By Nick Schager
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Of all the atrocities committed by the United States government, the internment of Japanese Americans in prison camps during World War II deserves a spot in the top ten. The legal and moral implications of this dark period in our history have been explored by civil libertarians. But what about the personal experience of life in the camps and after? Filmmaker Emiko Omori, who won an award for Rabbit in the Moon at the 1999 Sundance festival, talks to camp survivors and historians. But the heart of her film is the compelling and spellbinding story she tells about how the internment experience left its mark on her family.
In 1942, along with 120,000 other Japanese Americans, Omori, her two sisters, and her parents were forced to leave their homes in California, where Omori's mother and father ran a successful strawberry farm. They were herded into trains and taken to the Poston Relocation Center, in Arizona, a camp area with communal toilets and crowded living space. Three and a half years later, the Omoris were released. Issued a $25 government stipend "to replace all that we had lost," the family (who had $10,000 in the bank before the war) resumed their lives. Or did they? Their father became withdrawn and depressed. Their mother died at age 34, the year after their release. Omori and her older sister, Chizuko Omori, a co-producer of the film, learned to push the dark times, even the memory of their own mother, to the back of their minds, at great cost. As the filmmaker puts it: "The government alienated me from my cultural past. I learned to despise many things Japanese."
Rabbit in the Moon weaves the two documentary traditions of memoir and reporting to show how history violently intersects with individual lives. (The title refers to a Japanese metaphor that comes to symbolize the ways in which the U.S. government wanted Japanese-American citizens to betray their ethnic identity.) Omori features her own home movies in the film. Scenes of happy, prosperous Japanese-American families seen celebrating the large and small moments of their lives give way to images of people trying to make the best of their new existence amid the cinder block buildings of the Arizona camps, where there was no formal medical care or education. This footage stands in sharp contrast to government films, which, in condescending tones, cite the pleasant living conditions and modern plumbing of the camps.
Omori also looks at the strife within the Japanese-American community, beginning with the shift of power from the immigrant parents to their American-born children. She explores the ways in which the infamous loyalty questionnaire, given to detainees in 1943, was a precursor to the tactics used against so-called communists during the McCarthy era. And she revisits the irony of drafting Japanese Americans to fight for a nation that had stripped them and their families of basic Constitutional rights. She also talks to the principals involved in the Manzanar Resistance at a camp in California, where two Japanese-American teens were killed on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Omori brings a cinematographer's eye to her own history, replacing the murky communal memory of these years, which she represents with several seconds of black screen, with a new image: a broken pottery shard left behind in the camps, lying next to a delicate origami crane.
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