THREE STARS – Thought-provoking
When American-born persons of Japanese descent were denied their rights and imprisoned in concentration camps during World War II, the vast majority of Americans were silent. The underlying prejudice of such an act was laced with a jealousy that paralleled a similar jealousy of the German people toward the Jewish population in Europe. Successful, intelligent, disciplined and unemotional, the Japanese-Americans were admired and feared, loved and hated.
Though it is difficult to depict the complexity of such emotions, “Snow Falling on Cedars” is a worthy attempt.
Based on the novel by David Guterson and captured on film by the director of “Shine,” Scott Hicks, “Snow Falling on Cedars” weaves together the personal lives and the racial tensions of the mixed population of a small island in Washington’s Puget Sound.
Deliberately attempting to create an experience through visual images and manipulated sounds, Hicks doesn’t tell a simple story. By weaving together perceptions and actualities with past and present experiences, the film draws the viewer into the story as a participant of its unfolding events.
The central characters of the film are two adults who had been childhood sweethearts. Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke) is the Anglo son of the publisher of the island’s newspaper and Hatsue Miyamoto (Youki Kudoh) is the daughter of a Japanese family. Seemingly unaware of racial differences, Ishmael and Hatsue spend their brief romance laughing and playing in the snow-covered forests. As very young teens, within the protection of a large cedar tree, they express their love to one another in secret.
This is the first theme both within the film and within our experience as a nation. The blending of races into a single citizenry assumes that love will be expressed at a human level and not limited by racial distinctions. Children, sharing their schools and villages, and left to their own natural desires, will love one another not based on race but on personhood.
But children are not left to their natural desires. Racial fears and divisions are passed from parent to child. Hatsue, as she is lovingly being cared for by her mother, hears her whisper that she is not to choose a white boy, but rather a boy of “her own kind.”
When the war erupts and the nation nurtures a vengeance toward the “Japs,” the racial characteristics of our own people of Japanese descent made it easy to inter them in camps.
This is one of the most difficult and shameful moments in our nation’s history and in the film. The scenes of our Japanese brothers and sisters being marched to camps with little white tags on them as though they are only baggage to be collected are convicting.
Though the people of the island had shared their lives with these neighbors, there were only quiet stares as they are boarded onto the ferry to be taken away. This silence in the face of such injustice is unconscionable, but fear and jealousy are powerful allies not only leading to war but also profiting from it.
When Hatsue sends a “Dear John” letter to Ishmael while she is in the concentration camp and he is a soldier in the South Pacific, the pain he experiences is as though he lost a part of himself. This spiritual loss is marked by the physical loss of his arm from battle. Ishmael is no longer complete.
This is the third factor woven within the story. When we allow our fears and jealousies to keep us from expressing our love and commitments, the spiritual loss to our souls is immeasurable.
Imprisoned with “her kind” of boys, Hatsue marries the handsome and disciplined Kabuo (Rick Yune) who is also from their island. After the war when they return to the island, Kabuo discovers that the farm his father had been purchasing for their family has been legally, though immorally, sold out from under them due to only two missed payments.
The disgrace this causes him and his family compels him to attempt to recover their land. But it is due to this situation that causes him to be accused of murder when the Anglo man who bought the farm dies. It is this murder case which brings out both the best and the worst in the people of the island, as well as in Ishmael and Hatsue.
“Snow Falling on Cedars” is a film worthy of many conversations about the experiment of our democracy. Our invitations to the people of the world to come and join together in our common human “pursuit of happiness” can only succeed if there is love and acceptance of others. So far we are wholly unsuccessful in this most basic component of human relationships.