Look up “Nisei” in the IMDB database and only four titles pop up. Surprisingly, perhaps, the first was made in 1951, when World War II movies were being turned out like so many Fords in Dearborn. The most recent, “Only the Brave,” is struggling for distribution.
“Go for Broke!” told the story of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The highly decorated unit was formed in 1943, with the permission of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and would join the 100th Infantry Battalion in northern Africa. Both were comprised entirely of Japanese-American soldiers, many of whom had been on maneuvers with the Hawaiian Territorial Guard on that day in December that would forever live in infamy.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, second-generation Americans were treated by their elected representatives as if they were under the direct command of Emperor Hirohito. The 5,000 Japanese-Americans who already were serving in the armed forces were stripped of any official duties, while 120,000 civilian Nisei were forced to give up their homes and businesses and move into internment camps.
The 1,400 men summarily discharged from the Hawaiian Territorial Guard would form the nucleus of the 100th Infantry Battalion. The 442nd would be made up Nisei from Hawaii and the internment camps on the mainland. As part of the long slog to victory, these units would see intense action in northern Africa, Italy and southern France.
For those us who weren’t taught the heroics of the 100th/442nd in high school, it’s important to remember that Americans of German and Italian descent were neither uprooted nor prevented from serving their country. Indeed, it wasn’t until NBC aired “Farewell to Manzanar,” in 1976, that many Americans of all ages knew the internment camps even existed.
But, then, the same could be said about the exploits of the Navajos who enlisted in the Marine Corps so that the intricacies of their native language could be exploited in the island-to-island push to VJ Day. Neither were many American students taught to appreciate the efforts of the Tuskegee Airmen, the racism faced by black servicemen after President Harry integrated the armed forces, or the great sacrifices made in the Civil War by the black soldiers of the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.
If it weren’t for such movies as “Go for Broke!,” “Windtalkers,” “Glory,” “The Tuskegee Airman,” “Men of Honor” and “Only the Brave” many Americans would continue to belief that our wars were fought solely by whites of various European ancestries and religions. Several decades worth of textbook publishers routinely ignored the contributions of minority Americans, as well as anti-fascist partisans and German and Japanese resistance groups. More credit was given the Sicilian Mafia – and their American brethren — for the liberation of Europe than the Nisei and code-talkers of the Choctaw, Comanche and Sioux nations.
(Perhaps, if President Bill Clinton had learned how many American pilots were rescued by Serbian fighters in World War II, he wouldn’t have been so enthusiastic about decimating Serbia’s infrastructure in the latest Balkan war. To make his belated point about genocide, Clinton ignored intelligence pointing to the presence of Al Qaeda in Bosnia and Albanian mobsters in Kosovo. But, that’s another movie.)
Not having seen “Go for Broke!,” which, then and now, was promoted as if it were more about Van Johnson than Nisei soldiers, I won’t presume to compare it to “Only the Brave.” Both movies explain the background that led to the forming of the 100th/442nd — the former less emphatically than the latter — and each dramatically describes the hellish battle to rescue 275 men of the Texas 36th Division, which had been trapped for more than a week in France’s Vosges Mountains.
Indeed, Lane Nishikawa’s debut project more closely resembles a traditional Hollywood profile in courage than any similar World War II re-creation in decades. Nishikawa’s take is informed by the testimony of survivors, and, as such, rightly focuses on their unique story. This is a movie about the Nisei … not Texas, not Van Johnson, not Audie Murphy,
Made on a budget reported to be in the neighborhood of $1 million, and shot in the wilds of Pasadena and Hollywood, Nishikawa’s only real conceit involves cutaways to the families back home in the camps and memories of life before internment.
The Nisei soldiers are played by, among others, Jason Scott Lee, Mark Dacascos, Yuji Okumoto, Greg Watanabe and Ken Narasaki, with Jeff Fahey and Guy Ecker representing the “Lost Battalion.” Nishikawa also stars as the platoon leader haunted by the death of his father (Pat Morita, in one of his final roles) and the hardships faced by the wives and girlfriends left behind (Tamlyn Tomita, Emily Liu).
Apparently, “Only the Brave” has yet to find a distributor, so it’s making the rounds of festivals and Asian-American institutions. A special screening is scheduled for Sunday, May 7, at 2 p.m., at the Directors Guild of America, 7920 Sunset Blvd. For ticket information, call 213-680-4462, ext. 68.
It was funded in part by grants from the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program and donations from families of veterans who served in the 100/442. — G.D.