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Behind the Scenes of “Old Man River” (DVD)

Throughout his life, the late actor Jerry Fujikawa (ChinatownM*A*S*H,Taxi) harbored a secret that even his children didn’t know about.

As one of Hollywood’s busiest Asian-American performers, he spent over three decades in the public eye. But privately, few were able to penetrate his characteristic silence about his past. Hidden in the shadows of his young adulthood during World War II was a surprise that would leave his daughter stunned and questioning everything she thought she knew about him—and about herself.

In the film Old Man River (adapted from her acclaimed, one-woman, off-Broadway play and now available on DVD), writer-performer Cynthia Gates Fujikawa recounts the mystery that surrounded her father and the unexpected journey it later inspired. Moving, emotional, mordantly witty and concluding in triumph, the story has touched audiences with its universal themes.

“I’ve frequently had the experience of people, after seeing the play or the film, coming up to me to talk about themselves and not about the work itself,” Fujikawa explains. “It made them think of Uncle Louie or Grandma so-and-so, who’d spent time in Siberia and never talked about it. Or that relative they never found. Or that conversation with Dad they always meant to have. And I find their sharing these stories with me the ultimate compliment, because it’s apparent they see reflections of themselves in my family’s experiences.”

And it was self-reflection that also helped Fujikawa find the right narrative framework for Old Man River.

“The biggest challenge in writing the piece was finding my place in the story,” she says. “Growing up, I always thought that the story of the wartime internment of Japanese Americans was obscured from the public. And my dad’s tale was a particularly dark one that also was an internment story, so I was determined to tell it. Yet after I began, I realized that it wasn’t his story that I was telling. It was mine: the story of my identity. And finding one’s identity is something that everyone does, something that the average Joe can empathize with.”

Old Man River was directed, photographed and edited by Emmy award-winning documentarian Allan Holzman, who worked hard to ensure that Fujikawa’s intensely personal stage play made an effective transition to film.

“We videotaped the performance during the final week of the Los Angeles run,” Fujikawa says. “Allan had the idea of putting the camera onstage. Since I talked to the audience during the performance, I would now talk directly into the camera. It preserved what worked really well in the show, which was a sense of intimacy, like it’s just me and the listener.”

The film has received top honors in prominent film festivals across the nation, and Fujikawa has nothing but praise for her collaborator Holzman.

“Allan became a director by way of being an editor,” she notes. “And the editing is really the other star of the show. After we put the performance footage into the computer, Allan began to request things of me. More family pictures. More clips of Dad’s work as an actor. He would put together a sequence, and then I’d think of an image that would work really well, and the next thing you know we had taken out about a quarter of the original monologue and replaced it with a lot of compelling visuals. Allan was duly acknowledged with an A.C.E. Eddie award by the American Cinema Editors (A.C.E.) for this film.”

Fujikawa says she finds the film’s accolades especially gratifying because of the Japanese American internment’s “extreme relevance” to pressing current issues in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“We’ve had redress, we’ve aired our feelings, we’re all supposedly clear about the wrongs of our history, and now we Americans are being challenged to preserve civil rights and as we ‘defend’ the country all over again,” she remarks. “I don’t think we’re doing such a hot job. But at least we're talking about it a little. That’s progress.”

* * *


Also included in the “Bonus Materials” section of the Old Man River DVD is Day of Remembrance, Cynthia Gates Fujikawa’s short documentary highlighting comparisons between the Japanese American internment and the post-9/11 detentions of Arab Americans and Muslim Americans.

* This article was originally published on the Japanese American National Museum Store Online.

© 2004 Japanese American National Museum

actor cynthia gates fujikawa film internment jerry fujikawa migration nisei Old Man River

About this series

The award-winning Museum Store of the Japanese American National Museum features distinctive Asian American merchandise for all occasions and generations. Their unique product line represents the essence of the Japanese American experience, while also promoting an appreciation of America’s ethnic and cultural diversity. All proceeds from the Museum Store support Museum programs and exhibitions.

The articles in this series were originally written for the Japanese American National Museum’s online store []  to give a deeper understanding of the authors, artists, and traditions featured in the store.