Thursday, April 30, 2015

Classic Movie Review: The Steel Helmet (1951)

The Steel Helmet—a 1951, low-budget film by Samuel Fuller—features one of the first popular culture reference to Japanese American incarceration. In this post, Densho's Content Director, Brian Niiya, presents a film history and analysis.

I’ve been a big fan of the acclaimed B-movie director Samuel Fuller since seeing his 1960s films Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss many years ago. I became an even bigger fan after seeing his remarkable The Crimson Kimono (1959), a murder mystery/love story starring James Shigeta as an LA cop and set in Little Tokyo during Nisei Week. His movies tackle provocative themes and often feature interracial casts; as B-movies, they also follow genre conventions in being fast moving, action packed and sometimes crass and exploitative as well. They are never dull.

He was also something of an Asia-phile with no less than four of his movies either set in Asia or Asian America. Besides Crimson Kimono, there was House of Bamboo (1955), set in occupied Japan and starring “Shirley Yamaguchi” (aka Ri Koran and Yoshiko Otaka); China Gate (1957), the first Hollywood film set in Vietnam; and the subject of this essay, The Steel Helmet (1951), the first Hollywood film to depict the Korean War.

(I’m also fascinated by Yamaguchi, whose various incarnations include Nisei pin-up girl, superstar singer, Japanese propagandist in occupied China, wife of Isamu Noguchi (and with him, part of the model "Nisei" couple), American movie star; and postwar Japanese politician, among other things. But we’ll leave her for another time.)

Samuel Fuller was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1912 and moved to New York with his family after his father died when he was eleven. As a young teenager, he began to sell newspapers, which led to his becoming a copy boy, then a crime reporter for the New York Evening Graphic, a notorious scandal sheet, at age 17. Intrigued by California, he headed west in the mid 1930s and eventually broke into Hollywood ghostwriting screenplays for established screenwriters. After serving in World War II—including landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day—he established himself as a screenwriter in Hollywood under his own name. Independent producer Robert Lippert gave him a chance to direct his own screenplays in 1948, beginning with I Shot Jesse James.

The Steel Helmet was his third movie for Lippert and proved to be a turning point for his career. As with his other early movies, it was shot quickly and on a low budget, with Griffith Park in Los Angeles standing in for Korea. Filmed over the course of ten days in October of 1950, the movie’s budget was just $104,000.

The movie centers on a grizzled World War II veteran named Zack, played by newcomer Gene Evans. As the movie begins, he is the lone survivor when his platoon is slaughtered by the enemy; shot in the head, the bullet pierced his helmet but rattled around inside, leaving him unharmed. He is discovered and unbound by a South Korean orphan boy (William Chun) of around twelve who follows him despite Zack's discouragement. The pair come across another lone soldier, an African American medic, before coming across a lost unit assigned to set up a surveillance post in a Buddhist temple. The group eventually finds the temple and a lone North Korean soldier is discovered in it after he kills one of the Americans. When the boy—whom Zack and men become attached to despite themselves—is shot by an attacker, the captured soldier—now a potentially valuable POW—makes a sarcastic remark about a note the boy had written wishing he could get Zack to like him. Zack impetuously shoots and kills the prisoner. The soldiers subsequently repel an enemy attack, though only four survive.

It is a familiar trope in war movies, westerns, and other genres: the diverse group of misfits and survivors thrown together by chance who overcome their personal differences to band together and successfully achieve their mission. The group here is particularly diverse; as one contemporary reviewer sardonically observed, "... the infantry has assembled in brotherhood a group of men representing every American type except the anti-vivisectionist."

Two are racial minorities: Corporal Thompson, the African American medic played by James Edwards, and Sergeant Tanaka, a Nisei character played by Richard Loo. (Loo, a Chinese American actor born in Maui, was best known for playing Japanese enemy figures in movies during and about World War II and had a role in the infamous Little Tokyo U.S.A.) Both are portrayed as exceedingly competent and cool under fire in contrast to many of the other men. As a seasoned World War II vet like Zack, Tanaka stoically repels a sniper attack while the other men run for cover. Later, when a cowardly lieutenant accidentally pulls the pin from a grenade and panics, Tanaka cooly resets it.

The Steel Helmet (1951)

Both are also targeted by the Communist POW played by Harold Fong. When guarded by each, the POW points out the discrimination each faces in the U.S. in the attempt to covert them to his side or at least to discourage them. The dialogue with Tanaka is worth quoting in full:

POW: You got the same kind of eyes I have.

Tanaka: Umm?

POW: You got the same…

Tanaka: I heard you. So what?

POW: They hate us because of our eyes

Tanaka: Major—you got a long hike ahead of you in the morning. You better get some shut eye

POW: Doesn't it make you feel like a traitor?

Tanaka: For a little guy with a lot of combat time, major, you surprise me. Don't you guys know when you're licked?

POW: I surprise you? They threw Japanese Americans into prison camps during the last war, didn't they? Perhaps even your parents. Perhaps even you.

Tanaka: (pause) You rang the bell that time. They did.

POW: (smile) And some of you had to pass for Filipinos to get a job. I know.

Tanaka: Major, you're getting sloppy as a con artist.

POW: Con? What is con?

Tanaka: I was. Strictly for the birds. That's you majordomo, strictly for the birds

POW: Jaa, you Niseis are incredible. You make no sense.

Tanaka: If I wasn't in the army and you weren't a POW, I'd…. ahh, in our country we have rules, even about war.

POW: (chuckles): Were you one of those idiots who fought in Europe for "your" country?

Tanaka: 442nd Combat Team. And you know what? Over 3,000 of us idiots got the Purple Heart. You can't figure that out, major, can you?

POW: No. That's what I don't understand. They call you dirty Jap rats and yet you fight for them. Why?

Tanaka: I've got some hot infantry news for you: I'm not a dirty Jap rat, I'm an American, and if we get pushed around back home, well that's our business. But we don't like it when we get pushed around by… ah, knock off before I forget the articles of war and slap those rabbit teeth of yours out one at a time.

This is likely the first disapproving mention of Japanese American incarceration in a mainstream movie and comes in the context of the rapidly changing mainstream portrayal of Japanese Americans that took place in the decade after the end of World War II. The Steel Helmet wouldn’t even be the only mainstream movie released that year to portray Japanese Americans in a positive light: just a few months later, Go for Broke!, which centers on the exploits of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, would be released.

There are many reasons for the rapidly changing view of Japanese Americans during this time period, but the setting of The Steel Helmet highlights one of the main ones: the Cold War/anti-Communist tenor of the times. In the battle for the hearts and minds of the Third World, racial discrimination undermined the Western cause. The patriotic war veteran Fuller portrayed an American military united across racial lines that comes together to achieve their mission. But unlike many others, he is also willing to point out the racism that still infected American society, explicitly and literally illustrating how it could be used by the enemy to criticize the American way and maybe even to disrupt American unity.

The film opened on January 11, 1951  and there were two somewhat unexpected outcomes. One is that some observers—most notably the anti-Communist New York Daily Mirror columnist Victor Riesel—accused the film and the proudly patriotic Fuller of promoting Communism. In interviews and in his autobiography, Fuller recounts being called to the Pentagon and grilled over the content of his film. The key objections were that the soldiers were not portrayed in a heroic fashion—many were portrayed as cowardly or incompetent—that the main character shoots the POW and goes unpunished for doing so, and that U.S. racial discrimination is criticized. The other is that the low budget film was a substantial financial success. Because Fuller worked for a share of the profits, the film ended up making him a wealthy man (in his autobiography, he reports clearing $2 million after taxes), which no doubt contributed to his ability to keep making idiosyncratic and personal films for the next two decades.

As for Sergeant Tanaka, we know he survives the movie, but we don’t know much else about him or his background—we don’t even know his first name—except that he or his family went to camp and that he presumably served in the 442nd. But we can credit him with being one of the first to expose America’s concentration camps and the exploits of Nisei soldiers to movie audiences, and for that, he should be remembered.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Crafting Beauty: Dissent by Design in Japanese American Concentration Camps

Following the Rago Arts auction debacle that unfolded earlier this month, new questions emerged about how and why Japanese American incarcerates were producing artwork from within the confines of WWII concentration camps. Here we feature an excerpt from the Densho Encyclopedia that illustrates the importance of crafting and art exhibits in the camps.

Excerpted from the Densho Encyclopedia entry, Arts and Crafts in Camp
Jane E. Dusselier, Iowa State University

In their efforts to create physical comfort, detainees laid the groundwork for remaking mental and physical landscapes of survival by using art to decorate their living quarters. Stripped of their personal possessions, detainees demonstrated their commitment to survival by inhabiting their living units with art in the form of kobu, wood-carvings, ikebana, embroidered wall hangings, and paper flowers. Camp-made crafts articulated fluid, shifting, and multiple stances against oppressive living conditions. By filling their living units with art, detainees made their surroundings look and feel less like spaces of incarceration, an important consideration for parents who struggled to establish even limited amounts of normalcy for their children. Through and with art, detainees spoke loudly voicing commitments to survival by improving their material lots in life and remaking both physical and mental landscapes. In this way art aided detainees in developing understandings of themselves as agents of their own lives. By remaking inside places of imprisonment, detainees identified with each other on the basis of survival and comfort.

Making artificial flowers in the Art School, Jun. 30, 1942, Manzanar concentration camp, California. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, Ctrl. #: NWDNS-210-G-C900; NARA ARC #: 538182; WRA; Photographer Dorothea Lange.
Artificial flowers were one popular way to make living quarters more hospitable. Careful to save colorful pages from catalogs and magazines, women transformed the paper into flowers and then sewed them onto muslin covered balls stuffed with wadded paper, sewing scraps, or discarded bedding materials. Measuring approximately six inches in diameter, these artificial flower arrangements were hung from ceilings and walls of living units. Other women created similarly flowered art forms from silk scraps.[19] Women imprisoned at Poston made artificial chrysanthemums, gardenias, irises, sweetpeas, cherry blossoms, lilacs, and carnations from colored paper that once lined apple and orange crates. Miwako Oano described her friend's flowers as "so beautiful and so realistic that when I come home every day, my first impulse is to inhale the sweet fragrance one would expect to find emanating from such loveliness."[20]
Ikebana was an important art form in all ten concentration camps, lining shelves and resting on tables in the living quarters of detainees. At risk of over simplifying this complex and deeply theoretical art form, ikebana is grounded in the belief that the lives of flowers and the lives of humans are inseparable, with the style, size, shape, texture, and color of both arrangements and containers carrying great meaning. In addition to using empty space to communicate ideas, ikebana artists attach significance to the location of arrangements and the occasions for which they are created. Along with flowers, a great diversity of materials are used including, but not limited to: branches, vines, leaves, grasses, berries, fruit, seeds, and dried or wilted plants, each conveying meaning of their own. Imprisoned Japanese Americans demonstrated great skill adapting traditional forms of ikebana to their concentration camp landscapes.[21]
Many detainees sustained and created new bonds among themselves by exhibiting their artwork. Serving as webs of collectivities, the exhibits best demonstrated the diversity of art created by imprisoned Japanese Americans. In these display spaces, they gathered to participate in complicated, colorful, and rich visual conversations that revealed inhuman treatments, economic exploitations, and dislocations encompassed by Executive Order 9066. Displaying wide variations in terms of interests, form, materials used, and expressive style, these works of art provoked ideas, resistive practices, and strategies for improving both physical and mental conditions. Here, detainees connected and formed attachments with the purpose of improving their lots in life. Embedded in these artifacts were subversions, with detainees speaking about the control exerted on their lives. For people confined in barren and monochromatic environments, art shows also offered counter landscapes, adding vibrancy and color to camp palates dominated by shades of tan. 

Densho's Content Director, Brian Niiya, adds that "exhibitions of the type that Dr. Allen H. Eaton intended did in fact take place, even if his planned exhibition did not. Perhaps Eaton and others who wanted to facilitate incorporating Japanese Americans into mainstream American communities saw art as a relatively benign way to introduce Japanese Americans to the places where they were being encouraged to resettle, possibly drawing on existing stereotypes of Asian/Japanese proclivity for the arts.
A number exhibitions that included inmate art—both individual shows by the likes of Henry Sugimoto and MinĂ© Okubo and group shows—toured the country in the resettlement and early postwar period. I describe this briefly in the Museum Exhibitions encyclopedia article, but it is an understudied topic."


Visit the Densho Encyclopedia to learn about other commonly produced artworks, art classes, and more.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Book at the Center of the Rago Arts Auction Controversy

This week, a major controversy developed over the Rago Arts and Auction Center's plans to auction off 450 photos and artifacts from WWII era Japanese American concentration camps. The collection was originally curated by historian Allen H. Eaton while he was researching his 1952 book, Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of the Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps. Citizens and organizations mobilized quickly and succeeded in preventing the auction, but questions remain about how the art was collected in the first place and who the rightful owners are now. In an effort to shed light on some of those questions, this post delves into the history of the book and the artwork at the center of the controversy

*The following material has been excerpted from the Densho Encyclopedia; visit the full entry to learn more. 

Dr. Allen H. Eaton, author of Beauty Behind Barbed Wire. From Scene the
Pictorial Magazine Vol. 3 No. 10, February 1952.
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Joe Hamanaka

Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of the Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps is a book by folk art expert Allen H. Eaton that was published by Harper & Brothers in 1952. The lavishly illustrated book was the first to examine the arts and crafts produced by incarcerated Japanese Americans—and one of the first books to examine any aspect of inmate life in the concentration camps. The foreword to the book was written by Eleanor Roosevelt, a friend of the author's.

Known as the "dean of American crafts" and "acknowledged authority on the crafts of various ethnic groups in the United States," Eaton began working for the Russell Sage Foundation, one of the country's largest charitable foundations in 1920, where he would remain for the next 26 years. While there, he established himself as an expert on immigrant life and folk arts, mounting pioneering exhibitions and authoring landmark books including Immigrants Gifts to American Life (1932) and Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands (1937). In 1937, he also worked on the Rural Arts Exhibition in Washington, DC for the Department of Agriculture, which led to his becoming a friend and correspondent of Eleanor Roosevelt.

With the incarceration of West Coast Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II, Eaton approached Dillon Myer, director of the War Relocation Authority (WRA), the agency in charge of administering the camps, about the possibility of documenting the arts and crafts of the inmates and of putting together an exhibition of American ethnic handicrafts that might tour the camps. Though not unsympathetic, Myer declined WRA funding of Eaton's project, inviting him to seek other funders. The Sage Foundation also declined to fund the project, perhaps due in part to Eaton's being near retirement age by that time. Still intrigued by the possibilities of the Japanese American project, he took a vacation in 1945 and visited five of the camps, identifying objects and photographers at those camps. He also found photographers and curatorial assistants at the other four camps to do the same. The photographers included WRA photographers such as Tom Parker, inmate photographers including Toyo Miyatake (who in addition to taking photographs at Manzanar, was dispatched to Poston and Gila River), and local professionals from the area near specific camps.

Eaton had in the meantime secured funding for the project from the Rockefeller Foundation, through the sponsorship of the Society of Japanese Studies, along with the Japan Society. Delayed from finishing the book due to work on other projects—his New England handicrafts book was published in 1949 and he went to Europe in 1950 as part of the Economic Co-operation Administration of the Marshall Plan—he finished the manuscript in 1951. Harper & Brothers, which had published his New England book, agreed to publish the Japanese American book once the Japan Society committed to buying enough copies of it. Beauty Behind Barbed Wire was published on the 10th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, on February 19, 1952. Eaton was 73 years old by the time the book came out.[2]A second edition of the book appeared in 1955, with a new three-page postscript that adds information on the Evacuation Claims Act and the Immigration Act of 1952.[3]

 The core of the 208 page book is made up of 81 sets of photographs on odd numbered pages accompanied by Eaton's explanatory text on the facing even numbered page. The photograph pages—most consist of one large photograph, while others are sets of two or more related images—depict a wide range of creative expression from the WRA camps, ranging from gardens and other external and internal modifications of barrack living spaces to handicrafts, painting and sculpture and a few images of Japanese cultural activity such as bon dance or tea ceremony. Many of the images include camp inmates, whether artists at work, students in art classes, or people enjoying art displays. Eaton's accompanying text, which ranges in length from just a couple of paragraphs to a full page, generally provides the camp specific context of the depicted work along with his own observations, often drawing on and quoting from works on Japanese art and culture.

Read more about Beauty Behind Bars in the Densho Encyclopedia.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Eiichi Edward Sakauye: Impact of the Alien Land Laws

Eiichi Edward Sakauye had extensive farmholdings in San Jose, California, before World War II. In this clip, he talks about how the 1913 Alien Land Law affected California Japanese American immigrants like his father. Eiichi Edward Sakauye's full interview is available in the Densho Digital Archive.

>>View the Archive Spotlight interview excerpt
>>Read the Densho Encyclopedia article on alien land laws