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Parallel Wars: Japanese American and Japanese Canadian Internment Films - Part 1


This paper examines films that portray the removal and confinement of ethnic Japanese in North America during World War II (often, if imprecisely, called the Japanese internment) through the interactions between Japanese families and white characters, in order to reflect on the ways in which these films are shaped by dominant narratives about race relations. Let me take a moment to explain what I mean about dominant narratives. One eternal dilemma surrounding so-called “message films”; that is, films that deal with social problems and in particular with minorities, is how to get white audiences, who may share endemic prejudices, to identify with characters facing injustice because of their racial or ethnic difference.

During the classic Hollywood studio era, this most often involved variations on the “passing” narrative, in which a Black person passed for white. In films from Imitation of Life (1934, 1957) to Pinky (1949) to the different remakes of Show Boat (1936, 1951), scripts dramatized the difference in treatment that the same white-appearing person—female in all the above cases—received when crossing the “color line.”1 In time, different variations on this narrative emerged. Sometimes, as in Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) or Black Like Me (1964) the main character himself, a white man, passes in reverse, posing as the ethnic/racial other; or, as in Lost Boundaries (1949), they learn of their racial difference after being unaware of it. Although “passing” narratives had historic roots in African American literature, they became discredited and largely vanished by the 1970s.2 In the wake of the Black Power movement, scholars such as Thomas Cripps and Donald Bogle complained that these representations perpetuated images of minorities as “other,” rather than valorizing their actual subjectivity—in essence, the audience is made to feel bad, not about the treatment of Blacks, but that white people should be subjected to such treatment.3

The elimination of this theme did not necessarily signal a focus on minority protagonists, but rather the expansion in antiracist films using an existing but less frequent theme: the white hero. His presence—for it is most frequently an individual man—is designed to give the white audience an accessible character with whom they can identify, and through whose eyes they can grasp the nature of the injustice to the “other” and perhaps change their own views. This character can take different forms. One, which undergirds such diverse works as the Japanese American war film Go For Broke (1951) and The Defiant Ones (1958), is the white man who begins by sharing widespread prejudices and learns through his contact with the “other” to overcome them. The other is the white man who is already antiracist, but who must befriend and help the “other” despite the threat to himself—the classic model being Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), a lawyer who defends a Black man charged with rape in 1930s Alabama despite pressure form the community not to. In either case, the focus is on the white man and his actions, rather than on the victims of prejudice.

This theme became especially popular during the 1980s, a period that saw several successful films that used variations on it. (for reasons we can debate but do not have time to deal with at present). In Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom, set in 1970s South Africa, Kevin Kline’s Donald Woods displaced Denzel Washington’s Stephen Biko, the ostensible subject of the film, at the moral center of action. In Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves, a white man (played by Costner) is accepted as one of the Sioux nation and is distressed by the savagery of whites in the West in the 1860s. The most controversial of the white hero films was Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning, which dramatized in semi-fictionalized form the 1964 Freedom Summer, the church burnings and the killings of the civil rights activists Cheney, Schwerner and Goodman. However, rather than centering on black activists in danger, Parker fixes on a white Southern FBI agent, played by Gene Hackman, who uses his skills to identify the murderers. Parker was the target of widespread criticism by scholars and movement survivors for portraying the FBI, an agency largely hostile to civil rights (and engaged in wiretapping Martin Luther King, Jr), as heroic. Despite concerns about historical license and distortion, these films were successful at the box office and spawned copies. Denzel Washington even did a role reversal from Cry Freedom. In Philadelphia (1993) he plays a version of the “white hero” in the form of a Black lawyer who overcomes his own homophobia to take the case of a man suing the firm that fired him for being Gay.4

This being the case, it was perhaps inevitable that the two mainstream Hollywood narratives about Japanese American removal would be shaped by this theme. The first was Come See The Paradise(1990), directed by Alan Parker, who had previously made Mississippi Burning. Here again, the film revolves around a white man (played by Dennis Quaid), a labor organizer whose Nisei wife and mixed-race children are taken away from him because of their race, and who attempts to save them. Compared to the story of a mythical white man—and, to a much lesser extent, his Nisei wife—most Japanese American characters are not developed. Their collective experience is marginalized as backdrop to the (implicitly more important) story of the white hero. To this injury is added the insult of historical inaccuracy—for in reality ethnic Japanese wives of white men and their mixed-race children were officially exempted from removal, unlike ethnic Japanese husbands of white wives (such as Communist activist Karl Yoneda, the real-life prototype of Parker’s protagonist) who were put into camp. The other film, Scott Hicks’s 1999 Snow Falling on Cedars, dramatizes the trial of a small-town Nisei man unjustly accused of murder. He is allowed to demonstrate some rage and complexity of character. However, he is saved by the timely intervention of a white man, played by Ethan Hawke, who was once the sweetheart of his wife. It is Hawke’s character that is the only fully realized one—he sees the injustice, but must grow past his own bitterness to offer his assistance (a coming of age in that it is equally an act of letting go the hope of renewal with his ex-lover). In a scene directly inspired by To Kill a Mockingbird, the town’s Japanese community, seated in the balcony of the courtroom, pays homage by bowing to their white champion.

The question today is how much the “white hero” theme also marks alternative cinema. Two films I wish to focus on are Hell to Eternity and The War Between Us. Each contains such elements, but they also subvert them. Hell to Eternity, directed by Phil Karlson and released in 1960, is on the surface a quintessential “white hero” film, in that the film portrays the valor of a white man, Guy Gabaldon (played by Jeffrey Hunter), who singlehandedly persuaded some 2000 Japanese soldiers on the Island of Saipan to surrender, and saved civilians from forced suicide. Guy, a child from a broken home, is adopted by the Unes, a Japanese American family, and learns to speak Japanese in order to communicate with his Issei foster mother, whom he also begins to teach English. (The mother is luminously played by the famed silent film star Tsuru Aoki, in her only sound film role). Once Pearl Harbor comes, he is alienated by the discrimination he sees. He goes out with a Nisei girl, Esther (Miiko Taka) and gets harassed by racist toughs (Guy’s date with Esther is portrayed as platonic—although Sam Fuller had portrayed a Japanese American in an interracial romance in The Crimson Kimono the previous year, such themes were still largely taboo.) Meanwhile, his Nisei brothers George and Kaz attempt to enlist, and are refused.5 Finally, his family and their neighbors are moved out to camp by the Army. Guy is rejected for service in the Army, and is rootless. Some time later, he receives a letter from his Nisei brother George (George Takei), who has been accepted for service in the Army. He suggests that Guy visit their foster parents in “Camp Manzanar”, where we are told the authorities have transferred them (implicitly away from the “real” camps) because of his father’s delicate health.

Tsuru Aoki (as Mother Une) in a circa 1914-1916 publicity photograph

As a result, Guy travels to Manzanar and sees his Issei mother. It might be noted that this is the first-ever representation of the camps in Hollywood cinema. Perhaps because it was so soon after the war, and the producers needed Army assistance, the look is greatly sanitized. After a quick establishing shot of barracks in a verdant valley, the audience sees what is portrayed is a small but comfortable room. There is no suggestion that the entire family is housed in one 20' x 25' shack; instead, there is an inner door, which suggests other rooms or a closet. There is shown inside a window with curtains, a table and chairs, a bureau with knickknacks, and a side table with photos. Outside is a trellis with vines. When Guy sees Mrs. Une, she tells him that his Nisei brothers have volunteered for military service from camp, in order to make a better world, and tells him that he too should find some way to join. Once this is done, Guy enlists in the Army as a translator, and the question of the camps and the fate of his Japanese American family is never brought up again. Instead, the film turns into what one critic called a “war and sex” movie.6

Not only is Guy the focus of the plot, he is the only antiracist. When Guy, Esther and George watch Japanese Americans quietly leaving their houses and being loaded on trucks for Santa Anita, Guy is the only one to express outrage or opposition. George mentions “relocation camps” and Guy says “more like concentration camps.” Esther pleads with him not to blame them (i.e. the Japanese Americans, not the Army!) for following orders and says that at least in the camps everyone will be the same, and will not face bigotry as “Japanese.” Guy snaps, “But you’re not Japanese, you’re Americans.”  He then asks his older Nisei brother how the government could treat Japanese Americans this way, but not Italians or Germans. His brother responds, “I can’t answer that. Right or wrong, our government’s doing what they think is right. No one bats 1.000”.

Jeffrey Hunter (as Guy Gabaldon)

However, the film also diverges in part from the pattern. First, Gabaldon is not completely “white.” Rather, he is Mexican-American, a point that detracts from his representativity (and normative function). While the film makes only the barest mention of this, and all reference to his Hispanic culture and family is erased, we understand that he is a tough kid. We see his tattooed arms, even as a 12-year old, and his fighting (although his foster mother’s tenderness succeeds in winning his avowal of love for her). Also, the film pulls a daring, if momentary, reversal. Instead of developing the familiar theme of Japanese Americans looking like the enemy, it discusses white people in that role. When Guy visits his mother in Manzanar, she laments that everything she and her husband had is gone, but expresses faith that her sons will save the world from its mess and make everyone happy: “Mother, father of Une family work hard all lives build good... foundation for future. Not any years left for old people to build again. Sons must build, Kaz, George, Guy must build home again. Must build world again. All papa sans, all mama sans all over the world is same. This you believe?” Guy asks, “What difference does it make what one man believes?” She answers “one man must believe. Else why Kaz, why George go far away across ocean to kill men look like brother they love?”

Part 2 >>

1. Ironically, while the Hollywood films that made use of this device were all written and produced by whites (most often Jews), the use of such “passing” as a device for commentary on racism became a centerpiece of African American literature at least from the time of James Weldon Johnson’s 1912 novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (and arguably as early as the first novel by an African American, William Wells Brown’s 1853 fiction “Clotel: The President’s Daughter.” Unlike Johnson’s hero, however, in the Hollywood narrative the character who has previously been accepted as white must ultimately renounce that status.
2. A rare exception was the unsuccessful 1986 comedy Soul Man, in which a white student poses as Black in order to take advantage of a minority scholarship and suffers racist attacks. Even then, in defiance of the model, he turns around at the end and says that his experience did not in fact teach him what it is like to be Black, since he knew he could always change back.  3. Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks; an Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. New York, Viking Press [1973]; Cripps, Thomas Robert, Slow Fade to Black : The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942, New York : Oxford University Press, 1977.
4. Oddly, although most gay people are shocked to discover their difference, and many do engage at some time in “passing” for straight, the passing narrative has not been widely used to illuminate anti-gay prejudice. There have been reverse-passing stories, such as the French film The Closet and most recently I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, that play on the otherness of Gays and Lesbians, but these do not portray homophobia—if anything, they make a spurious case for gay privilege.
5. Ironically, Guy’s brother Kaz, who is refused the chance to serve, is played by George Shibata, a Nisei from Utah (who lived in the “free zone” and was not sent to camp during World War II) who became the first Nisei West Pointer after the war. 6. Along with a pair of buddies (played by David Janssen and Vic Damone), he travels to Hawaii, where the three date a blonde war correspondent and a pair of Nisei bar hostesses (one of whom does a striptease). The movie does not make any commentary on martial law in Hawaii, nor is the associated curfew. Finally, Guy is sent into action on Saipan (albeit the filming was done in Okinawa), as a Japanese translator.

© 2010 Greg Robinson

films Hollywood (Los Angeles, Calif.) prejudices race war World War II
About the Author

Greg Robinson, a native New Yorker, is Professor of History at l'Université du Québec À Montréal, a French-language institution in Montreal, Canada. He is the author of the books By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans (Harvard University Press, 2001), A Tragedy of Democracy; Japanese Confinement in North America (Columbia University Press, 2009), After Camp: Portraits in Postwar Japanese Life and Politics (University of California Press, 2012), Pacific Citizens: Larry and Guyo Tajiri and Japanese American Journalism in the World War II Era (University of Illinois Press, 2012), and The Great Unknown: Japanese American Sketches (University Press of Colorado, 2016), as well as coeditor of the anthology Miné Okubo: Following Her Own Road (University of Washington Press, 2008). Robinson is also coeditor of the volume John Okada - The Life & Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy (University of Washington Press, 2018).

His historical column “The Great Unknown and the Unknown Great,” is a well-known feature of the Nichi Bei Weekly newspaper. Robinson’s latest book is an anthology of his Nichi Bei columns and stories published on Discover Nikkei, The Unsung Great: Portraits of Extraordinary Japanese Americans (University of Washington Press, 2020). It was recognized with an Association for Asian American Studies Book Award for Outstanding Achievement in History Honorable Mention in 2022. He can be reached at

Updated March 2022

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