So you're a gung-ho Hawaiian high schooler who wants to protect your country back in the early '40s. You join the ROTC, which leads to a spin through the Territorial Guard. You're then kicked out of service, because of where your family's from. In fact, you're now considered an enemy alien! Fancy. Such was the plight of the protagonists of Junichi Suzuki's 442: Live With Honor, Die With Dignity (which starts Fri/13 at Viz Cinema), Japanese-Americans who went on to become one of the most decorated squadrons in U.S. military history.
How would you react in a similar situation? In anger, disgust, maybe by sewing a maple leaf on your rucksack and thumbing for passage to points north on passing ocean liners? Oddly, the young men from the film did the opposite. They reinvested in their home, forming a club that reflected the closest thing to service in the military they could still rope down and jumping in flat bed trucks to help their peers still in the armed forces out with construction projects around Honolulu (in Hawaii, it was deemed “not practicable” to export the vast Japanese immigrant to internment camps and instead strict curfew laws and energy blackouts were enacted). The Varsity Victory Volunteers, they called themselves.
Junichi Suzuki's 442: Live With Honor, Die With Dignity
Eventually, the army realized the guys weren't terrorists and put them to work, stationing them on the front lines of WWII's most dangerous conflicts. They done real good in battles – but paid for it, suffering 93% casulty rates by the military's conservative counts (9,486 Purple Hearts were awarded and the company started out with only 3,000 soldiers!), all while many of their family members on the mainland were imprisoned in massive U.S. detention centers.
It's a compelling story about racism in our country, and I'm glad Suzuki tracked it down. But at its heart, 442 is still a war movie: grainy original footage and those slow zoom-ins on photos that the History Channel so dearly wishes was an appropriate stand-in for action. The most vivid scenes are those of the surviving members of the company that the filmmaker tracked down for an interview. They're men who move slow, play golf, farm plots of land with their families. Veterans, dig? Doing what they wanted to do all along: be a legitimate, unconditional citizen of our country.
The film is being shown as part of Viz Cinema's multi-movie look at the work of Junichi Suzuki, whose been kicking around in director's chairs forI over 27 years. Previously, the theater showed Suziki's Toyo's Camera, which includes footage from a camera that Toyo Miyatake snuck into the internment camp where he was sent during the war. From whence does Suzuki's motivation spring to make such exhaustively well-researched looks at our country's past and the history of his people? You can as him yourself -- he'll be at every screening of 442 on Fri/13 and Sat/14 at Viz.
442: Live With Honor, Die With Dignity
opens Fri/13 (through Thurs/19) 2:50, 7 p.m., $10
1746 Post, SF