At the end of High Sierra, Ida Lupino cowers over the dead body of a gangster played by Humphrey Bogart. Through her tears she asks a detective, “Mister, what does it mean when a man crashes out?” The detective answers, “It means he’s free.” “Free!” Lupino exclaims, with an expression of bittersweet relief.
A year after the release of High Sierra, a group of Japanese-American internees “crashed out” of the Manzanar Relocation Camp in the shadow of the same High Sierras. In search of a quintessentially American form of freedom–fishing–their story is the subject of Cory Shiozaki’s documentary, The Manzanar Fishing Club.
In an era of documentarians like Michael Moore making themselves the stars of their films, it is refreshing that Shiozaki lets the story take the spotlight. In his unflinching, deadpan delivery, we are reminded that just 70 years ago the United States committed one of its greatest injustices. After entering World War II, the federal government classified over 120,000 Japanese-Americans as “enemy aliens,” uprooted them from their homes and detained them in internment camps. Without sentimentality or bravura, the story methodically unfolds through interviews with camp survivors. Avoiding putting their own opinions forward, the filmmaker and writers conjure the era with such vivid details as a very official-looking “license to hunt Japanese-Americans”–which certainly evoked outrage in this reviewer.
The Manzanar Camp was situated in the harsh desert at the foot of the Eastern Sierras. There were no illusions that this was anything less than a prisoner-of-war camp. Surrounded by barbed wire and armed guard towers, Manzanar was a wholesale denial of freedom. Yet just outside its perimeter were streams teeming with rainbow trout, a fact soon discovered by internees sent outside the camp on work details. Fashioning makeshift fishing gear out of willow branches, sewing thread and bent nails, returning to camp with some of the best-eating fish in North America, these first few risk-takers spread the word. Other internees began to put themselves in harm’s way, slipping past guards to go on night fishing trips. Willow branches were soon replaced with rods and reels ordered from Sears catalogues.
The sweet irony of “enemy aliens” thumbing their noses at their captors by indulging in the great American pastime is not lost on Shiozaki or the audience. (The humanizing fact that some camp guards looked the other way was counterbalanced by the others who just might shoot.) About 45 minutes into The Manzanar Fishing Club I experienced a startling revelation: the act of freedom was not the escape from camp. It was the act of fishing itself. Casting their lines by the light of the moon, these loyal, law-abiding citizens were able to experience the freedom that is the right of every American–the very freedom that their fathers, sons and brothers were dying for as members of the 100th Battalion and 442nd Regiment.
The fish story finds its ending and fulfills its destiny when one internee, Heihachi Ishikawa, scales 14,000-foot Mount Whitney in his successful search for the elusive California Golden trout.
The Manzanar Fishing Club is not without its flaws. Its lack of a filmmaker’s personal stamp, while refreshing, also makes it a less than cohesive feature-length film. A striking animated depiction of a camp uprising is the only piece of inventive cinema in the film. The fact that the film has, for no apparent reason, two narrators, is a sure sign that the filmmaker has not found his voice. But as an objective, insightful depiction of the Japanese-American internment experience, it is invaluable and well worth your time.