image: what is not depicted, what is not allowed to be depicted, and how these influence the depictions that do exist.
Instead of merely contradicting history's muteness by forcefully asserting an alternate ontology of past events (a strategy that might be suitable in other internment projects), the videos insinuate themselves into the silence, explore its contours of absence, and unearth the contradictions of a dominant society that has muted and marginalized Japanese American history. Where mere contradiction often replaces one monological "certainty" with another, the videos use understatement and indirection both to undercut both the closed narrative's presumed certitude and the dominant culture that prizes it. DONUTS and HISTORY AND MEMORY, then, adopt a mode of expression close in spirit to Homi K. Bhabha's concept of "minority discourse":
Without reifying some idealized ethnic/artistic predisposition handed down to the artists by blood, the viewer may still look upon the videos' methods of indirection and understatement as an artistic strategy that draws upon the artists' cultural heritage. This isn't merely the transplanting of an Asian cultural tradition into a European-derived society, a relocation that leaves both Asian and European influences untouched (if such a thing were possible). Instead, these videos respectfully modify an Asian tradition of reticence and reserve in order to interact with, infuse, and expand the more outspoken image-making traditions of the dominant Western society.
Rather than adopt the assimilationist's desperate denial of gaman in a misguided effort to be "more American," the videos seek new value in an old Asian cultural tradition, a mutual assimilation of "East" and "West" that blurs cultural distinctions. They mark an absorption of an "Old World" cultural heritage that helps to transform the "New World" of the larger multicultural society. This blending of traditions alters, enriches, and sheds meaningful light onto the evolving, heterogeneous culture(s) of the United States. HISTORY AND MEMORY and WHO'S GOING TO PAY FOR THESE DONUTS, ANYWAY? follow an evolving audiovisual quest to illuminate the recesses in history, to make the silence visible.
This article is dedicated to Hisaye Yamamoto.
1. This is a central issue in Michael Renov, ed., Theorizing Documentary (New York: Routledge, 1993). The term, "non-fiction film," is also problematic, since it could be applied to Hollywood bio-pics or other dramatic treatments of a non-fiction subject.
2. David E. James, Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 12.
3. Erika Suderburg, "The Electronic Corpse: Notes for an Alternative Language of History and Amnesia," in Resolutions: Contemporary Video Practices, ed. Michael Renov and Erika Suderburg (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), p. 105.
4. Not every video artist, however, regularly draws upon documentary and avant-garde conventions. For example, Bruce and Norman Yonemoto frequently adopt the codes of Hollywood cinema, while Joan Logue plays with the grammar of television commercials. See Beverle Houston, "Television and Video Text: A Crisis of Desire," in Resolution: A Critique of Video Art, ed. Patti Podesta (Los Angeles: Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, 1986), pp. 116-23.
5. The two videos have been compared before in Marita Sturken, "The Politics of Video Memory: Electronic Erasures and Inscriptions," in Renov and Suderburg, pp. 1-12.
6. Some of the resisters include Fred Korematsu, Minoru Yasui, and Gordon Hirabayashi, whose test cases in court challenged the exclusion orders in California, Oregon, and Washington state, respectively. Korematsu's case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld the constitutionality of the internment on December 18, 1944. (This appalling decision would not be reversed until 1986.) Those who engaged in civil disobedience include the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee of the internment camp in Heart Mountain, Wyoming. This organization of draft-age men, under the leadership of Frank Emi, refused to submit themselves for induction. Its members were prosecuted and convicted for violating the draft.
7. Michi Weglyn, Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps (New York: Morrow Quill, 1976), p. 21. Consult Weglyn for a more detailed account of the internment.
8. Harry H. Kitano, Japanese Americans: Evolution of a Subculture (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1969), p. 136; quoted in
9. Elaine H. Kim, Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982), p. 137. Kim cites Wakako Yamauchi, "The Poetry of the Issei on the Relocation Experience," CALAFIA: The California Poetry, ed. Ishmael Reed (Berkeley: Yardbird Books, 1979), p. lxxi.
10. Some small acknowledgement was made of the internment in the years immediately following the war. Early books on the subject included Miné Okubo, Citizen 13660 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1946), and Jacobus terBroek et al., Prejudice, War, and the Constitution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954).
11. For reactions to Korty's film, see Raymond Okamura, "FAREWELL TO MANZANAR: A Case of Subliminal Racism," in Counterpoint: Perspectives on Asian America, ed. Emma Gee (Los Angeles: U.C.L.A. Asian American Studies Center, 1976), pp. 280-83; and Darrell Y. Hamamoto, Monitored Peril: Asian Americans and the Politics of TV Representation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), pp. 66-72. For an analysis of Parker's film, see my discussion in "COME SEE THE PARADISE: The Color of Paradise," Jump Cut, no. 37 (1992), pp. 51-55.
12. Controversy over the interment's legacy has grown more heated since the National Park Service announced plans to renovate the Manzanar internment camp as an historical center for tourists. See Naomi Hirahara, "Debate for 'Truth' Ensues over Manzanar Historic Site," Rafu Shimpo (Los Angeles), March 13, 1996, p. 1.
13. Cheung cites such outspoken Asian American artists as writer Frank Chin. For more on Chin's caustic criticism of the "deprivation of [Asian American] language in a verbal society," see "An Introduction to Chinese- and Japanese-American Literature," in Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers, ed. Frank Chin et al. (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1983), pp. xxi-xlviii. See also Frank Chin, "Backtalk," in Gee, pp. 556-57.
14. Cheung, Articulate Silences, pp. 3-4.
15. Ibid., pp. 15-16.
16. I subscribe to the proposition that, given Hollywood's dominance, all audiovisual media are viewed in a narrative context. Therefore, there is no such thing as "non-narrative" film or video. As Teresa de Lauretis puts it: "[T]here is no image outside narrative, and no filmic image outside of history, which is also to say the history of cinema including avant-garde and mainstream, classical and
17. Information in an informal discussion with the artist.
18. See Bill Nichols, "The Voice of Documentary," in Movies and Methods, Volume II, ed. Bill Nichols (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), pp. 265-66.
19. For further analysis of this documentary, see Cassandra Van Buren, "[A] FAMILY GATHERING: Release from Emotional Internment," Jump Cut, no. 37 (1992), pp. 56-63. Co-director Yasui is also the niece of Minoru Yasui (see note 6), interviewed in the film.
20. Claudia Puig, "Independents Take Bite Out of Foreign Market," Los Angeles Times Calendar, May 12, 1996, p. 32.
21. Cf. Sturken, "The Politics of Video Memory," p. 6.
22. Ella Shohat and Robert Stam have a term for this rechanneling of dominant energy into subversive energy: "media jujitsu." See Shohat and Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (New York: Routledge, 1994), pp. 331-32.
23. According to all the references I can find, "Kimoko" isn't a Japanese name, especially for a man. The suffix -ko appended to a name usually means "child" and is reserved for women. I can only conclude that the name "Kimoko" is a product of the Hollywood filmmakers' ill-informed imaginations.
24. Sturken, "The Politics of Video Memory," p. 12.
25. Homi K. Bhabha, "DissemiNation: Time, Narrative, and the Margins of the Modern Nation," in Nation and Narration, ed. Homi K. Bhabha (New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 306.