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Still Sinning

Filmmaker Michael Litle
colors in yellow peril

By Gretchen Giles

Your family has been here for generations, farming or keeping store or otherwise doing business. While you may speak the language of your ancestors when at home, out in the world--at school and at work--you speak English, like those other Americans who are your friends, colleagues, and lovers.

Then the United States goes to war with the country from which your parents or grandparents or great-grandparents first came. Because of your hair, your complexion, your very eyes--you are branded as an enemy by those who formerly welcomed you into their homes and classrooms. Simply put, you are a Japanese American enduring the torture-at-home of World War II.

The particulars of Japanese internment during the war--a time in which some 110,000 people were imprisoned and had their homes, businesses, and personal possessions taken from them for the crime of simply being Japanese--is the basis for Sonoma State University Communication Studies professor Michael Litle's short film, The Miyazaki Family: Missing in Action, showing Dec. 4 on KRCB, channel 22.

Based on a short story culled from writer and Sonoma State professor Gerald Haslam's collection That Constant Coyote, Missing in Action chronicles with hallucinogenic effect the events of one Fourth of July holiday in which an Anglo father and son confront the sorrows and mistakes of the past.

Like David Guterson's best-selling story of internment and regret, Snow Falling on Cedars, Haslam's story was evidently prompted by the true-life burning of a Japanese family's home on Puget Sound during the war. This and other small acts of violence resonate in a manner that circle out far beyond the individuals of family and community within which they occur. Presented with strength by Litle and co-director Amy Glazer, Missing in Action argues the thesis that such degradations cannot be erased by time, and that the sins of the father are an inevitably tarry legacy endured by the son. And the grandson.

While waiting for a parade to pass, an older man (Petaluma actor Lou Ganapolar) is surprised by an image thought long forgotten. A woman (Sachiko Makamora), dressed in the traditional garb of the Japanese farm woman, hauls a child's wagon loaded with dumpster-derived lettuce past his truck. He blinks in surprise and she is gone. But as the man drives out to his son's house, drinks a beer in the shade of a backyard tree, and argues with his son (Michael Bellino) about the circumstances of the war fought so long ago at home, she reappears, wandering by the fence, superimposing her plight upon his vision until he is no longer certain that what he has always believed is right really is.

As the two men pass the day in a long and desultory discussion of the mores of the past, the older man begins to question what he has always left as unquestionable. We learn that the Miyazaki family, local farmers and purveyors of a roadside stand, had been ordered from their home to the camps, their son having fought in Italy but having never returned. Coming home themselves after the war, the Miyazakis discover that their home is no more, having been lost to them by a bank demanding mortgage payments from the penury of prison, and then burned by locals enraged at finding a charred American uniform in the abandoned home's fireplace. Surely the Miyazakis were spies.

Informed by images of resonant beauty (the moon seen through the circulating spikes of a windmill), and enlivened by Litle's splendid editing at the film's start, Missing In Action is the first of a series Litle plans to complete that explores the varied natures of cultural identities. Entitled Many Peoples, One Planet--Countering Prejudice, this project is intended as an educational tool, and this must be kept in mind while viewing its pilot effort.

The winner of CINE's Golden Eagle award and of the Silver Apple awarded by the National Educational Media Festival, Missing in Action is overly earnest but clear. There are no muddy intentions here. The entire Miyazaki family ends up missing--whether physically or psychically, while the Caucasian families soften in the internal rot caused by the rashness and stupidity of their betrayals.

While he may regret the actions of the past, the arguing son, like all the sons and daughters born to immigrants on this soil, is inescapably tied to the mistakes and atrocities of the past. There is no going back.


The Miyazaki Family: Missing in Action plays Wednesday, Dec. 4, at 9:30 p.m. KRCB, channel 22.

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From the November 27-December 4, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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