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‘Strawberry Fields’ Rooted in Painful Past

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Rea Tajiri got the idea for her ‘70s-era film “Strawberry Fields,” she had no intention of making a drama involving the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

But as Tajiri and screenwriter Kerri Sakamoto began to elaborate on Tajiri’s original story about a rebellious Japanese American girl and her dysfunctional family, they found the internment camp experience to be an unavoidable part of their characters’ psychological makeup.

That the psychic wounds from that experience continue to be felt by succeeding generations of Japanese Americans is a key premise behind “Strawberry Fields.”

“It was really going to be a film about these Japanese American characters, particularly this young woman coming of age in the ‘70s,” said Tajiri, whose independently produced film opens today at Edwards University in Irvine and Laemmle’s Grand in Los Angeles. “But as we started to develop these characters, we realized that the internment experience . . . was something we really couldn’t get away from. So in the end, the film became about [that too].”

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During World War II, about 110,000 Japanese Americans living on the Pacific Coast were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in internment camps in remote areas of California, Arizona, Wyoming, Arkansas and other states. They were locked up, families often divided, even though Japanese Americans had served the U.S. admirably in the armed forces during the war.

The film’s main protagonist is an angry 16-year-old girl named Irene (played by Suzy Nakamura), a third-generation Japanese American who embarks on a road trip with her boyfriend in search of a better life. Along the way she gets a clearer understanding of her parents after she learns of their history as internees.

“I felt at the time I began the project that there hadn’t been any films made that looked at the effect the internment had on the children of internees,” said the New York City-based filmmaker, whose parents and grandparents were interned. “What was that moment like when you discovered your family was interned and how does that affect you? How does that make you look at your family after that point?”

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The 1982 California Institute of the Arts graduate has received a variety of responses to her film from the Japanese American community. The arty and enigmatic film’s gritty portrayal of an emotionally divided family has been too disturbing for some. Others have found truth and emotional power in it.

She said one group of second-generation Japanese Americans who were interned came to a screening in Chicago. “One person said . . . ‘There’s something very honest about the anger that a lot of us felt but also felt we had to hide. I thank you for showing that.’ ”

Irene isn’t meant to be viewed as an autobiographical character, Tajiri said, but added that she too felt “unfocused rage” while growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s. With “Strawberry Fields,” the Chicago native says, she wanted to create a strong female character who goes against the grain of a sexist society.

In Japan, where women are viewed in a more traditional light than in the United States, the film’s feminist dimensions struck a particularly resonant chord among some young Japanese women Tajiri encountered.

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“Strawberry Fields” won the grand prize at the 1998 Fukuoka Asian International Film Festival and has been screened at about 24 other film festivals worldwide.

Tajiri said she’s “relieved and happy” that “Strawberry Fields” is finally being shown in public theaters. It took her four years to make it and another two years to get it commercially released. “Strawberry Fields” cost more than $360,000 and was financed through grants and a private investor.

Before “Strawberry Fields,” Tajiri was best known for her documentaries. Her 1991 film, “History and Memory,” explored her own family’s experience in an internment camp. That was followed by “Yuri Kochiyama: Passion for Justice,” a 1994 documentary about the Japanese American human-rights activist.

Since completing “Strawberry Fields” in 1997, Tajiri has concentrated on narrative work using digital video. Last year she made “Little Murders,” described as a “darkly comic musical about the mystery of death, communication with spirits, and the redemption that comes from knowing the truth.” “Little Murders” is part of a trilogy, the second part of which she’s working on now.

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She said she prefers making films with crews of just four or five people that allow her more spontaneity and creative flexibility. Tajiri found the team of 25 to 30 people she used to shoot “Strawberry Fields” to be unwieldy.

“I tend to have a different kind of vision of filmmaking than mainstream films,” she said. “It’s possible that I will do something that suddenly a lot of people will take notice of and be able to connect to. And then there are some things I’ll do where there will only be a small audience. I’m always interested in looking at things from a different perspective.”

* “Strawberry Fields” opens today at Edwards University, 4245 Campus Drive, Irvine. (949) 854-8811. Also at Laemmle’s Grand, 345 S. Figueroa St., Los Angeles. (213) 617-0268.


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