Sunday, August 15, 2010

VIZ CINEMA—Junichi Suzuki: Tôyô's Camera (2008) and 442—Live with honor, Die with dignity (2010)

This weekend marks the one-year anniversary of VIZ Cinema. Admittedly, I've only begun attending screenings there in the last few months; but, it has rapidly become one of my favorite venues for its comfortable seating, its café serving vegan doughnuts and Blue Bottle coffee (hands down, the best coffee in San Francisco), and—most importantly—its eclectic programming that focuses on the latest and hottest films from Japan, as well as an incredible legacy of classics, favorites, documentaries and anime—making it the only venue of its kind in the United States. They've also just started distributing their own Blu-Ray DVD titles, kicking off with their Death Note Collection.

Their August series "Winding Road to Peace" commemorates the 65th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings as chronicled through the Japanese American experience of WWII, and continues with two documentaries by local filmmaker Junichi Suzuki: Tôyô's Camera (2008) and 442—Live with honor, Die with dignity (2010), both screening in HD digital through August 19. Both films are key introductions to the internment of Japanese Americans at California's Manzanar Relocation Center during WWII and the celebrated heroics of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, respectively.

With Tôyô's Camera, filmmaker Suzuki crafts a documentary portrait of Tôyô Miyatake, a Japanese American photographer who smuggled his camera into Manzanar to capture black and white images that chronicled the plight of his people during this shameful episode of American history. Without question, Miyatake is a fascinating subject and his photographs are beautiful. The story of his internment and his lifelong friendships with Edward Weston and Ansel Adams are of significant interest and—had Suzuki kept his focus on Miyatake instead of mistakeningly attempting to chronicle the entire Japanese American experience of WWII—he would have achieved a poignant and elegant portrait of this important but relatively unknown photographer.

In her review for the L.A. Times, Sheri Linden praised the selection of Miyatake photographs which makes up the heart of the documentary, but complained: "The film is far more static than any of those pictures. Their cumulative effect is, nonetheless, a sweeping introductory portrait of life in an internment camp." Linden concludes: "Director Junichi Suzuki's film offers compelling insights into a long-shrouded chapter of history, yet Tôyô's Camera lacks the subtlety of its subject's work." I'm afraid I must concur, even as I strongly admire the information I gleaned from Suzuki's flawed effort.

The more I watch documentaries, the more I become convinced that they should rarely exceed 80 minutes. I imagine it's a considerable hardship for documentarians earnest to relay information to honor the adage that less is more. At 100 minutes, Tôyô's Camera becomes hazardously desultory. Eschewing any kind of narrative voiceover until late in the film when actor George Takei offers brief (and compelling) commentary, the visual enjoyment of the film is muddied by text in two languages slapped on top of the images. The images, which I felt should be predominant, were forced into the background.

Suzuki remedied this problem in his subsequent documentary 442—Live with honor, Die with dignity, effectively employing narrative voiceover and resituating the Japanese subtitles vertically to the edge of the frame. This documentary profiles the Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team of WWII and explores the regiment's intrinsic paradox. With many of the regiment's soldiers coming from the Japanese American internment camps, the 442 emancipated the Jewish prisoners of the Nazi concentration camps. The irony is painful. Though these soldiers were first looked at as a problem because of their race, they were later appreciated as problem solvers because of their splendid achievement in the battle field. They fought not only America's enemy but also America's prejudice. Suzuki has gathered remarkable oral histories from veterans of 442 still living today and insures that their courage against insurmountable odds will never be forgotten. Curiously, if Suzuki had held off on his desire to include information about the 442 in his earlier documentary Tôyô's Camera, it would have made that earlier effort a tighter one. One gets the sense that Suzuki was already distracted by 442—Live with honor, Die with dignity while filming Tôyô's Camera; an unfortunate enthusiasm.

Notwithstanding my reservations, I recommend both documentaries as valuable oral histories that provide significant information.

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