Review: Hatsumi (2012)

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Cast: Nancy Okura
Director: Chris Hope
Country: Canada
Genre: Documentary


Editor’s Note: Hatsumi will screen at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto on November 28th, where its DVD release will also be launched

When I saw Littlerock, an American indie film about Japanese siblings vacationing in the United States, it was the first time I had heard of the Japanese internment during World War II. Irishness comes as a convenient excuse for ignorance of events so far away, yet how horrid not to know at all a portion of history so disturbing, so frightening, so important. Imagine then my reaction to Hatsumi, a Canadian documentary that examines its own nation’s contemporaneous Canadian internment, an even more extensive and egregious breach of human rights, and another about which I had previously known nothing.

…he sees the stoic façade of his grandmother slowly recede, the painful buried memories coming to the fore as the traumas of this life are more vividly remembered. Yet never is Nancy the helpless, wounded victim: the woman is defined by her incredible strength, her stoicism and reserve less a scar of her war than a self-prescribed treatment.

Directed by Chris Hope, Hatsumi focuses particularly on his grandmother Nancy Okura, just one of thousands of Canadian citizens stripped of their homes and possessions and shuffled off to internment camps in 1942. Subscribing to the philosophy of “shi kata ga nai”—it can’t be helped—Nancy and her new husband accepted their fate, separated from each other and their families, and took their unjust punishment. Hope’s journey, and Hatsumi with it, begins on his grandmother’s 80th birthday, her extensive reserve of photographic evidence offering a framework from which he attempts to construct a picture of this life and that of the populace at large.

It’s something of an old cliché by now: the haggard war veteran, eyes staring distantly off into space, never speaking of his experience. We expect less reservation from an ordinary citizen, yet Hope discovers a pointed reluctance in his grandmother to discuss her ordeals: they happened, they were overcome, that’s that. In having her read and translate her diaries from the time, he sees the stoic façade of his grandmother slowly recede, the painful buried memories coming to the fore as the traumas of this life are more vividly remembered. Yet never is Nancy the helpless, wounded victim: the woman is defined by her incredible strength, her stoicism and reserve less a scar of her war than a self-prescribed treatment.

Its eponymous heroine is that sort of character who exudes a graceful quietude, a remarkable woman whose extraordinary and exemplary life are to her no great reason for attention: she is one of many, the obstacles she overcame shared by thousands of others.

Hope comes to the film with no grand aesthetic intentions; in fact, he humorously and humbly introduces himself with a shot wondering how to focus a camera. Hatsumi is not a particularly cinematic piece of work, at least not in visual terms: its spectacle and scope lies in its emotion. Its eponymous heroine is that sort of character who exudes a graceful quietude, a remarkable woman whose extraordinary and exemplary life are to her no great reason for attention: she is one of many, the obstacles she overcame shared by thousands of others. She’s not unlike Svetlana Geier, the subject of Vadim Jendreyko’s remarkable The Woman with the 5 Elephants, who recalls her experience of the Holocaust and other great events of world history as though it was her duty to live through them. Nancy, reserved yet never aloof, is a striking paragon of the “shi kata ga nai” philosophy, her life a beautifully consummate microcosm of the Japanese Canadian experience.

The centrepiece of Hatsumi comes with the journey of Hope and his grandmother to visit her brother in Japan, left blinded without access to treatment in the internment camps. It’s a poignant physical manifestation of the grand emotional journey undertaken throughout the film: by its moving conclusion we have discovered the roots of these people and traced their experiences in life. How must it feel to be betrayed by by one’s homeland, rounded up like cattle and imprisoned for no stronger reason than race? Really, no film could answer so difficult a question. In giving us access to Nancy’s life—indeed in giving her access to it, the opportunity to explore it and to find some closure in her final reunion—Hope brings us perhaps as close as we will ever come. Above all else, Hatsumi offers and demands a great deal of respect for the strength of these heroes who refused to be victims, safe in the knowledge that it couldn’t be helped. We find great sympathy for their plight. Never do we pity them.

[notification type=”star”]73/100 ~ GOOD. Hatsumi offers and demands a great deal of respect for the strength of these heroes who refused to be victims.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.

  • It truly is remarkable how the Japanese Canadians were treated by their own country, simply because of their nationality, but it’s a period of Canadian history that should be better taught in our educational system as well. Great review, thanks.