"American Pastime" is an independent film about baseball in a World War II Japanese-American internment camp.
Anita Tsuchiya, a Salt Lake Bees fan and FutureAngels.com supporter, told me about a small independent film called American Pastime filmed in Utah last summer. Anita was an extra on the film, which is about Japanese-Americans held in a World War II internment camp. Baseball is a common pastime shared by both the internees and the American soldiers guarding them, and the film culminates with a baseball game between the two cultures that helps resolve interracial hostilities suffered by an unjustly imprisoned people.
The film is available on Amazon.com for $13.99. It had a very limited release in the U.S. before going to DVD in May.
I ordered the film from Amazon and watched it earlier this week. I’m a fan of small independent films, because they often explore subjects the big studios and theater chains won’t touch.
American Pastime doesn’t disappoint. The film works on multiple levels, from a fictional documentary about a dark stain on American history to a Romeo-and-Juliet subplot to the cliché baseball game where the underdog triumphs with a walkoff victory. Some might even see a subtle comment about those imprisoned today at Guantanamo, but any such analogy would be strained.
Gary Cole, an accomplished actor who’s appeared in many films and TV shows, is the only "name" recognizable to American audiences, although former big-league first baseman and ESPN analyst John Kruk has an amusing cameo as the PA announcer for the local semi-pro team’s ballpark. The acting performances overall are strong, as is the attention to historical detail.
I asked Anita to contribute for this article by recalling her experiences on the film.
As you know, the movie, "American Pastime" is about the Japanese American experience during WWII–including the internment camps, Nisei baseball leagues, and the All-Nisei 442nd Battalion. The film is independently produced by some established names in the film industry, including David Skinner of ShadowCatcher Entertainment, Barry Rosenbush of "High School Musical", Terry Spazek of the "Dream Team", Kerry Yo Nakagawa of "Diamonds in the Rough."
Actors include familiar faces from the U.S.: Gary Cole (Office Space, Brady Bunch movies), Sarah Drew (Everwood), Jon Gries (Napoleon Dynamite), Leonardo Nam (The Perfect Score, Fast and Furious III: Tokyo Drift) and Aaron Yu (Disturbia). Masatoshi Nakamura (NHK Jirocho TV series, music CDs) and Judy Ongg (Pillow Book, music CDs) are big celebrities in Japan. Both of them remarked on how pleasant it was to walk around Salt Lake City without being mobbed by people and cameras. Although they did cause a stir one night among the chefs of a downtown sushi bar when the producers took them out to dinner.
How I got involved:
At Franklin Covey Park, home field of the Salt Lake Bees, the producers and casting directors had a table and sign-up sheet. I decided to participate because my paternal Grandparents, Father and Aunts were one such family interned at Topaz, 2 hours south of Salt Lake City, UT. Even though he was only a boy of ten or eleven, Dad never got over the experience of being rounded up like cattle and herded into barbed-wire enclosures. Like most of that generation, he rarely spoke of those times. Those bitter memories tormented him to the end of his life in January 2005.
The location shoots were the toughest. For $72.50/day, I got to stand around for 12-14 hours in the middle of the Skull Valley desert, in July. To say it was blisteringly hot is quite the understatement. One day the temperature reached 108 in the shade.
The first scenes for me were the camp scenes. I can’t describe the eeriness of standing around in the hot, dusty wind, and surrounded by barracks, barbed wire fences, and guard towers. I stood there in the sun and heat, my skin and hair COVERED in grit, my head and feet aching, and I’m starving because lunch was 6 hours ago. "I can’t wait to get home and take a shower," I keep telling myself. And then it hits me. I get to go home at the end of the day. For Dad, this WAS home. So I don’t complain.
I was astounded at how many of the older extras had actually been internees. Alice Hirai is the tiny woman who hands the "thousand stitches" banner to Judy Ongg (Emi Nakamura), who in turn gives it to her older son, Leo Nam (Lane Nakamura). Alice was two years old when she and her family were sent to the Topaz. Now, she spends her time giving educational presentations about the internment to elementary school classes in Utah.
Some the older extras had been soldiers for the American Army–the 442nd (Europe) or MIS (Pacific). John Owada fought with the MIS in the Pacific campaign. I asked him 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 for her sake. So there he is, at least 80 years old, standing in the hot sun all day and wearing a long winter coat. He had to wear the coat because they needed something big enough to hide his oxygen tank and nasal tube! I was paired up with John for most of the day. In between scenes, I would help him take off his coat and put his suitcase on the ground so he could sit for a bit. As the day grew later, I was terrified that he would trip on the loose gravel and fall down.
I kept asking him, "Are you alright? Are you sure you don’t want to rest in the shade? Can you do another scene?" He would only nod or shake his head, grab his suitcase and off he’d go.
It’s déjà vu all over again:
Each day on the set was filled with emotions for many of us. Many of the extras, like me, had relatives who had been sent to camp. In fact, quite a few of the Japanese families living here in Utah today are descendants of camp detainees. Many families had nowhere else to go after being released because their homes and properties had been confiscated or stolen during their long absence.
I often imagined that Grandma must have been close to my age (48 years) when this happened to her. During a couple of scenes, I broke down and cried. The scene where Director Watson comes into the barracks on the first night was one of those moments. The irony of his words, “I hope we can make things as comfortable as possible,” were 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.
My proudest moment:
For the 7th inning stretch, we really had to sing. When 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. So I got to lead the group in rehearsal.
I’m grateful for the chance to spend time among the ghosts of my Dad’s past. Especially because he never resolved it for himself, I felt as though I was participating in a spiritual “house-cleaning.” At least I like to hope that a few angry spirits can stop roaming the earth and get some rest.
I did an Internet search on American Pastime and found these reviews:
Anita also suggests the Nisei Baseball Research Project web site and the site maintained by the film’s photographer Matthew Williams as places to go on the Internet for more information.
The film’s official web site is www.warnervideo.com/americanpastime/.
This is an important film with timeless lessons about many subjects. Yes, it’s also about baseball, and deserves to be in the pantheon of important baseball movies. But baseball is only a pastime, originally an American pastime, now a global pastime that crosses many cultures, yet in the grand scheme of things it’s not nearly as important as the universal concepts of freedom, liberty and equal justice for all. If you watch the ballgame at the end of the film, that’s a subtle message delivered in an unexpected way at the film’s climax.
In other words … Order the movie, watch it, and post a reply to this blog with your own thoughts.