Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Dec. 8, 1996.
A dark chapter of Utah and American history — the internment of U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II — is being preserved thanks to a brave act of filmmaking that has received federal recognition. Home movies shot surreptitiously by an internee of the Topaz War Relocation Authority center in Topaz, Utah, from 1943 to 1945, were added Wednesday to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.
The images are not of barbed wire and armed sentries. Instead, they show the day-to-day life — gardening, church services, dining-hall duty — of the Japanese-Americans who lived at the desert camp 16 miles west of Delta.
“Most of the shots look peaceful and almost happy because whenever I took shots of evacuees, they would ham it up and smile,’’ wrote Dave Tatsuno, who shot the 8mm footage, in a note to the Library of Congress. “The camera shots, thus, do not fathom the emotions hidden within the evacuees — the fear, the loneliness, the despair and the bitterness that we felt.’’
By itself, the footage “is very mundane — it’s the sort of home movie you might see in any other time and any other city, except that they’re shot in the circumstances of the internment camp,’’ said Pat Loughney, curator of the Library of Congress’ film programs.
The National Film Registry, founded by an act of Congress in 1988, aims to promote preservation of movies that have “historical,
cultural and aesthetic significance.’’ Each year, experts select 25 American films — this year’s honorees include “M*A*S*H,’’ “Woodstock’’ and the original “Flash Gordon’’ serial — to add to the list. The registry now boasts 200 titles, from classics like “Casablanca’’ and “The Wizard of Oz’’ to obscure art films, from Yiddish and early African-American movies to Bugs Bunny’s “What’s Opera, Doc?’’
“Home movies are a legitimate part of America’s film heritage,’’ Loughney said, and including “Topaz’’ in the registry declares “the breadth of America’s film heritage is more than just the Hollywood feature film.’’ “Topaz’’ is only the second home movie on the registry; the first was Abraham Zapruder’s footage of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Tatsuno, now 83, was and still is a store owner in San Jose, Calif. He was turned on to home movies in 1938, soon after the untimely death of a close friend.
“He thought he’d never see [his friend] again. Two years later, here he sees him again in a home movie,’’ said Karen Ishizuka, senior curator of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, who discovered Tatsuno’s films and is acting as his news media liaison. “He was so touched by that, he said, ‘If the magic of home movies can reunite me with my friend, I want to do home movies.’ ‘’
After Pearl Harbor, Japanese-Americans on the West Coast had to turn in items deemed contraband — including cameras, shortwave radios, transmitters, swords and guns. Rather than give his 8mm camera to the police, Tatsuno loaned it to a friend in Oakland for the duration of the war.
Tatsuno and nearly 8,000 Japanese-Americans from the West Coast were sent to Topaz. Tatsuno managed the dry-goods division of the War Relocation Authority’s Co-op. When he told a co-worker, Walter Honderick, about his prized camera, Honderick told Tatsuno he would arrange to bring it into camp.
“He brought it to my barrack and said: ‘Dave, here’s your camera — just be careful where you take your shots. I wouldn’t get too close to the [barbed-wire] fence,’ ‘’ Tatsuno wrote.
While on a Chicago buying trip for the Co-op, Tatsuno bought rolls of Kodachrome film, a scarce commodity in wartime. Instead of sending the film to be processed in Los Angeles (inside the Western Defense Command Zone, where mail was subject to inspection), he arranged to have it mailed from Salt Lake City and returned to his brother, then a student at the University of Utah. “He would then give the processed films to someone coming into the camp,’’ Tatsuno wrote. “It was sheer luck.’’
Because the films were shot secretly, there are no images of sentries or watch towers. Because they were shot in Kodachrome, Tatsuno wrote, “they tend to make the scene more colorful than the bleak, dusty and arid wasteland it actually was.’’ They were never intended to be documentaries, he stressed, but as home movies focused on his family and friends.
Ishizuka has tried to gather photos and movies for her museum since 1989. Finding the Topaz films was “kind of a sleuthing job,’’ as she met members of Tatsuno’s family, including one Denver member who acted, she said, as “the unofficial family historian.’’ The Topaz films were first displayed at the Japanese American National Museum in 1994.
When home-movie equipment was first marketed in 1924, Ishizuka said, Japanese-Americans “naturally gravitated toward that new technology.’’ Photography was a popular hobby in Japan, and the Alien Exclusion Act — which curtailed Japanese immigration to the United States — may have prompted Japanese-Americans to send their recorded images to their relatives in the old country.
“For specific regions, and especially for people of color in this country who have not been documented through the mainstream media throughout the years . . ., home movies really provide the only moving-image documentation that we have,’’ said Ishizuka, who has testified before the National Film Preservation Board on the historic value of home movies. “This stuff is getting tossed out daily. Most people’s reaction is, ‘Oh, well, you don’t want this stuff. It’s only family. I’m not important.’ At this point in history, it becomes more than just personal home movies. They really do reflect a community, a time, a life that has passed.’’
Tatsuno remains a home-movie buff. When Ishizuka finally met him in person a few years ago, she said, he walked into her office with his camcorder rolling. Tatsuno, an avid scuba diver, will take an underwater video camera around the Bahamas in April, Ishizuka said.
Tatsuno’s hope for the Topaz footage was for those who endured the camps “to leave with the sansei [American-born descendants] ... the spirit of the Japanese-American community,’’ he wrote. “I hope when you will look at the scenes, . . . you will look at the spirit of the people. You will see a people trying to reconstruct a community despite overwhelming obstacles.’’