Forget Me Not
Jeff Reichert on Snow Falling on Cedars

“I feel most deeply that when the war is over... we as Americans are going to regret the avoidable injustices that may have been done.” —Milton Eisenhower, 4/1/42

“We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons, and we might as well be honest. We do. It’s a question of whether the white man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men.” —Frank J. Taylor, Saturday Evening Post

On November 26, 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s secretary Grace Tully delivered an urgent directive to recently appointed Oxford-educated anthropologist and Near East studies expert Henry Field. As quickly as possible, he was to draw up a complete list of names and addresses for all American and foreign-born Japanese citizens living in the United States. That this project was initiated a mere eleven days before the attacks on Pearl Harbor might seem curious to the casual student of American history, but for Field, a member of the White House’s Special Intelligence Unit, it probably came as little surprise. On February 19, 1942, a little more than two months after the United States’ entrance into WWII, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which granted Secretary of War Henry Stimson the power to create military areas “from which any or all persons may be excluded.” A few weeks later, Roosevelt appointed Milton Eisenhower to head the freshly created War Relocation Authority.

By August 7, 1942 this agency had relocated and interned nearly 110,000 individuals of Japanese ancestry (nearly two-thirds were American-born) in “relocation centers” built in California, Arizona, Idaho, Utah, Arkansas, and Wyoming. These, in Roosevelt’s own words, “concentration camps” remained open until 1946. Executive Order 9066 is the oft-cited culprit in this ignominious episode, but it’s the re-addition of small gestures and forgotten figures like Henry Field to the official record that makes chronicles of dusty pasts live and breathe. (His preliminary research into census records probably contributed greatly to our country’s ability to detain 737 Japanese Americans by day’s end on December 7, 1941.) E.O. 9066 began the process of internment, but Field’s research remains a shadowy enabler. If we chose to dig further beyond acknowledged histories, we could draw connecting lines from Field and 9066 to the California Land Law of 1920 and the Caucasian farming interests who lobbied for and profited from both. Designed to wrest farms from “aliens ineligible to citizenship,” the Land Law, of course, applied only to farmers of Asian descent. It proved so popular that it was replicated in neighboring states. Continued excavation into racial and economic tensions underlying 9066 is possible, but at a certain point, the web becomes too tangled and history just slips away. Few events, no matter how sudden and singular, ever arrive without some warning.

This monumental failure of democracy, which impacted the lives of so many people and ended in a courtroom drama of blockbuster proportions, is represented, as of 2004, in exactly two Hollywood films. In 1990 Alan Parker’s Come See the Paradise, a standard-issue revisionist historical ball-buster was released—penicillin cinema for those whose knees wobble at the mere whiff of controversy. Dennis Quaid stars as an Irish union organizer killing time working in a Los Angeles movie theater who falls for the boss’ daughter, Tamlyn Tomita. They flee to Seattle to escape her father’s wrath, only to run smack into Uncle Sam, WWII, and forced separation. Coming as it did two years after the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 (or Japanese American Redress bill), Paradise probably now looks like a well-intentioned yet overly conscious attempt to put a troubling episode of history to cinematic rest. But with a domestic gross well shy of one million dollars, it seems the Japanese internment remained at that point too bitter a pill for the American public. It’s telling—how quickly we’ll rush to laud filmmakers for turning their cameras on atrocities committed by foreigners on their own soil, yet shy away from even the most milquetoast inspirational pictures about our nation’s dirty laundry.

Where the indifference paid to Parker’s film is not altogether surprising, the public apathy and critical hostility that greeted Scott Hicks’s Snow Falling on Cedars is saddening. Adapted from David Guterson’s bestseller, Snow Falling on Cedars is located within the hazy harbor vistas and snowbound forests of a Washington state fishing town exactly nine years following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. This is well after the internment ended, but Hicks forces its specter into every frame without ever falling into the traps of cheap didacticism. Ostensibly an earnest courtroom drama with white American xenophobia the metaphorical defendant, Snow Falling’s true core revolves less around typical whodunit tropes and more around a flickered, atmospheric memory play; a love story, one pitched not far from the narrative arc of Come See the Paradise. Young Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke) finds first love in local “strawberry princess” Hatsue Imada (Yôki Kudô), a relationship that carries on through their teenaged years until Hatsue and her family are relocated to California’s Manzanar camp by the WRA. Their initially tame yet increasingly illicit romance plays out in a hollow spot in the base of a huge cedar’s trunk, nicely echoing Faulkner (“You smell like cedar,” Ishmael tells Hatsue), and offering a space for some of the film’s most lovely visuals. It ends with a crushing letter received half a world away. Hatsue’s husband Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune) now stands accused of murdering the white fisherman who held the title to lands stolen from his father during the internment.

Ishmael, his left arm amputated after a battle the day following receipt of Hatuse’s letter, and now filling the role of editor/investigative reporter for the town paper his father founded, uncovers a crucial piece of information about the evening in question, and the central drama of the present narrative revolves around his inability to reveal this to the defense counsel, Nels Gudmondsson (gamely overplayed by a wheezing Max von Sydow). Almost willfully inert, Hicks’s postwar America is composed largely of dour figures sitting motionless in a dim, candlelit, darkly paneled courtroom, though his preference for populating his trial sequences with reaction shots of Ishmael and Hatsue regardless of who is speaking points towards the film’s real drama. There’s never any real question that Kazuo will end up a free man. But as the film marches towards his acquittal, an impeccably crafted substructure of flashbacks and layered sounds provide a whirlwind tour of WWII America and pushes towards a gaping near-abstraction that almost threatens to upend the whole film.

Ishmael holds off revealing his discovery to Gudmondsson and Hatsue until the evening after the delivery of closing arguments. A somewhat clunky narrative device, this withholding allows Hicks room to breath as a filmmaker. His 1996 breakthrough, Shine, remained ordinary until piano prodigy Noah Taylor’s stunning mid-recital collapse—for a moment, the film broke down, and our expectations were thrown. Bearing the handprints of cinematographer Robert Richardson, Snow Falling on Cedars is one of the most visually enthralling films of the Nineties, and at times seems to exist entirely as an exercise in image poetics and subjective storytelling, taking flight from that brief segment of his prior film. Snow Falling’s flashbacks climax in a nearly ten-minute sound and image collage that details the end of Hatsue and Ishmael’s relationship and the beginning of the Japanese internment. While the jury deliberates, Ishmael unearths Hatsue’s final letter, which brings flashes of his lost arm and the sounds of battle into competition with crinkled brown paper viewed by firelight. Hicks cuts to a what looks an archival black-and-white photo of Manzanar’s entrance sign, and follows that with grainy 16mm color images of a girl (maybe Hatsue?) ice skating, and more black-and-white stills of camp history, before jumping to the text of letter itself. It’s a pseudo-documentary interlude that shouldn’t work in this context, but its furious brevity carries us easily into another character’s set of recollections. (Snow Falling on Cedars gracefully makes space for Kazuo and Hatsue’s memories to rest alongside Ishmael’s.) As Hatsue reads her words, memories commingle, her voice loops back in on itself, floating to Ishmael’s barracks in the South Pacific and onto the battlefield with him the next day. The sequence’s glorious climax comes as Ishmael, half-drowned and facedown on the beach, turns his head slightly to the right to find his younger self inspecting a dead fish on the beach with the Hatsue of his youth. As the camera tilts up for the revelation, James Newton Howard’s devastating score swells painfully, and Hatsue’s voice on the soundtrack reveals, “I don’t love you anymore.” Battlefield sounds reintrude as the camera tilts back down and Ishmael is hauled off by fellow soldiers; he’s alive amongst a sea of dead. It’s a brief, crystalline moment that manages in a single camera maneuver to approach an understanding of time and memory far beyond what most films dream of achieving. In minutes, Hicks short-hands love and loss, and how those elemental categories came together in the war against fascism abroad and the war against democracy at home. Finding the letter again in 1950 is nothing less than Ishmael’s—and the film’s—madeleine.

The tenuous balance between the easily comprehensible and ineffable portions of the narrative framework surely contributed to Snow Falling on Cedars’ cool reception. While Hicks has managed to employ Guterson’s courtroom drama as a structuring device within which to conceal and parcel out his narrative of the Japanese internment, Snow Falling just misses connecting past and present into a truly coherent whole—just misses, yet Hicks’s effort is worthwhile for treading ground more often the domain of the novelist. The reinscription of historical calamity with individual narratives played out non-sequentially across several time planes seems an ever more common tactic—it’s practically kept the Man Booker Prize in business. Contemporary novels like Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day showcase the kind of feverish flow of memories that dance easily between personal loves and public losses that Hicks captures in Snow Falling. However, as much as he presses the boundaries of free-play in mainstream narrative cinema, he’s still somewhat hobbled by his medium. You can’t turn back a few pages while watching a movie, which results in a flashback stream that plays (mostly) sequentially for the sake of comprehensibility even as Hicks works against this forward march to capture the rushing stream of instances, images, urges, intangibilities, and fleeting sentiment that populate his characters’ painful remembrances. For a few brief moments during his climactic collage, Hicks touches the abstract, but even when Snow Falling drags its feet to play to the cheap seats, it remains one of few Hollywood films I can recall where the flashback device truly earns its name. Those things re-remembered here hit like bolts of lightning—jarring, violent, and transitory, yet dangerously seductive.

Burying the internment in flashback and imperfect recollection is the ideal treatment for an event that seems already half-remembered a little over 60 years later. In this willful forgetting of our own concentration camp history (writ small) lies something essentially American. Our nation is built on complicated structures of denial and rejection. The United States of America has always been a continual attempt to start anew mired in fear and hobbled by desire to bend the “New World”’s freshness to more recognizable forms. In William Carlos Williams’s essential but largely unheralded American historiography In the American Grain, the poet sets forth through a collection of prose poems and pseudo-essays to salvage the American spirit from underneath the weight of history: “It [history] is concerned only with the one thing: to say everything is dead. Then it fixes up the effigy: there that’s finished. Not at all. History must stay open, it is all humanity.” Williams builds his argument around marginal or ostracized figures: for him, Daniel Boone, Aaron Burr, and Edgar Allan Poe represent true American possibilities neutered at the hands of more mediocre, acceptable characters like Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. I wonder how Williams would judge an academic thrust into hairy politics like Henry Field. Or perhaps even more aptly: Milton Eisenhower, who honorably resigned his post at the WRA in protest of our country’s actions. Were Snow Falling a documentary, Williams might have admired Hawke’s Ishmael Chambers and his father, Arthur (Sam Shepard), both of whom carry through on the large-minded promise of America in the face of easy xenophobia, hatred, and personal obsession. Of course it would take a filmmaker hailing from another nation (Australia, which has its own troubling history of racial dislocations) to create a credible, effective narrative about one of the most embarrassing periods in American history. Though we’re probably not alone in this, America is too adept at forgetting the inconvenient, awkward, or shameful moments of its past, even when there’s so much to gain through simple, unadulterated remembrance. It’s the lesson of In the American Grain and a large part of Snow Falling’s power as well.

Williams would probably find much to like in this “lost” film from the much-lauded Class of 1999 studio productions. In a single 12-month span, American Beauty, Fight Club, Rushmore, The Matrix, Three Kings, The Thin Red Line, and The Sixth Sense played with genres old and new with broader technical (and conceptual) palettes afforded their indie counterparts, and these films (love or hate) seemed to open up avenues of possibility for studio filmmaking that seemed unimaginable even a year prior. The six years since have witnessed the implosions of Mendes and the Wachowski brothers, the retreats of Wes Anderson and David Fincher, and the disappearances of Malick and Russell (at least until I Heart Huckabees and Malick's triumphant return with The New World). At this point, only M. Night Shyamalan has continued on a resolutely idiosyncratic bent, which is particularly surprising, given that The Sixth Sense is the most modest of the films mentioned above. A film about communication between children and parents, dressed up in ghost stories and high formalism, The Sixth Sense managed immense grosses and widespread critical acclaim, while Snow Falling will be remembered for neither, though it’s a more daring work than most of the others mentioned above. Along with sharing composer James Newton Howard, Snow Falling and The Sixth Sense both bear the producing stamp of partners Kathleen Kennedy (also a contributor to Spielberg’s A.I.) and Frank Marshall, who might have planned exact opposite fates for their two films from that year. However enticing the high-profile literary adaptation gone experimental is as potential history, given the range of projects they’ve worked on, Kennedy and Marshall probably knew all along the misfit child Snow Falling on Cedars would turn out to be.

It’s possible to argue that by refusing on-the-ground cinematic reportage of the conditions of the Japanese internment and aftermath, Snow Falling does further injustice to an already buried legacy. I suppose it depends on how one chooses to privilege aesthetic strategies. Schindler’s List may have put late twentieth-century viewers/voyeurs as close as possible to “seeing” the Holocaust, but was this really a more productive gesture than forcing us to imagine for ourselves? By removing the politics (deleted scenes make explicit reference to “concentration camps” not found in the film, and another witnesses Ishmael throw his purple heart into the sea) and specificities from the internment period, Hicks has managed the miraculous. Come See the Paradise may deal more directly with the circumstances surrounding the enactment of 9066, but Snow Falling captures the essence of the event in American history—its slipperiness, the way its been shoved under a rug, and how it hides there uncomfortably underfoot, peeking back out occasionally to remind us of the years where American democracy disappeared. (Parker’s viewers go home and sleep soundly; Hicks’s suffer uneasy rest.)

The real motion in Snow Falling lies in heavy pasts continually threatening to overcome flimsy barricades erected by frightened presents. My own shattering viewing of the film on 35mm at a local multiplex constantly intruded on my somewhat less moved experience with a DVD six years later. (Less moved until I put my face to the television, replayed Hatsue’s letter and let myself be overwhelmed.) From nearly silent opening minutes, through its flashbacks, pillow shots, collages, and awkward narrative collisions, Snow Falling is an impossible, imperfect object of late Nineties American cinema. Hicks’s film will most likely remain as a forgotten footnote, but a historian like Williams would think we’ve gotten it all wrong. Me, I almost like this lack of notoriety better—it provides a sense of secret ownership over a lost artifact, each viewing a titillating glimpse of a Rosetta stone unlocking a possible future for narrative cinema that went unnoticed. I almost like that Snow Falling on Cedars is as forgotten as the events it documents—almost, or I wouldn’t be writing this. As it turns out, Milton Eisenhower’s prediction was incorrect. “We Americans” ended up forgetting the “avoidable injustices” of the internment instead of appropriately regretting them. Snow Falling remains a small step in the right direction to correct this wrong long and unfortunately forgotten. Hopefully it won’t remain buried forever.