Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Making It Worse

Photo courtesy of MTV and Viacom International Inc.

By Densho's Content Director Brian Niiya

Japanese Americans often object when journalists, screenwriters, or others minimize or distort some aspect of the wartime incarceration. But should we also object when the incarceration is depicted in a way that makes it worse than it was? This question has come up most recently in criticisms leveled at the musical play Allegiance, most notably by filmmaker Frank Abe on his invaluable resisters.com website and blog. 

I thought of this when I recently viewed two episodes of dramatic TV shows largely devoted to plot lines that take place in American concentration camps during World War II. The first is an episode of Hawaii Five-0 titled "Ho'onani Makuakane" (Honor thy Father) that aired last December. The plot involves an elderly Sansei man named David Toriyama who is caught trying to shoot an even older World War II veteran. It turns out that Toriyama believes that the old man killed his father while the family was interned at the Honouliuli camp in central Oahu. The rest of the episode sees the police officers investigate and ultimately solve the crime, with frequent flashbacks of internment at Honouliuli in recreating the crime scene.

The second is an episode of the MTV drama Teen Wolf titled "The Fox and the Wolf" that first aired a couple of months ago. The show is about a typical teenager at a suburban California high school who also happens to be a werewolf. A major subplot of the series' third season is the apparent possession of key character by a nogitsune, a type of malicious Japanese fox spirit. This episode explains the origins of the nogitsune, which turns out to involve a secret Japanese American concentration camp and the mother of a newly arrived Japanese American student. As with the Hawaii Five-0 episode, we get numerous flashback scenes that take place at this camp.

In both shows, the producers take great liberties with the facts of incarceration, portraying the concentration camps both inaccurately and in a manner that makes them seem much worse than they really were. In the Hawaii Five-0 episode, the Nisei father of David Toriyama, a history teacher at Punahou School, is arrested while teaching class, an unlikely but theoretically possible scenario. But then, police and armed guards arrest ten-year-old David, his mother, and older brother Kenji, giving them minutes to pack their belongings. They are then taken to Honouliuli, where they are incarcerated in tents. While playing ball with David, his father sees someone in their tent and goes to investigate, we hear a gunshot and David goes to the tent to find his father shot to death and his samurai sword (!) stolen.

It seems that the producers chose to conflate the mass incarceration of the West Coast in the continental United States with the limited internment under martial law that took place in Hawai'i. Just about everything that happened to the Toriyamas could not have happened as described: women and children were not summarily arrested and detained in Hawai'i, families were not held at Honouliuli, Japanese American internees were not held in tents there, and they could not possibly have brought a samurai sword into Honouliuli. The arresting officers/agents are brutal—one strikes and knocks down Kenji—they inform the family that the house and whatever they can't carry with them will revert to the government. While some arresting officers may well have been unpleasant, the rest simply didn't happen. Though what actually occurred was bad enough, things are made worse to increase the dramatic impact.

From the historian's perspective, Teen Wolf is far worse. Everything about the "Oak Creek" camp is fantasy. The camp appears to be on the grounds of a large mansion that looks to be borrowed from the set of a horror movie. Inmates appear to live in large mixed-sex quarters in the mansion, with rows of beds lining the walls. The camp infirmary is in a similar large room in the mansion with oil paintings on the walls. When the inmates riot due to suspicions that camp doctors are stealing medical supplies (okay, that part has some basis in reality), a guard is burned to death by a Molotov cocktail thrown by an inmate, leading guards to open fire on the inmates, apparently killing dozens. Later, the dead guard, now possessed by a nogitsune, returns to kill the rest of the inmates. The guard/nogitsune is dispatched by an inmate/kitsune with the samurai sword (!!) she has managed to sneak into the camp. The apparent mass slaughter of Japanese American inmates at Oak Creek and the very existence of the camp is subsequently covered up.

Before we go any further, a small rant: stop with the samurai swords already! Portraying Japanese Americans routinely owning such swords perpetuates a stereotype. And portraying Japanese Americans as (a) wanting to bring the swords into camp and (b) actually doing it stretches credulity. There are other ways to move the plot along.

I guess on the bright side, there is no seppuku, no kamikaze, and no karaoke.

I'm generally pretty tolerant of dramatic license in artistic works if the general intent is in the right place. Even with all the problems noted above, I genuinely enjoyed both shows. The Hawaii Five-0 episode was a very good hour-long police drama, with the requisite amount of suspense and a surprising and touching ending. I'm probably a few decades too old to fully appreciate the Teen Wolf episode, but I do like that a relatively normal Japanese American family is a part of the school community ("normal" of course is relative in this show) and that Tamlyn Tomita gets to chew some scenery as the mother and 900-year-old kitsune. Especially in the case of Teen Wolf, the utter ridiculousness of the camp scenes has be considered in the context of the utter ridiculousness of just about everything else in the show, at least if real life is your baseline.

At the same time, it seems like a missed opportunity here. Would it really have killed the producers to have made a token effort at something resembling the reality of camp (in Teen Wolf) or accurately portraying the circumstances of martial law and selective internment in Hawai'i (in Hawaii Five-0)? What really did happen to Japanese Americans was bad enough. Why the need to make it worse?