Local filmmaker seeks support to complete AJA war film
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
You can’t go to Bruyères, France, and not be affected by the reverence that the town people have for the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. I’ve been there twice; once in 2009 and then again in 2013. Both times I was part of a group who attended the city’s World War II liberation festivities, which are annually held on October 18th, commemorating the day that the soldiers of mainly Japanese American roots liberated Bruyères from the Nazis.
What strikes you while you attend the wreath laying ceremony atop the monument in the Vosges mountains, and walk in the parade through the city streets, then witness the raising of both the French and the U.S. flags in the center of town, is how organized and timely everything is. The French and the people of Hawai‘i have forged an amazing affiliation over the years, but certainly this doesn’t extend to all traits of both cultures. “Hawaiian time” definitely doesn’t exist in the French phraseology.
The highlight for me was the culmination of the day’s activities where we would gather inside a large room at city hall at which a tribute was made to the “gentle warriors” who saved the town from the hell of Nazi occupation. During my 2009 visit, the event was attended by only one 442nd veteran who could make the trip. But no matter, town officials treated him as if he were a conquering king.
The mayor, quite tall, maybe even 6 foot 3 or so, bent at the waist so that he could appropriately look the old warrior in the eye, who stood only 5 foot 3 inches, if that. In his expression and his gestures, you could tell that the mayor was profusely extending the appreciation of an entire community for something that the veteran took part in over 65 years ago at the time.
It wasn’t just that the town folk turned out to pay homage to this man, who symbolized an entire group of men, but it was the way they did it. There was no idle chatter in the background. No one checked their watch to see how much more time they had to stay there. Everyone present gave their full and undivided attention to all that was going on.
In addition, there was something more that truly amazed me. As I scanned the room, it occurred to me that the great majority of those in attendance had not been born on the day that Bruyères was liberated back in 1944. It meant that the story had been passed from generation to generation; instilled into children and then the children of those children, that no matter what, they were not to forget that they owed their lives and freedom to the courage of these men, many of whom came from a small speck of land in the middle of the Pacific.
You had to be there to appreciate the extent of their respect. I was, and I’ve never forgotten it.
When you see this kind of reverence, it truly hits home that what these men did to free a town, a country, and, for that matter, all of Europe, has to be one of the great heroic stories of all time.
But what was their exact experience like in the war? It is actually a question that still lingers for many today. Like myself and the other members of our extended family, visiting the site of the great liberation battle itself was a way to connect to a past that had not been fully communicated to us. For none of us had heard much from our fathers, or fathers-in-law, or uncles, etc., as to what their exact experience was during the war. In many instances, even the wives of these men were never told either.
These men never liked to talk about themselves in the first place. What they experienced and had to endure during a hell of cold, mud, bullets, bombs, blood, guts, enemies slain and friends lost, would never become suitable dinnertime conversation. So as the years passed on, many family members never really knew what their dad or uncle or even their husband went through. “He never likes to talk about it,” was a common response whenever discussion even remotely transitioned to what happened during the war as a whole, let alone what might have happened on a specific battlefield. It’s just something that these men never spoke about.
From my experience in visiting Bruyères and talking to other family members about this general tendency of the veterans, the inspiration for “Shikata Ga Nai” was born. It is a film about how one 442nd veteran eventually comes to share a wartime memory that has haunted him for most of his life.
The story of the soldiers of mainly Japanese descent has been told in terms of its history many times. Feature films and documentaries have told of how Pearl Harbor started the war; how the men, facing the racism of the times, enlisted in the army to prove their patriotism. How they trained at Camp Shelby, how the mainland kotonks and the Hawai‘i Buddhaheads eventually learned to respect each other, and how they all went on to the battlefields of Europe to become the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in World War II history. Many books have been written about the impact that the surviving veterans, upon returning to Hawai‘i, had on the Democratic Party and the subsequent political history of the state.
However, the story that I want to tell is the one represented by the statement I heard many times, “He never likes to talk about it.” The story that many veterans have never told. The story that is so personal, so all consuming, that, for many it has been kept under wraps for the great majority of their lifetimes.
“Shikata Ga Nai” is set in the year 1999. It tells the story of 442nd veteran Tatsuo Kaneshiro who’s living out his autumn days in the quiet seclusion of his suburban home in Hawai‘i, where he lives with his single-parent daughter, Lynn Matsuda, and attention-deficit grandson, Ryan Matsuda. Tats spends his time tending to his yard, watching television, and occasionally entertaining company like an old army buddy, Seichi Mochizuki. But the peace that seemingly hovers over his daily existence masks his internal struggle. For though the war has been over for 50 years, Tats relives it every day due to a haunting secret about one particular death he caused while in battle. Suffering from the beginnings of Parkinson’s Disease, Tats has visions of the man that he killed. Are these sightings something that are in his mind? Or are they ghostly apparitions of the man who will never let him forget what he did. Seichi tells him, “Shikata ga nai, Tats, shikata ga nai.” It could not be helped.
We follow Tats as he copes not only with his own personal demons, but also the everyday challenges of dealing with a sometimes overly concerned and stressed-out Lynn, and Ryan, who turns to him for guidance, to which Tats tells Lynn, “I’m not his father.” Relating to all three family members is Shawn Saiki, Ryan’s teacher at school. Shawn also teaches acting and helps Ryan to break out of his shell. His special interest in Ryan also brings him closer to Lynn and they eventually start to develop a relationship, something that Ryan is not comfortable with, and he argues with his mother. Being also a historian of the 442nd, Shawn takes a special interest in Tats and wants to know all about his exploits for which Tats is reticent to share.
“He never likes to talk about it,” Lynn tells Shawn, “We really don’t know anything about what he did in the war.”
Eventually, as Tats’s visions become all consuming, we learn that Seichi passed away five years earlier and he, too, has been part of Tats’s suspected hallucinations. Towards this, it is Shawn who helps Tats finally relive the moment that has dominated his life for so long – when he had to kill a young German soldier while on patrol in the forests of Bruyères, else risk he and Seichi being discovered by a German caravan. He utters what Seichi told him then, “Shikata ga nai.” Shawn nods and translates back, “Cannot be helped.” Upon Tats saying that he has lived with this secret for over 50 years, Shawn replies, “Well Mr. Kaneshiro, I think that’s long enough.” Shawn, also a deacon with his church, presides over a ceremonial burial of a symbol representing Tats’s memory of the event, and says a prayer to allow Tats to cleanse his soul.
We end with Tats no longer seeing visions, Shawn and Lynn are a happy couple with Ryan adjusting well, and a final on-screen superimposition that tells the viewer, “Of the more than 14,000 members of the 442nd RCT who were in WWII, less than 400 survive; many of whom have never shared their stories.”
The cast I have assembled reflects some of Hawai‘i’s best actors. They include Dann Seki, who I have had the great fortune of directing in three other movies in which he has been featured in a lead role. Seki plays the central character of Tats. Veteran Hawai‘i actor, Allan Okubo, plays the mysterious Seichi. Denise Aiko Chinen and Devon Nekoba play Lynn and Shawn respectively, and it is through their scenes we learn of the heroism of the 100th/442nd and their reluctance to talk about their exploits. Talented Seth Okumura, a young actor with many Hawai‘i stage credits, plays Ryan. Steven Dillard, who has acting credits both in Hawai‘i as well as in his home state of Georgia, plays Lynn’s doctor.
Steven Dillard also serves as the project’s executive producer, and it is through his support that we were able to start filming. Last summer during a relative easement of COVID-19 cases, we filmed our initial set of scenes. This included the doctor and Lynn scene as well as the pivotal flashback scene of Tats’s fateful encounter with the young German soldier. We shot it in the hills above Le Jardin Academy in Kailua, with Blake Kirkpatrick portraying the young German soldier, and Titus Nakagawa and Cory Nemoto, playing young Tats and young Seichi.
My crew, as small as it is, are all supremely talented and rock solid dependable. Denny Hironaga is our director of photography and will also go on to edit the movie. Mark Ganialongo assists on second camera. Mark J. Bush handles sound and also serves as our final sound and post-production editor. Christine Tsuzaki helps as an invaluable production assistant and heads up our crowdfunding campaign. Gary Okuda serves in a producer role and provides immeasurable help with finding locations and providing in-kind support. Executive producer and actor, Steven Dillard, will pitch in on shoots whenever he is in the islands.
Over the past eight years, I have been extremely fortunate, with the help of many talented collaborative partners, to have written and produced 12 independent feature length films. My focus has been to make the movies of stories that everyday people want to tell and preserve for future generations. In other words, while I have written over a hundred scripts, I have done so primarily to develop a skill set so as to be able to take the story ideas of people who have always dreamed of making their own movie, and in fact write and produce them on a budget that they are willing to finance. I’ve come to term this type of movie a LegacyVision Film. In other words, a movie made for someone who desires to leave a legacy behind in the form of a movie that tells the story of something important to them.
The concept behind LegacyVision Film is related to a sad, but very evident trend. The world doesn’t read books as much as we used to. Witness the disappearance of bookstores and the reduced usage of libraries and it becomes very evident that if one wanted to leave a story for a future generation, it is more likely that they will watch a movie about it than bother to pick up a book, much less actually read it. Hence, my pitch to those passionate people who have a story they feel compelled to tell and leave it as their legacy for future generations is, “Make a movie about it.”
Twenty years ago, making one’s own movie was a fantasy. Movies were made on film and this alone made any prospect of movie-making extremely prohibitive if not altogether impossible. I once did the math by taking an average price for a roll of film – yes, the kind we used to purchase in a drugstore – and calculated that if 24 exposures equated to one second of screen time, that for a two-hour movie, for which the filming of each scene would average say eight takes, you would need nearly $300,000 just for the film alone! Thus, making a movie used to always mean that independent filmmakers would film either a trailer or a short about their proposed feature and then use that to try and entice some wealthy investor to back their project. Sometimes this would work. The great majority of times it wouldn’t and the project would subsequently lose momentum and be forgotten.
But even when it did work, after obtaining a desired budget and finishing the movie, what would the filmmaker then do? Movies were only shown in theaters and the odds of any indie feature attracting enough of an audience to get a serious run at a major theater, which showed first run features from Hollywood, were very long if not non-existent. Occasionally, an art house type of theater would perhaps agree to run it, but only for a limited engagement. Hence, what normally became the well tread path of the passionate filmmaker was to enter their project into film festivals, at which they would be feted with a grand premiere. But once that grand celebration ended, the movie would then become a self-printed DVD, which then would take its place among the other myriad of DVDs in the family entertainment center, brought out only when someone would ask years later, “Say, whatever happened to that movie you filmed?”
This all changed when the movie-making industry transitioned from film to digital. Today, that same filmmaker, if armed with the necessary filming equipment and editing software (for which most ardent filmmakers already possess), and assisted by a crew who were just as passionate and would be willing to work for gratis, could literally film a full-length feature for the cost of memory cards, batteries, and a few external drives to store the footage. In addition, movie distribution has undergone a revolution through the internet and the rise of the online movie platform. All of the movies we’ve produced have been distributed on numerous movie platforms including Amazon, Tubi TV, and the Roku Channel. In short, filmmakers today have the absolute ability to film personal, powerful dramas which will no longer have to be relegated to just a small circle of family and friends.
Today, the internet and streaming channels like Netflix and Hulu, show thousands of movies 24-hours a day. Indie features can now be distributed to a worldwide audience the likes of which was never imagined back in the days of film. One particular movie we shot, “The Landline Detective,” which also happens to star Dann Seki, playing a man who solves a 35-year-old murder case by merely calling people on his telephone, has been streamed over 15 million minutes on Amazon, while being watched by over 400,000 people. Thus, today it is indeed possible to successfully film and widely distribute one’s own movie.
As I explain this concept, it dawns on me that “Shikata Ga Nai,” is actually my own legacy movie. In other words it is a story I feel personally compelled to tell for future generations.
My ties to the 442nd RCT are through my wife Mary Ann. Her father, Wilbert Sanderson “Sandy” Holck, a 442nd veteran (Cannon Company) and former Honolulu City Councilman, was the co-founder of the Bruyères -Honolulu sister-city relationship back in 1961. My father-in-law established the relationship with Bruyères resident Gerard Deschaseaux, who, along with his wife Marcelle, and their daughters, Claudie and Francette, would become family to us. The Deschaseaux’s were our host when Mary Ann and I accompanied Willard and Geralyn Holck (Mary Ann’s brother and his wife), Danna Holck (Mary Ann’s sister), and others, on our first trip to Bruyères in 2009. I wrote a previous article for The Hawai‘i Herald (November 11, 2011), which chronicled not only this trip, but the chance meeting of Sandy and Gerard, which then eventually resulted in the sister-city relationship. In fact, there is a famous photo of the exact moment of their meeting, and in it, Willard, who would go on to follow in his father’s footsteps in perpetuating the relationship, is just a toddler at the time, and is being held by his dad. The shot is quite iconic, for it literally shows both men in the process of shaking hands. It was the literal beginning of a friendship that would come to last a lifetime and beyond.
The article went on to describe how our family finally made the trip to Bruyères after 50 years of first being told by my father-in-law that to fully know the essence of the 442nd, we had to go to Bruyères. We did, and as I’ve mentioned, we all “got it” when we experienced how the people of Bruyères treated all of us. Willard (and Geralyn), Claudie, and Francette, the children of founders Sandy and Gerard – both of whom have passed on – continue to work at perpetuating the Bruyères -Honolulu sister-city relationship, and have coordinated many goodwill travel tours from both sides since that first trip (Bruyères to Honolulu in 2011, Honolulu to Bruyères in 2013 and 2019). Their work, and the work of others (like members of Club 100 and the Sons & Daughters of the 442nd RCT) who have helped to keep the ties of this remarkable union going, is very important. To this I provide a partial quote from my first article that is as valid today as it has ever been, “… for through the goodwill that is exchanged, a special humanitarian bridge continues to unite two vastly different cultures, and in so doing, we help to bring peace to the world.”
What happened to the 100th and the 442nd RCT continues to be an important story to tell. With “Shikata Ga Nai,” I hope to provide yet another side to it.
Our original plans entailed filming “Shikata Ga Nai” in 2020. But the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to continuously postpone our work on this project. But now, given the relative lessening of the impact of COVID-19, we intend to shoot the rest of our scenes periodically beginning this month (July 2022) and continuing throughout the fall, with the hope of wrapping principal photography by the end of the year. After this is accomplished, post-production will commence with a completion date sometime in the summer of 2023. My actors and crew members have committed to film this project on whatever budget we eventually raise for which a crowdfunding campaign has been established. Please check out the campaign and learn how to help at this link: indiegogo.com/projects/shikata-ga-nai-feature-length-movie#/. Perks for contributors range from receiving a digital copy of the finished movie, to being invited to the movie premiere, to actually having a part in the movie itself. For a more detailed description of the project see the following link: yellowbrickstudiousa.com/legacyvision-films/about-legacyvision-films/movies-in-development/shikata-ga-nai/.
“Shikata Ga Nai” is indeed what I term a LegacyVision Film. For it tells a different but important side to the legacy of our fathers and grandfathers. It describes not only the external battles they fought abroad, but depicts the internal battles they faced when they returned home. I feel it is an important aspect of their story that must be documented for future generations. I hope readers of this article will agree and support us. Thank you.
Eric Nemoto is the owner of Yellow Brick Studio (yellowbrickstudiousa.com), which produces LegacyVision Films for those who have a story they feel compelled to tell and want to do so in the form of a movie. He is the founder and president of TAG – The Actors’ Group (taghawaii.net), one of Hawai‘i’s best community theaters, and the developer of All Hawaii TV (allhawaii.tv), a public Roku TV channel, committed to providing streaming content of all things Hawai‘i. He has also taught acting for over 20 years, and teaches his Just Act – Acting Gym classes through the ADR Agency (adragency.com), which has represented the very best in Hawai‘i models and talent for over 35 years.