Family Gathering
Release from emotional internment

by Cassandra Van Buren

from Jump Cut, no. 37, July 1992, pp. 65-63
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1992, 2006

FAMILY GATHERING (1988) is a personal documentary made by Japanese-North American filmmaker Lise Yasui about her family's experience of imprisonment by the United States government during World War II. In this article I discuss some methods Yasui uses in the construction of her film to maintain its specificity without lessening its message regarding the injustice and inhumanity of the internment process. By focusing her film upon her own and her family's experience, Yasui leaves ample room for other Japanese-North Americans to speak of their own experiences.

Mediamakers belonging to groups disenfranchised by dominant culture often feel compelled to try to "say it all" for their particular group. This pressure can be traced to the fact that, because media opportunities for the disempowered are limited,

"each film text is burdened with an inordinate pressure to be 'representative' and to act, like a delegate does, as a statement that 'speaks' for...communities as a whole" (Julien & Mercer, 1988, p. 2).

The community in question may not get another chance to be heard, for dominant culture prefers to relegate minority groups to a simplistically conceived Other. In this way, the experiences of people of color, women, lesbians and gays, and the poor can be quickly categorized and immediately dismissed as peripheral to what is of true importance. To concede that a diversity of realities exists means that dominant culture must relinquish its position as the universal reality.

Many minority (in terms of power) mediamakers recognize the trap of trying to speak for their entire community. If dominant culture oppresses a group by allowing it a merely one-dimensional status, it is not "progressive" for a group member to similarly construct another one-dimensional representation, albeit a better informed one. Such attempts at representation only serve to deny individual subjectivity and diversity of experience within the group and "return the speaking subject to the ideologically appointed place of the stereotype — that all [people of color] are the same" (Julien & Mercer, 1988, p. 5). To try to speak for all within one's group asks for instant and harsh criticism from one's own community regarding the presumptuous nature of the project.

The primary way in which Yasui accomplishes this specificity is to present the film's "story" in terms of her own family's experiences. She does not include representations of anyone else's experience of the internment camps (except use of newsreel footage; even then her voiceover accompanies the visuals). In addition, she narrates the piece with her own voice, blending in the voices of family members. The artist "owns" her voice through the use of personal pronouns such as I, us, we, our, my. The viewer is aware of to whom the voices belong, thus avoiding any illusion of an omniscient source of information as is the case in Voice of God narration. The use of personal narration is a tremendously powerful political choice:

"Personal narratives of non-dominant social groups are often particularly effective sources of counter-hegemonic insight because they expose the viewpoint embedded in dominant ideology as particularist rather than universal, and because they reveal the reality of a life that defies or contradicts the rules. Women's personal narratives can thus often reveal the rules of... domination even as they record rebellion against them" (Personal Narratives Group. 1989, p. 7).

Certainly one of the rules of dominant culture which Yasui defies is the stereotype of the submissive Asian woman. By making this film, which explicitly criticizes her government's inhumanity and racism towards Japanese-North Americans, Yasui overturns the stereotype of submission handily.

This personalization also strengthens the involvement of the viewer in the project of the filmmaker, namely the exposure of the horrendous injustice of the evacuation, because the internment is shown in terms of its impact on people, rather than merely in terms of its function in the U. S. government's war machine. The feelings and emotions of both the documentarist and her family members course through the images and narration, bringing the impact to the viewer on a gut level, a level which is difficult to dismiss once the "show" is over.

Lise Yasui was raised in Pennsylvania. After earning an M.F.A. in Radio-Television-Film at Temple University, she now works as an independent media consultant in the Philadelphia area. Yasui produced her Academy Award-nominated documentary FAMILY GATHERING in 1988. The hour-long version[1] of the film, co-directed by Yasui and Ann Tegnell, aired on public television across the United States. I use this version for my analysis, rather than the 30-minute version available through New Day Films, because the longer version provides a much richer and more detailed exploration of Yasui's filmic journey.

Yasui structures her personal documentary FAMILY GATHERING as the story of her own investigation of the Yasui family's history, framed by her sansei (third-generation Japanese-North American) sensibility. Because her grandparents, Masuo and Shidzuyo Yasui, are dead, she can only gain information about their lives through the nisei (second-generation) members of the family. In the film, images from 8-millimeter home movies made by her father, Robert Shu Yasui, during her childhood represent the version of family history her parents want her to know and remember. Yasui remarks in the film that Robert always told her stories which painted a rosy picture of the family's past. Likewise, when she interviews Robert's siblings for the film, they, too, relate only pleasant family tales. Soon, as Yasui says in her narration, "There came a time when nostalgia wasn't enough. Decades were missing from our history, and none more so than the war years." This recognition of the gaps in her family history prompts her to read voraciously about Japanese-North American history. Once she has a greater general understanding of her peoples' history, she returns to interview the family's nisei with a clearer idea of what she's looking for in their answers.

Using old family photographs and letters, newspaper clippings, newsreel footage[2], and interviews with her aunt, uncles, and father, Yasui carefully weaves a more complete and multifaceted vision of her family history. The filmmaker delineates the circumstances of her grandparents' emigration from Japan and their settlement in Hood River, Oregon; their establishment of a family of nine children and very successful orchard business; and their dedication to serving other members of the local Japanese-North American community. In Yasui's words: "Through my father's stories, I knew [my grandfather] as a patriotic American, and a self-made man."

Yasui's interviews subvert this halcyon picture as she reveals that when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor during World War H, her grandfather Masuo was considered a threat to national security by the U. S. government because of his extensive work within the Japanese-North American community. He was arrested and taken away, and for weeks the family did not know what had happened to him. Within months, much of the rest of the family was interned, along with many other Japanese-North Americans on the West Coast. When Masuo was released several months after the Japanese had surrendered, most of his 600 acres of orchards had been sold, as had the family home. White citizens of the town placed newspaper ads warning Japanese-North Americans that for their own safety, they should not return to Hood River. White neighbors believed that because of the length of his imprisonment, Masuo must have really been a spy. The pain of being suspected and shunned by the white community led to depression and finally suicide within ten years of his release from internment. Yasui notes that it took her father 28 years to reveal this family tragedy to her.

The topic focused upon in FAMILY GATHERING is the internment of Japanese-North Americans and the effects of this tremendous upheaval on the people thus imprisoned. It is therefore useful to provide a brief history of that era of North American history from the perspectives of people in the community of Japanese immigrants.

During World War II, two months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, in 1941, United States President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which called for the incarceration of most of the population of West Coast Japanese-North Americans (Aptheker, 1989, p. 191). Canada, allied in war with the United States, issued a similar order for evacuation of its West Coast Japanese. The incarceration of people of Japanese ancestry was deemed necessary to protect "national security;" these people were seen as potential spies of the Japanese government.

The United States had ten poorly constructed internment camps at the ready: Poston and Gila River, Arizona; Denson and Rohwer, Arkansas; Manzanar and Tule Lake, California; Amache, Colorado; Minidoka, Idaho; Topaz, Utah; and Heart Mountain, Wyoming. The evacuees were given seven days to dispose of property and material belongings and report to an assembly point, where they were searched, processed, and forced onto trains and buses for the trip to concentration camps. Since they could bring to the camps only what they could physically carry, families sold cherished possessions and hard-earned property for pittances to mostly white U. S. buyers. Mine Okubo, a Japanese-North American artist, says

"We were in shock. You'd be in shock. You'd be bewildered. You'd be humiliated. You can't believe this is happening to you. To think this could happen in the United States. We were citizens. We did nothing. It was only because of our race. They did nothing to the Italians and Germans." (Okubo, cited in Gesensway & Roseman, 1987, p. 66)

The camps were surrounded by barbed wire fences, even though they were usually in the middle of vast deserts; armed guards patrolled internees from imposing watchtowers. Construction of the camps was so poor that prisoners faced bitterly cold winters with little protection from the elements. Letters were censored by the government. The greater the perceived risk of individual internees, the longer their period of imprisonment. For instance, in the case Yasui's grandfather Masuo, his (erroneously) perceived spy potential was so great that he was not released until 5 months after the surrender of Japan.

After the end of the war, Japanese-North Americans tried to regain a semblances of their lives before the evacuation, but the scars of the internment remained. There is a marked unwillingness among many of the survivors to discuss those years with their children and grandchildren, a reticence which frustrates many subsequent generations of Japanese-North Americans. For instance, in the introduction of her book Shedding Silences: Poetry and Prose, Janice Mirikitani (cited in Aptheker, 1989, p. 232) notes that her mother kept silent for 40 years about her experience of internment. Hiroko Yamano's poem "My Mother's Stories" takes the poet's mother's perspective regarding why she wishes to remain silent about her painful memories (Yamano, cited in Aptheker, 1989, p. 31). Akemi Kikumura was barred from her mother's "forbidden' stories" until she decided to write her mother's life history (Kikumura, 1981, p.1). She is quick to point out, however, that readers must realize that what is included in her book is what her mother chose to tell her about her past (Kikumura, 1981, p. 15). Similarly, Jewish filmmakers Thomas Friedman and Owen Shapiro note that children of survivors of the Jewish Holocaust "don't always learn of the Holocaust from their parents" (1989).

The silence of internment survivors corresponds to a Japanese cultural expression which speaks to an attitude which in some cases manifests itself in letting unpleasant and/or traumatic memories go: Shikataganai. Mitsuye Yamada (l98lb) writes in her essay "Invisibility Is an Unnatural Disaster,"

"The Japanese have an all-purpose expression in their language for this attitude of resigned acceptance: 'Shikataganai.' 'It can't be helped.' 'There's nothing I can do about it.' It is said with the shrug of the shoulders and tone of finality." (pp. 39-40)

Yamada recognizes that the governments perpetrating the internment knew of the tendency among Japanese to resignedly accept fate, thus expecting Japanese-North Americans to do as ordered, quietly. Other than the few who resisted, most people unwillingly did as expected. Their loyalty to their chosen country was at stake; if they resisted, they risked the appearance of disloyalty. Similarly, Valerie Matsumoto (1984/1989, p. 191) writes,

"Shikata ga nai. 'it can't be helped,' the implication being that the situation must be endured. The phrase lingered on many lips when the Issei, Nisei, and the young Sansei prepared for the move"

to internment camps. (The issei are first generation immigrants, born in Japan). Clearly, the pain and humiliation suffered by internees is beyond measure. Trying to put such tremendous trauma out of mind seems a reasonable and effective mechanism of survival.

For many nisei and sansei Japanese-North American women seeking to learn about themselves through knowing their mothers and grandmothers, this silence is devastating. In her essay "Asian Pacific American Women and Feminism," nisei Mitsuye Yarnada (198la, p. 74) writes,

"[I] have come to know who I am through understanding the nature of my mother's experience; I have come to see the connections in our lives as well as the lives of many women like us."

And later,

"My politics as a woman are deeply rooted in my immigrant parent's (sic ) and my own past" (Yamada, 1981a, p. 74).

It is largely because nisei and sansei Japanese-North Americans have insisted upon learning family history that the camp stories have been revealed.


In the study guide for FAMILY GATHERING (Yasui, p. 8) provided by New Day Films, Yasui writes that

"no documentary is without a point of view, a position. I did not want to make a 'traditional' documentary which might give the impression of a definitive statement about the internment. No film can be completely representative."

Yasui wishes to circumvent the codes of conventional documentary in order to avoid the appearance of speaking for everyone in her community. To effectively prevent the possibility of the viewer assuming that one subgroup's experience encompasses the experience of all others in the group, Yasui employs several devices which give her film remarkable specificity. Unlike conventional documentaries, Yasui immediately makes it clear that she is the auteur of this film, that it is her voice which speaks on the soundtrack, and that it is her quest for family history which gives the film its form and content. Therefore, there is no mystery surrounding the intent of the documentary or the ways in which it may be biased.

Yasui does her own voice-over narration, which she delivers in the first person. The narration distinguishes the film from traditional documentary, which would likely employ authoritarian Voice of God narration to accompany a distanced historical overview of World War II, complete with footage of dignitaries' speeches and marching troops. From the first spoken line in FAMILY GATHERING, "This is my grandfather, Masuo Yasui" (the accompanying visual is an aged photograph of a Japanese man), Yasui establishes the film as a strictly personal and very compelling story. The feeling I get as a viewer is that Yasui is a friend; we sit in her living room as she shows me her photo albums and explains her history. This intimacy is furthered by Yasui's willingness to include her own feelings and thought process in the text of the narration. This intimacy does not exclude complexities within the film, however; in fact, the personal tone opens up multiple levels of reading. Spectators have several levels of discourse to ponder. First, the information about the Yasui family; then, Yasui's journey through the investigation; and lastly, the viewer's own response to the first two levels.

Yasui candidly discusses in the film how, as a child, she thought the only difference between herself and her mother's (who is white) side of the family was her Japanese name, and her impression that her West Coast relatives were "the ones who looked so Oriental." Here Yasui establishes that she had not previously identified herself with Japanese-North American culture. This possibly explains her position as a documentarist who is an "insider" because she belongs to the Yasui family, yet because she was not raised within the Japanese-North American culture, she's also an "outsider," who can use her own process of investigation to frame the uncovering of information for the viewer of the film.

Yasui cannot speak Japanese, which cuts her off from a certain level of communication with the Yasui nisei and the issei friends of the family whom she goes to for information. Family members give more complete explanations to Yasui than perhaps they would if their own children were doing the interviews. Perhaps it is precisely because Yasui has been outside their experience of Japanese-North American culture that the family's answers to her questions are so descriptive. They realize her status as one who does not know, and take great pains to explain the events and the dynamics of the events carefully to her.

Yasui's position as an insider, and a family member, among those she interviews is evident. Characteristically, people (who are not actors) appearing in documentaries are very ill at ease and self-conscious about being filmed because they are simply unused to appearing before the camera. Furthermore, if the director and crew of the film are strangers, people are likely to distrust that the film crew will represent them in an acceptable way. In addition, increasingly people are aware of the ability of the film crew to edit what they say and distort their original meanings. That Yasui is trusted by the people she interviews is obvious. Friends of the family like Mrs. Yamaki, who was Shidzuyo Yasui's ikebana (flower arranging) and tea ceremony student, and Hannah Endo, who shows Uncle Tsuyoshi and the camera crew around her garden, are quite at ease in front of Yasui's camera and in the face of her questions. The high comfort level of these people could be a consequence of two factors: first, that Yasui is a Japanese-North American woman whose roots are in Hood River, and second, that someone with a familiar face, local resident Uncle Tsuyoshi Yasui, is escorting her around town, serving as a liaison and interpreter between filmmaker and interview subjects.

Family members also appear remarkably comfortable, speaking genuinely and frankly from the heart in this film. The family's ease may be in part due to the family's being used to Robert's constantly filming them in years past: they are accustomed to seeing and trusting a Yasui on the other side of the camera. The fact that Yasui is their niece, one of their own, seems to allow them to fully explain their thoughts and feelings about their childhoods in the camps. For instance, Uncle Homer Yasui candidly recalls his two most vivid memories of the day the family was evacuated. First, that his white school friend, Fish Foster, cut school to see Homer and the family off at the train station, which impressed Homer since to do so meant taking a great risk. Homer's second most vivid memory is how sad he was about his Obasan (aunt) crying bitterly over having to leave her new home in Hood River after living in the United States only 12 years or so. Homer's own position and feelings as a child about to lose all things familiar remain undisclosed. This child-like concern for others in the face of the severe trauma he himself faces is incredibly poignant.

Family members tell their stories in the form of conversations with Yasui, a device which deepens the intimacy of the film. The settings are usually softly lit living rooms, with the relatives sitting on couches. The shots are framed in medium close-ups, effectively capturing any slight changes in facial expressions. The relatives include references in their dialogue which emphasize that these interviews take place in the context of a conversation between relatives. For instance, Aunt Yuka says, "But you see, Lise, I had been a part of all of this picture. I knew what was [Masuo's] problem." Uncle Min says,

"You have to remember, Use, that you know, having been born in this country, having gone to school, and believing in the Constitution, and on top of that taking law and hopefully understanding what the law in the country was, and believing that the Constitutional guarantees were indeed meant for all citizens, I just couldn't understand why there should be a distinction between citizens on the basis of parentage or ancestry."

To illustrate the way in which she was introduced to Japanese-North American Hood River residents by her Uncle Tsuyoshi, Yasui includes a scene shot from the passenger side of the inside of his car. He is stopped at a house, leaning out the car window talking to an elderly man: "Lise's here filming a kind of a family documentary." At one point, in another scene where Tsuyoshi interprets his conversation with Mrs. Yamaki for Yasui, the pair reach a pause in the conversation and turn to the camera and Yasui. Tsuyoshi says, "OK, you got all that?" In these scenes, which are peppered throughout the documentary, the viewer is reminded of Yasui's voice and presence within the film.

Yasui occasionally includes her own questions on the soundtrack in the interview scenes, just often enough to remind the viewer that these people talking in the film are in fact responding to questions posed by the filmmaker, questions which serve to shape the form of the film. "What'd I miss?" she asks when Uncle Tsuyoshi is speaking at length in Japanese with Hannah Endo. The elders laugh, looking off to the left of the camera, ostensibly where Yasui is standing, and Tsuyoshi says, "Nothing." Yasui questions her father about the Japanese surrender in World War II: "Did you celebrate?" Robert replies, smiling, "Well, of course I celebrated. I was absolutely ecstatic." Another time she asks, "Uncle Homer, was there a period when you really did have that classic All-American kind of boyhood? Or is that a myth?" Homer answers,

"Well, of course we did! Sure, we ate Wheaties, we drank Ovaltine, and yes, we went hunting and fishing. I mean all that is true, the good part of our lives, and most people remember the good parts. They don't want to tell you their bad stories."

Here Homer verbalizes and validates Yasui's experience of the common unwillingness among many survivors of the camps to dwell on parts of their lives they deem unpleasant.


At the beginning of the film, Yasui relates a favorite childhood memory about her grandparents: they come to visit, and Yasui stays up late, listening to her grandfather talk. Periodically, he looks at Yasui and smiles. However, this memory proves to be fiction. Yasui says,

"Later, I learned that my grandparents never made such a visit, that I never met my grandfather at all. The memory was one I'd made up, a creation drawn from all the stories I'd heard and the images on my father's home movies."

Thus she introduces the idea that memory can be fabricated, made up of a patchwork of events and feelings which may or may not correspond to what actually happened. This comes up again in terms of Robert editing family history for his children. This revision of history was so effective that in Yasui's case, she grew up with only limited understanding of her family's experience of incarceration and the lasting trauma (culminating for Masuo in suicide) associated with the camps.

Given the way she calls attention to the memories she fabricated for herself, as a viewer I feel challenged to examine the re-presentation of the Yasui family she constructs in the film, as well as her re-presentation of herself. Throughout the documentary, Yasui develops for herself, via her voice-over narration, the persona of an increasingly curious and perseverant woman. The more she senses that secrets are being kept from her, the harder she looks for answers. The introductory narration goes, "What my father didn't tell me was that in 1941, five days after Pearl Harbor, my grandfather was arrested and taken away by the FBI. When I discovered this, I wondered what else I didn't know." When she speaks of asking Robert about the family's activities during the war years, she says he would "change the subject, or say nothing at all. The less he said, the more I wanted to know." The viewer hears her realize what is being continually left out of the stories: Difficulty. She knows that in everyone's life, people experience struggle of one kind or another, and that struggle was conspicuously absent in the family history. When Tsuyoshi tells her that she's missed "nothing" in his extended Japanese-language conversation with Hannah Endo, she worries out loud, "I felt frozen behind the camera, afraid to ask questions that might be upsetting. I'd inherited my father's protectiveness of the past."

Yasui's narration is so powerful that it enables visually interesting use of countless black and white photographs. Using the notion that film's best use is to capture motion, the periods in which still photographs are used could be considered the weakest moments of the film in terms of visual interest. In these instances especially, and indeed throughout the entire film, the narration is the most compelling component, providing the most information both about the history of the family and about Yasui herself.

Perhaps the most intimate moment in the film is the point at which Yasui speaks of her reaction upon learning that her grandfather committed suicide. The images she uses are old home movies of Masuo and Shidzuyo standing outdoors and looking at a United States flag; the two of them standing outdoors, Masuo holding Yasui's older brother as an infant; and a slow-motion take of a close-up of Masuo and the boy. The narration:

"A year after I started this film my father told me the following story, and his silences began to make sense. The trust and respect my grandfather worked so hard for disappeared with Pearl Harbor. For many former friends and neighbors, the length of his sentence was proof that he'd been disloyal to his country. As my grandfather grew older, he got anxious and fearful, always worried that the FBI was coming once again to arrest him. After too many years of suffering these fears, my grandfather committed suicide at the age of 71. It took my father 28 years to tell me this."

During the last two sentences, the image of Masuo and the boy freezes, then cuts to black. This sudden lack of visual movement and subsequent blackout fonts the viewer to focus on Yasui's words; it is as if what she is saying is so powerfully painful that the image is rendered immobile. A few minutes later in the documentary, Yasui returns to the moment Robert revealed the secret of Masuo's death:

"The night my father told me about my grandfather's suicide, we were alone in the kitchen. I was asking about my grandfather's life after the war, when my dad suddenly grew quiet and said, 'Don't you know how he died?' And when he said that, somehow I knew. I cried because I could see my father's pain. And I cried because in that instant my grandfather seemed more real to me than ever before."

It is precisely because Robert withheld information about Masuo's suicide for so many years that Yasui understands the magnitude of his pain, and finally understands his evasions and silences. He further explains to Yasui:

"I think this is all part of some of the very painful things that we tend to not discuss. It's the same psychological reason that the second generation, the nisei, didn't talk about the evacuation; and if you remember, we did not discuss it with you. It was perhaps partly a feeling that it was past, it was done with, it was an unpleasant time of our lives and it's past. Let's get on with life."

He could be speaking for much of the population of survivors of internment camps. The unwillingness to discuss camp experiences and other unpleasant periods in life is echoed in several written records and artistic pieces by Japanese-North Americans. In the Yasui family, the nisei respected Robert's wish that his children be protected from the trauma of the camps, and about the circumstances of Masuo's death. Shikataganai. It is this collective silence which actually spurred Yasui on in pursuit of the rest of the story. It must also be noted that Yasui's status as a sansei member of the family allows her the emotional distance from the trauma associated with the camps necessary to pursue the topic. Where her parents' generation of immigrants has worked hard to assimilate into U. S. culture, she conversely is in the position of trying to rediscover her Japanese heritage and seek out the cultural influences which have affected her grandparents, father, and other Japanese relatives.


The structure of the film is elliptical. Rather than unfolding the "events" of the film in a linear fashion, for example according to the chronology of the war, the events are revealed in accordance with Yasui's own process of investigation. This process includes false starts; backtracking to pick up what was originally overlooked; re-evaluation, and, ultimately, progression. By no means is the process efficient, clean, or easy. First, Yasui travels to Hood River to interview her relatives, and finds that they consistently leave out sections of family history. Sensing their reluctance, she simply departs, planning to do outside research of her own.

"I read everything I could about Japanese-Americans, and scoured old family scrapbooks and albums. Together they told a very different story than what I'd heard before. There were more relatives to talk to. This time I had a better idea of what I was looking for."

Yasui resumes her interviews, this time asking the nisei  pointed questions about their lives during World War II. Her relatives answer frankly, relating detailed stories of their experiences of arrest and internment during the war. It is in this second round of questions that Robert tells her of Masuo's suicide. Rather than using this climactic moment to signal the end of the documentary, it serves as a starting point for the discussion of Masuo's quite productive life after his release from the internment camp. Time in the film is not organized strictly chronologically; instead it flows according to Yasui's own sense of how the story must be told.

I find this elliptical structure, taken along with the content of the film, compelling. Yasui incorporates her own elliptical process of making this documentary into the structure of the film, giving it a self-reflexivity which makes the viewer aware of her experience and opening up another level of meaning. Furthermore, Yasui's aunt, uncles, and father have come through cycles in terms of understanding their unjust internment; first, some chose to downplay it with their children, then with the advent of Yasui's documentary they begin to talk more about it, along with their father's suicide.

The way in which Yasui frequently comes back around to the specific conversation with Robert about Masuo's suicide is a striking example of the cyclical nature of the film. She first alludes to Masuo's wrongful internment in the introductory narration of the film, then leaves the subject untouched for nearly half the duration of the documentary. It is about three-quarters of the way through the film that she weaves her bit of narration mentioned earlier, in which she relates the climactic conversation with Robert and shows him explaining why many nisei kept this information from her generation. At this point, a section of Aunt Yuka's interview, a section which signifies her own level of peace with her father's suicide, is included: "Dad had such a meaningful life. I don't know that I'd be terribly concerned about how Dad died or when he died. I think the significant thing is that he lived!"

Then Yasui features several minutes of interview material about Masuo's altruistic work teaching citizenship classes for members of the Japanese-North American community in his new-found home of Portland, Oregon. She subsequently circles back to her own response (tears) and her flood of recognition of Robert's pain, upon learning the circumstances of Masuo's premature death. This back-and-forth structure parallels many peoples' experience of dealing with trauma: people seldom progress through stages of grief from one to ten, in a linear, methodical fashion. Instead, ambivalence and emotional flux are commonplace. Yasui's film craft exquisitely mirrors the mutable nature of human emotion and memory.

In fact, Yasui continues to deal with the consequences of her representational choices in making the film. In a telephone conversation (5/10/91), I asked Yasui what her family's reaction to her film was after they had seen the finished version. This question seems important, given what she wrote about the impossibility of any film being completely representative. What follows is my summary of her response. She said that it is hard to say that there was one reaction from her family, since her family is quite large. Their reactions varied from enthusiastic approval to quiet apprehension. While other sansei seemed to identify with her experience of trying to coax family history out of relatives, many nisei were very concerned with what had been left out. For instance, some felt her Uncle Min, the lawyer so active in the reparations movement, should have been given more screen time because of his great contributions to the community.

While most family members felt comfortable on some level with her piece when it was in limited distribution, their anxiety increased when the Public Broadcasting Service picked up FAMILY GATHERING for broadcasting. Forty years after his death, some family members continued to be concerned about other peoples' interpretation of Masuo Yasui's suicide. The Yasui family honor continues to be very important to them, and they worried that mainstream audiences would misinterpret Masuo's suicide as an admission of guilt. Yasui herself feels that his suicide was probably directly linked to emotional depression caused by the scars of unjust imprisonment.


A careful examination of the soundtrack of FAMILY GATHERING reveals an intricate mixture of musical themes, ambient sounds, and excellent interview sound. I interpret the music mixture on the soundtrack as an expression of Yasui's multifaceted experience living in the United States as a woman of half Japanese, half white ancestry. In addition, the experience of Robert's generation of relatives can be associated with this mixture of types of music, since they too live under the influence of two different cultural systems. Yasui alternately includes shakuhachi (Japanese flute) music, koto (traditional stringed Japanese instrument) music, and simple Western-style piano chords to illustrate her film musically. The music, composed by Sumi Tonooka, is woven in sparingly, used as an accent and an aid to transitions within the film, rather than used as a constant presence. Tonooka is a Japanese/African American woman whose mother was interned during the war.

The ambient sound of the film is really where the most interesting intricacy lies. The faint ambient sounds accompanying old home movies evoke the memory of sounds, which adds richness to the sense of the tenuousness of visual and emotional memories. For instance, Yasui often includes the white leader sections of the 8-millimeter films. When the leader is shown, the sound of a film projector is subtly evident: the rapid click-click-click of the flywheel engaging the sprocket-holes of film. Since Yasui at the same time narrates about the fact that her former vision of her family's past is largely shaped by these home movies, hearing the sounds of a projector brings the viewer closer to her experience of watching these movies over and over again, learning to associate the sounds with family. In other scenes from the home movies, like those which portray the West Coast Yasui children, sounds of children laughing are layered in; likewise, in the street scenes, car engine noises are faintly present. In the numerous outdoor scenes, ambient bird noises fade in and out. All these sounds add verisimilitude to Yasui's construction of her past.


Because Yasui does not claim universality in the presentation of her own and her family's experiences, I think her documentary is ultimately more valid than those produced using conventional documentary codes. Yasui speaks her own truth, never presuming to speak for anyone else. In this way, the film becomes a genuine, undisputable depiction of a reality which deserves careful consideration.

Yasui concludes her film with some words about her former sense of her ancestral past, her revised understanding of the internment of Japanese-North Americans, her family's history, and the interconnection between them all:

"Now I watch these movies and everything looks a little different. I'm aware of the history that lies behind these images; and the moments of togetherness recorded here I no longer take for granted. It's a past my family made for themselves. And it's a past they gave to me."

Here Yasui weaves back into the fabric of that memory new information and stories which flesh out and bring to life a sketchy (and false) recollection. She forgives her family's reconstruction of the past, forgives their silences and omissions, because she now understands the incredible pain associated with the war years. Not only do those years bring back memories of theft own complete upheaval, incarceration, and destruction of their family unit. Those years also signal the beginning of the spiritual and physical death of the "self-made man" they knew and loved in their father. Yasui decides that they deserve to create the past they want to have, after surviving the traumas associated with the camps.

She in turn gives herself permission to do the same. At the end of the documentary she does not discard her favorite memory of listening to her grandfather talk into the night. As a child she felt that she had a special connection with Masuo: in the memory he repeatedly looked at her and smiled. Now that she knows more than ever about him, now that he feels more real to her than ever before, the memory is richer and more meaningful. This is Yasui's reward for engaging in this filmic search for personal history.


1. Distributor of one-hour version is PBS Video. Distributor of 30-minute version is New Day Films, 121 W. 27th St., Suite 902, New York, NY 1001, (212) 645-8210.

2. Several films and videos about Japanese-North American internment use clips from Japanese Relation (1943, 11 minutes), a United States government Office of War Information newsreel. Narrated by Milton S. Eisenhower, the newsreel depicts scenes of crowds of Japanese Americans as they wait for government officials to process their paperwork, take fingerprints, and load them on buses and trains to the waiting concentration camps. The videotape now in distribution (through the National Audiovisual Center in Washington, D.C.) offers the disclaimer that the newsreel does not necessarily reflect current governmental policy.


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Thanks to the Center for the Study of Women and Society at the University of Oregon for support.