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Reaction: Japanese-American viewers relive memories of the camps, but take issue with the film's white-knight-gets-Asian-damsel motif.

December 22, 1990|HENRY CHU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Film director Alan Parker is no stranger to controversy.

His 1978 "Midnight Express," based on a true story about an American drug smuggler's experiences in a Turkish prison, offended almost everyone in Turkey. His 1987 "Angel Heart" got caught up in a ratings controversy over a graphic, interracial love scene between Mickey Rourke and Lisa Bonet. And his 1988 "Mississippi Burning," loosely based on the Ku Klux Klan killings of three civil-rights workers in the South in the 1960s, created a firestorm of protestations that his depiction of heroic white FBI agents didn't square with the FBI's real role in that case.

His latest film, "Come See the Paradise," leads us into another sensitive issue--the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. And with an interracial romance between an Irish-American labor activist (Dennis Quaid) and a Japanese-American (Tamlyn Tomita) woman in the foreground, Parker seems to be swimming toward the deep end again.

But with plenty of Japanese-American internees still around to judge it, and with memories of the furor over "Mississippi Burning" still fresh, Parker says he made sure he was on solid historical ground.

"I know it to be accurate," Parker says. "I think you would be hard-pressed to find anything wrong with it, and no doubt it was (the controversy over) 'Mississippi Burning' that made me be sure of that. That's not to say there won't be people who will find things they disagree with, of course. But that has to do with the fact that within the Japanese-American community, there are people who disagree amongst themselves."

The film has already been seen by a number of former internees in the Southland, who, in interviews with The Times, uniformly lauded Parker for bringing to the screen a part of American history usually confined to high-school history textbooks. Most agree that his depiction of life in an internment camp hits the mark.

"It sure felt like camp; it really did," says Sue Kunitomi Embrey, a former internee of a camp called Manzanar in Inyo County. Embrey advised Parker on various details and visited the movie set built near Palmdale.

"I stood in the middle of Main Street (on the set) and I felt like, 'Oh my gosh, I'm back in Manzanar,' " she says. "The barracks were very real, and so were the watchtowers. I was very moved."

"I felt like I was reliving those times again as I viewed the film," says Harold Harada, a retired Culver City dentist who was 19 when he and members of his family were sent to a camp in Poston, Ariz. "I shed tears almost throughout the film because of the depiction of things I'd gone through--for instance, the hospital scenes and the dances, which is how I met my wife."

Dances? In an internment camp? An incongruous image in the film, perhaps, as is Parker's depiction of carefree, baseball-playing youngsters and a beauty pageant staged in the camp's mess hall, complete with a Japanese-American equivalent of the Andrews Sisters singing, "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree." As one critic wryly put it, "They're having more of a ball than I am." But it is, evidently, historically correct.

"Some of the (young internees) told me they had a good time in the camps, and I can believe that," Embrey recalls. "Everyone made an effort, especially for the young people, to make life as normal as possible."

"We couldn't stay sad all the time, we couldn't sit there and stew in our anger 24 hours a day," says Hiroshi Takusagawa, who spent nearly a year at two internment sites before enlisting in the U.S. Army when he was 19. "The kids, from the teen-agers on down, they had a ball. In camp they'd get up, go eat breakfast without their parents, go to school, and right after school they had nothing to do but play with each other. And as far as the older teen-agers and younger adults went, we'd organize dances. Many a romance blossomed."

But Takusagawa and Harada, both veterans of the war, find fault with the film's emphasis on a camp riot by a group of pro-Japan internees, known as the No-No Boys for their answers to two questions on a loyalty oath administered to all internees over age 17.

"The mob scene was overdone, whereas footage of the patriotic Japanese Americans was limited," says Harada, who served as a combat medic in the 442nd regiment, which was composed entirely of Japanese Americans and went on to become the most highly decorated American combat unit of World War II. "The soldiers, WACs and nurses--their lives should be portrayed more than the mobs with their headbands with the Japanese rising sun on them."

And the profanity-laced speech of some of the characters, especially the young people, is completely inconsistent with Japanese-American culture of the period, Harada notes--a point on which most other internees interviewed agreed.

According to Harada, the four-letter words and torrid love scenes between the Quaid and Tomita characters "denigrate the true story of what the Japanese Americans suffered in the camps."

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