Man of memories: Dave Tatsuno reflects on his time in the internment camps for a new documentary by Christina Lim.
Dave Tatsuno of San Jose took color footage of the Japanese-American internment camps
By Richard von Busack
AMID THE film archives of the Library of Congress, there are only two home movies. One was taken by Abraham Zapruder, recording an incident in Dallas 43 years ago this November. The other is a series of amateur movies made by a man who spent most of his life in San Jose. Christina Lim's Dave Tatsuno: Movies and Memories (which airs Nov. 14 at 8pm on KTEH-54) is a study of a local man who defied Army regulations and filmed the inside of the Topaz Relocation Camp in Utah during World War II. Photographing these irreplaceable images was only one incident in a long, well-spent life. In 1942, everyone in the United States who was at least one-eighth Japanese was ordered to report for internment. Tatsuno and his family were sent to the camp at Topaz, 150 miles south of Salt Lake City. Since Tatsuno had experience as a merchant, he spent the duration supervising the 21-person staff of the Topaz Consumer's Co-op Dry Goods Store. Tatsuno was allowed to travel out of the camp to visit wholesalers and stock up the store, and thus he was able to acquire film stock for his forbidden camera.
His 8 mm movies, titled Topaz Memories, provide a candid record of the camps: "Not a documentary," Tatsuno says. "I was merely taking family shots." He was a very basic filmmaker, stopping to admire flamboyant sunrises and sunsets in the desert, as well as dust storms or snowfalls. His camera is attuned to small incidents: the baking of moji cakes for a festival, the cloth carps flapping in the wind to mark Boy's Day, and the groups of men, dressed in coats and ties despite the moonscape around them, lining up for self-improvement classes. In interviews, Tatsuno is a spruce, correct old gent of 90 in a plaid shirt and a bolo tie. He kept making home movies until the end. After being dazzled by Jacques Cousteau's The Silent World, he became one of the first scuba divers in the Bay Area. In one of his films, we see him urging away an unpleasantly large shark. A lifelong ambassador for the YMCA, Tatsuno was a cornerstone of the local swimming program.
The inner Tatsuno is a little more elusive. He held off doubt with mottoes: "A samurai never cries," and the appropriate verses from Kipling's "If ..." The man's darker side is recalled by three of his children, Arlene, Sheridan and Valerie, who are interviewed at the family's Nichi Bei Bussan store in San Jose's Japantown. Virtually abandoned by his mother, the elder Tatsuno also suffered the loss of his first-born son to anesthesia shock during a routine operation. He is also remembered as a lover, because of his passionate letters to his wife. Their courtship was as uncommon as Tatsuno was; theirs was a love match, not an arranged marriage. Tatsuno took a last trip to Topaz with his family. The images are wintery, not just because of the contrasting surface of Topaz Memories' color-saturated Kodachrome with the pale, sterile videotape. Tatsuno looks at the desert where the long-gone buildings stood, and he addresses it as if it were a public meeting: "Lots of ghosts in the past," he says, as if he can't quite hear them anymore. "Now we are closing a chapter." Tatsuno died last January, but not before learning that his films will be preserved for as long as there is an America.
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