Made in America: Working in the film “American Pastime”
(Originally published in my blog, The Sporkball Journals, on July 20, 2008.)
There is no small irony in the fact I now live just a 2-hour drive away from where my Grandparents, Father and Aunts were once imprisoned. On the other hand, you could call it a kind of fate that allowed me a unique opportunity to “experience” what happened to them during WWII. As mentioned in an earlier post, I grew up in a neighborhood that had not been so friendly towards people of Japanese heritage.
Dad was 12 years old in 1942 when he was sent to the Topaz Camp near the tiny town of Delta, UT. To the end of his days, he never got over the bitter memories of being rounded up like cattle and herded into barbed-wire enclosures. Except for what they could physically carry, everything they owned had to be left behind. Once they arrived, multiple families lived together in those tar paper and wood barracks in the middle of the desert. They froze in the winter and scorched in the summer. People died from food poisoning, lack of medical care, gunshot and broken hearts.
Dad almost never spoke of those days and if he did, it was with open rage. Who could blame him? I cannot imagine the humiliation of a young boy having to watch as his own father is completely emasculated before his eyes. As a daughter, the pain of Dad’s torment always kept me from pressing the question, “What happened?”
One night I arrived at the ballpark, where producers and casting directors were seeking extras for a film about baseball during the war. Talking to producer Barry Rosenbush (High School Musical 1, 2, 3 & 4), I learned the film was called American Pastime, and would explore the experiences of two American families—one Caucasian, one Japanese—through the lens of baseball. I decided to accept my destiny; I signed up in memory of Dad, who’d passed away a couple years earlier.
The film was independently produced by established names in the film industry, including the aforementioned Barry Rosenbush, Tom Gorai of “Arlington Road,” Terry Spazek of “Dream Team” and Kerry Yo Nakagawa of “Diamonds in the Rough.” Director Desmond Nakano was director/writer of “White Man’s Burden” and writer of “American Me.” Director of Photography Matt Williams had filmed episodes of “Touched By an Angel” and “Big Love.”
BTW, Matt has a huge gallery of gorgeous on-location/on-set photos posted at his website. [Note: Alas, this website is gone.]
The actors included several familiar faces: Gary Cole, Sarah Drew, Jon Gries, Leonardo Nam, Aaron Yoo and local reporter/celebrity Big Budah. Japanese actors Masatoshi Nakamura and Judy Ongg portrayed the immigrant parents of the Japanese-American family. Huge celebrities in Japan, they remarked on how pleasant it was to walk around Salt Lake City without being mobbed by people and cameras. They did cause a stir one night among the chefs of a downtown Japanese eatery when the producers took them out to dinner.
The location shoots for the camp scenes were the grueling. Every day we’d stand around for 10-12 hours in the Skull Valley desert. It was July. One day the temperature reached 108° in the shade. I stood there burning up in the sun and heat, my skin and hair covered in grit, head and feet aching from fatigue. On top of which, I was starving because lunch was 6 hours ago.
“I can’t wait to get out of these filthy clothes, go home and take a shower,” I kept telling myself.
And then it hits me. When the day is over I get to leave. For Dad, this was it. I stopped feeling sorry for myself.
I was astonished at how many of the older extras had actually been internees. If you watch the movie, Alice Hirai is the tiny woman who hands the banner of “one-thousand stitches” to Emi Nakamura (Judy Ongg), who in turn gives it to her oldest son Lane (Leonardo Nam) just before he boards the truck to join the U.S. Army. Alice was two years old when she and her family were sent to Topaz. A retired nurse, Alice (far right in the photo) spends her time visiting Utah schools to talk about her family’s experiences during the internment. Several of the older extras had served in the U.S. Army—the All-Nisei 100th/442nd (Europe) or Military Intelligence Services (Pacific).
When I bumped into John Owada on the set, I asked why in the world he was doing this. He replied that his mom had been in Topaz. He was doing this movie for her, just as he’d enlisted to fight in the Pacific campaign for her sake. So there he was, nearly 80 years old, standing in the hot sun all day and wearing a long winter coat. The big, heavy coat was necessary to hide his oxygen tank and nasal tube. He was also carrying a surprisingly heavy suitcase. Most of the rest of the luggage props were empty.
As soon as there was a short break in shooting, I went to Assistant Director Kyle LeMire and gave him an earful about making John carry luggage on top of everything else in this heat.
Kyle looked at me, “Uh, I think that’s his suitcase. It’s got his spare oxygen tank.”
“What?! Oh, great.”
Kyle paired me up with John for the rest of the day, “Would you mind keeping an eye on him for me?”
In between scenes, I would wrestle John out of that d*mn coat and prop up his suitcase on the ground so he could sit for a bit. As the day grew later and John wearier, I became terrified he would stumble and fall on the loose gravel.
I kept asking, “Are you sure you don’t want to rest in the shade? Are you alright? Can you do another scene?”
He would only nod, grab his suitcase and off he’d go.
Each day was filled with emotions for crew and cast. Director Desmond Nakano’s father fought for the 442nd; his mother and several relatives were in camp. Kerry Yo Nakagawa’s uncle, Johnny Nakagawa played against the Babe Ruth/Lou Gehrig barnstorming team in 1927. Another uncle, Lefty Nishijima, pitched against Jackie Robinson during collegiate play in 1937. Japanese-American ballplayers were being actively scouted by major league teams during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Had it not been for WWII, perhaps one of these outstanding athletes might have broken the MLB color barrier before Jackie.
Video credit: Nisei Baseball Research Project
Many of the extras, like me, had relatives who had been locked up in Topaz. In fact, quite a number of the Japanese families living in Utah today are descendants of Topaz camp detainees. After being released in 1945, many had nowhere else to go because their homes and real property had been confiscated or stolen during their long absence. Grandpa was among the lucky ones—he managed to retain a portion of his hard-earned land, which is probably why I was raised in California rather than Utah. I often imagined Grandma must have been close to my age when this happened to her.
I cannot describe the eeriness of standing around in the hot, dusty wind surrounded by barbed wire fences, guard towers and soldiers with assault rifles. More than once during the long days of shooting, I broke down and cried. The scene where Director Watson (Jeff Herr, next to Alice in photo) comes into the barracks on the first night was one such moment. The sting of his words, “I hope we can make things as comfortable as possible,” was just too much and I lost it. Fortunately, I was way in the back for that scene so you can’t see the angry tears running down my face.
In a lighter moment, we were asked to gather on the bleachers for a 7th-inning stretch scene. The director asked if anyone knew the words. All those years of singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame came to mind and my lone hand shot up among the “camp detainees.” I got to lead the group in rehearsal, although I believe the scene was cut from the final film.
I am grateful for the time spent among the ghosts of Dad’s past. When it was over, I felt as though I had participated in a spiritual “house-cleaning” of personal demons that had tormented him his entire life. My hope for him, and maybe a few more angry spirits, the endless cycle of suffering could end; they could stop roaming the earth and get some rest. Bye for now!