Political Film Society - Newsletter #279 - May 15, 2007

May 15, 2007


American PastimeThe film American Pastime, directed by Desmond Nakano, begins in Los Angeles during early 1941, when the happily Americanized Nomura family (portrayals of the director’s parents and grandparents) is entertaining members of the multicultural mix of the city with great expectations for the future, including a baseball scholarship for Lyle (played by Aaron Yoo) to San Francisco State. Then comes December 7 and the order to report to Santa Anita Racetrack for reassignment to an internment camp. Along with approximately 120,000 other Japanese on the West Coast, mostly American-born, family members sell their possessions and are allowed to take only what they can carry. Their assignment is to the Topaz Relocation Center near Abraham, Utah, where some of the filming takes place. Despite the indignities and not always polite treatment, Japanese families use their funds industriously. They construct private quarters within the barracks to which they are assigned, purchase and grow agricultural crops, and the camp comic, Big Budah (played by Budah Hirose), even makes money by fermenting peaches. A few malcontents protest and are hauled away, but the remaining 10,000 create as much normality as possible. Lyle plays the saxophone again, but is too mortified at first by the experience to keep up his strong baseball pitching arm. Quakers enter the camp to provide music and other forms of assistance, including pianist Katie Burrell (played by Sara Drew), who in time falls in love with Lyle. Lyle’s brother Lane (played by Leonardo Nam) decides to join the 442nd Regiment in Europe along with a dozen others. The movie focuses on some difficult moments as well.

For instance, Lyle and his father Kazuo (played by Masatoshi Nakamura) are allowed to go to town for provisions with a military escort, but Lyle sneaks to buy a hamburger, whereupon he is roughed up by two men of the town. Katie’s father Billy (played by Gary Cole) disapproves of the relationship between Katie and Lyle. Lane, returning from the war with a foot injury, tries to get a haircut in town, only to be told “We don’t cut Jap hair,” a line that quotes Senator Daniel Inouye’s experience in the documentary Farewell to Manzanar (1976). Ultimately, baseball brings together the camp, and there is an inevitable match with the town’s baseball team. Big Budah collects a quarter from each resident to wager with the townspeople, who have no capital to match the $2,500, so he accepts the denied haircut as the equivalent bet. As in the case of similar sports-oriented minority acceptance films, from Remember the Titans (2000) to Glory Road (2006), the film reaches a crescendo with the playing of the game, especially Billy Burrell’s surprising change of heart. But what are most impressive are the nuances of American Pastime regarding the way in which Japanese American maintain their dignity and impress the unsophisticated of the small town. Titles at the end indicate that the camps were closed in 1946 and that no Japanese were ever convicted of a single act of sabotage before or during the war. American Pastime revisits the internment camp theme highlighted in Come See the Paradise (1990), but looks more deeply inside the positive elements of the experience. Elderly Japanese viewers of American Pastime in downtown Los Angeles two days after the first commercial release appeared to demonstrate that much healing has taken place over the past sixty years. Indeed, the subsequent success of Japanese Americans in American society calls out for a sequel to American Pastime to trace how America’s most affluent minority group rebuilt their lives. MH