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‘Moon’: An In-Depth Look at War Internment

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Emiko Omori’s “Rabbit in the Moon” is arguably the most comprehensive and illuminating documentary yet on the internment of Japanese Americans in the wake of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

It takes its curious title from a Japanese tradition that envisions the lunar landscape as a rabbit pounding sweet rice. Omori’s older sister (and co-producer) Chizuko, who is the film’s key figure, further explains that when she sees a full moon she sees a smiling man. She likens the U.S. government demand for loyalty on the part of internees as having to choose between the American image of the man in the moon or the Japanese rabbit in the moon--an impossible cultural task for her.

This convoluted simile cuts to the complexity of the entire internment experience for Japanese Americans that reverberates to this day. The arbitrariness of the exclusion acts and the ensuing hardships for these citizens, so swiftly stripped of their constitutional rights (not to mention the full value of their property), and the long struggle for restitution are by now well-documented. What will be new for many audiences is the focus on the resistance by many internees and how a treacherous questionnaire administered in 1943 to all individuals in the camps 17 years or older led to a divisiveness that has yet to fade away within the Japanese American community.

The questionnaire tended to pit the immigrant generation and their American-born children against one another in a situation already exacerbated by denying leadership within the camps to the older generation. Many parents and grandparents were not citizens, and to forswear loyalty to the emperor would render them stateless; whereas their children, as U.S. citizens, found it absurd that they would be assumed to have any such imperial allegiance in the first place.

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Tensions in the camps grew worse when the government decided to extend the military draft to young Japanese American men, which the Japanese American Citizens League fostered as an opportunity for the community to prove its loyalty while a group of young men, principally in the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming, demanded that their constitutional rights be clarified before they went off to fight--in a segregated armed force.

With “Rabbit in the Moon,” the Omoris create a personal memoir as to how internment affected their family and their lives, interwoven with the histories of many others as well as using a wide range of archival footage and materials. Among their heroes are Frank Emi, one of the leaders of the Heart Mountain Relocation Center Fair Play Committee; James Omura, who as English editor of the Denver-based Rocky Shimpo wrote articles in support of the camp draft resisters and was tried for sedition; and Harry Ueno, whose false arrest for beating an inmate at Manzanar led to a 4,000-person demonstration rallying for his release.

What goes unstated in this and other internment documentaries--perhaps because it is so obvious to those who make such films--is that the horrific bombing of Pearl Harbor unleashed, especially on the West Coast, paranoia fueled by an unchecked racism. Those of us old enough to remember Pearl Harbor can also recall parents firmly convinced that along the coast every truck farmer of Japanese ancestry was a saboteur who surely had a shortwave radio in direct contact with Tojo.

The supreme irony (among many) of the camps is that though they are a permanent blot on the history of American civil liberties, the camps may have saved some from lynch mobs.

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* Unrated. Times guidelines: complex adult themes, suitable for mature older children.

‘Rabbit on the Moon’

A Wabi-Sabi Productions presentation. Writer-director-cinematographer-editor Emiko Omori. Producers Emiko and Chizuko Omori. Co-editor Pat Jackson. Music Janice Giteck. Additional compositions by Ray Lynch and Michael Sasaki. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.

Exclusively at the Grande 4-Plex through Thursday, 345 S. Figueroa St., downtown Los Angeles, (213) 617-0268.

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