Drama Review: 99-nen no Ai ~ Japanese-Americans (TBS, 2010)
99 Years of Zzzzsolitude
by Ender’s Girl
Kusanagi Tsuyoshi, Matsuyama Kenichi, Nakama Yukie, Nakai Kiichi, Izumi Pinko, Kawashima Umika, Terashima Saki, Yachigusa Kaoru, Kamijo Tsunehiko, Kishi Keiko
In a Nutshell:
A family of Japanese immigrants struggle to survive in America in the years leading up to the Second World War, enduring bigotry and injustice – both on their farm, and later, in an internment camp – from an increasingly xenophobic society and its government.
(SpoilLert: It’s A WAR DRAMA, so it can’t possibly end well, can it?)
“But when we came out of camp, that’s when I first realized that being in camp, that being Japanese-American, was something shameful.”
– George Takei
This multi-generational saga begins when the founding patriarch leaves his hometown in search of a better life and a better future…
[*buzz* What is “One Hundred Years of Solitude”?]
…and he embarks on an epic journey across the ocean, where America beckons with the promise of land so green and bountiful, as far as the eye can see. And on this land he unexpectedly finds love…
[*buzz* What is Far and Away?]
…But he and his wife soon realize the hardships faced by migrant sharecroppers – the unfair wages, abusive landlords and wretched living conditions…
[*buzz* What is “The Grapes of Wrath”?]
…Still, the young couple persevere until they acquire their own farm and start to raise a family. But when war breaks out between America and Japan following the Pearl Harbor attacks, the family is forced off their land by the U.S. government and relocated to the Manzanar Internment Camp…
[*buzz* What is “Snow Falling on Cedars”?]
…And in this production, the lead actor appears in multiple roles…
[*buzzzzzz* What is Coming to America???????]
(LOL.) Er, sorry to disappoint the Gabriel Garcia-Marquez fans, the Tom+Nicole fans, the Steinbeck fans, the Ethan Hawke fans (lol) and most of all, the Eddie Murphy fans reading this blog, but the answer is “none of the above.”
When 99-nen no Ai (99 Years of Love) ~ Japanese-Americans aired for five consecutive nights in November of 2010, it wasn’t just touted as TBS’ 60th anniversary offering — a worthy milestone in itself — but as something more momentous, not only for the network but for the whole country. For this tanpatsu wasn’t just any historical drama, it was a drama about a particular subset of Nihonjin who lived in a land not their own, amid a people hostile to their race, and during one of the most harrowing periods in 20th-century history. By following the story of the fictional Hiramatsu family, 99-nen no Ai gives viewers a glimpse into the injustices suffered by the first-generation Japanese-American immigrants (called Issei) and their American-born children (or Nisei) on U.S. soil during the 1920s-1940s, the most egregious of which being their blanket labeling as “enemy aliens” during the Second World War (despite the Nisei being American citizens) and subsequent incarceration in concentration camps.
The account of the Japanese-American internment is indubitably one of the lesser known — or least talked about — chapters in U.S. history, perhaps because of the opprobrium it can still evoke. The government-sanctioned confinement of more than 100,000 Issei and Nisei during the Second World War may not have been as massive in scale as the Trail of Tears or America’s long, horrific chapter on black slavery, but the taste it leaves is no less bitter, made even more so by the element of disbelief at the hypocrisy and irony that something could be allowed on American soil, and to American citizens at that, while American soldiers were fighting overseas to rid the Free World of genocidal despots and their rampaging armies.
As the events of World War II move further away in our collective memory, it becomes all the more important to tell these kinds of stories for present and future generations, and to tell them again and again… “so that we may never forget.” So big props to TBS for its worthy efforts to dramatize these experiences of the Issei and Nisei. Due credit goes to the screenwriter for covering as much historical ground as possible – from the transoceanic migration of the Japanese sharecroppers, to their hardships as tenant-farmers beholden to white landowners, to the persecution of Issei and Nisei and their relocation to the camps, even the heroism of the Japanese-American soldiers in the War in Europe. At the same time, this production is careful not to justify Japan’s culpability in (literally) igniting the War in the Pacific through its policy of imperialism and aggression. (Although one may also say that 99-nen no Ai also largely ignores Japan’s own wartime atrocities that plunged the Asia-Pacific region into darkness and chaos.) At any rate, the drama’s thesis seems to be such: “Whatever Japan’s wrongdoing in the Second World War, the Japanese-Americans had nothing to do with it and thus did not deserve to be treated so unjustly by the U.S. government.”
But perhaps the network was too aware of the onus it bore – which was to faithfully chronicle Japan’s history and not trivialize the events depicted in 99-nen no Ai – that it failed to see the pitfalls that came with such an undertaking. It’s unfortunate that in spite of the laudable intentions behind and in front of the camera, this production does not exactly live up to the promise of Epic! TV Classic! National Treasure! status that the network was clearly gunning for. 99-nen no Ai appears far too conscious of its own historicity, and for much of its five episodes feels like a lumbering, didactic exercise instead of a genuinely entertaining and uplifting piece of storytelling. Good historical dramas primarily seek to entertain using a cleaver interweaving of personal stories with the backdrop of factual events; any edifying information or insight gained by the viewer ought to be in support of the storytelling. On the contrary, 99-nen no Ai seeks to instruct and moralize first, and entertain later – due in no small part to a screenplay crawling with hokey moments and facilely written *coughAmericancough* characters. (After airing my gripes to zooey, she hit the nail on the head by calling the two episodes she had seen “so corny, like a Hallmark movie.” Hahahahaha. So true.)
Like the title denotes, the story of the Hiramatsu clan begins in Japan a century before, in the hard, uncertain days following the Meiji Emperor’s death. The young patriarch Hiramatsu Chokichi (Kusanagi Tsuyoshi), the second son of a penurious sharecropper family, embarks for the U.S. along with many other Japanese farmers, all drawn to greener pastures by the promise that their hard work will be richly rewarded there. His stomach empty but his mind filled with lovely dreams of a new life in America, Chokichi is willing to endure all things — beginning with the cramped squalor of the ship that will bring him to Seattle, Washington. But he gets his first taste of discrimination when a white store owner at the port of entry refuses him business, spitting out what will be the first of many overdone, overly enunciated deliveries coming from this drama’s gallery of hysterically hammy Caucasian actors (some of whom were actually American (!), lol): “We don’t. Sell. To Japs!!!”
Poor FOTB Chokichi gets a bigger and ruder awakening later when he and his friend, who has also brought his wife and two young children to America, pay a visit to his friend’s uncle, a much older Issei who had migrated two decades before and who lives in a ramshackle homestead on the outskirts of Seattle – not quite enjoying the fat of the land as was widely believed back in Japan. The disgruntled old farmer is quick to disabuse Chokichi and his friend of their naïve notions of America: the truth is there aren’t enough work opportunities for Japanese fieldhands, and those lucky to land jobs are overworked and underpaid compared to the white laborers. Life ain’t a bed of roses here in America, for it’s clear that ethnic minorities are at the bottom of the heap. (The scene in the old farmer’s kitchen, where the ojisan recites a litany of unfair labor practices and other discriminatory acts against Asian immigrants while a flabbergasted Chokichi and his friend look on, did NOT work for me because it smacked of lazy writing by way of narrative spoonfeeding. I felt like I was watching a high school play during Social Studies Week. WTF, the ornery ojisan even delivered a short lecture on the Russo-Japanese War! There was minimal change in the blocking as the ojisan’s tirade wore on with factoid after factoid, thus doing little to alleviate the static feel and pedagogical tone of the scene. In a word: Zzzzzz.)
Good thing that Kusanagi Tsuyoshi’s deft, understated performance makes this scene so much easier to watch. As the ojisan’s Welcome-to-America-NOT! spiel turns into a diatribe against racism and whatnot, so does Chokichi’s face ever so subtly shift from registering buoyant optimism to a creeping sense of disillusionment and dread. He also realizes he cannot rely on the ojisan’s hospitality – or lack of it – for long, for the farmer has made it clear that transient immigrants like Chokichi can expect from his family only the barest minimum in assistance: a barn to sleep in, and scraps from his dinner table. And yet Chokichi endures this with impeccable courtesy and dignity while struggling to hide his bitter disappointment. He understands the old farmer and is nevertheless grateful for the help extended him – no matter how stinting.
It becomes clear that being a stranger in a strange land, Chokichi has no choice but to strike out on his own, and thus we see his itinerant lifestyle for the next several years play out in short a montage showing him moving from job to job (oh a cannery! oh a farm! oh another farm!) against various backdrops of travelogue-pretty landscapes, with nothing but a blanket and a bindle to keep him company. Cue music: “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “This Land Is Your Land,” “Where the Streets Have No Name.” (Curiously, the drama sidesteps the significant developments in this decade, particularly the First World War (1914-1918) and Japan’s increasing hegemony in East Asia. Not enough time, I suppose.)
And being the dutiful son that he is, Chokichi has all this time been remitting most of his measly earnings to his peasant family back home. Upon the urging of his friend (who has since left farming and now runs a small laundry shop in Seattle), Chokichi agrees to send for a “picture bride” from Japan. But in a twist of fate (or Providence, depending on how you see it), it isn’t the pretty lass in the photograph who meets Chokichi at the port of entry, but the girl’s younger – and much plainer – sister, Tomo (Imoto Ayako). Profusely apologetic, she relates to the baffled Chokichi how she traveled to America to keep the family honor after her sister ran off with her boyfriend (tsk tsk). But Tomo promises to repay Chokichi the betrothal money that he had sent, and which had long been spent by her own impoverished family.
Tomo certainly isn’t what Chokichi was expecting, and though the instant physical attraction isn’t there (on Chokichi’s end at least; Tomo is clearly smitten with the dude from the get-go, lol) he recognizes something in the young lady that goes beyond looks or refinement. He insists on marrying her not out of pity but respect (and partly because it was the honorable, gentlemanly thing to do), and quickly realizes his instincts about her were right all along: in plain, pragmatic, ever-smiling Tomo, Chokichi finds a kindred spirit, someone hardworking and unassuming like him – not a wilting flower to be sheltered and placed on a shelf. In Tomo he finds an equal, a partner and a co-laborer. Above all it is her good, earnest heart that captures his, and he soon grows to love her.
The newlyweds are leased a small croft by the old farmer ojisan, who in the past decade or so since Chokichi last saw him has seen the fortunes of his farm rise – enough to earn him a measure of prestige within the Japanese-American association. He needs a caretaker for his newly acquired farmland, and Chokichi and his new bride are just the ones for the job. It turns out that the croft is no more than a barren patch of earth with a tiny rundown shed (with no kitchen, and no bathroom – shudders!) as their home. You see the mixed emotions passing through Chokichi and Tomo’s faces when the ojisan canters off on his horse after giving them the “keys to the kingdom.” The couple are grateful for the tenancy, but feel a little overwhelmed by the challenges that surely lay ahead. (There’s a beautiful sunset shot of Chokichi and Tomo embraced in silhouette as he comforts her in front of their new home. Nice.) But knowing they have each other to lean on gives them the strength to roll up their sleeves and buckle down to the backbreaking work before them – felling trees, sawing lumber, plowing the dusty earth – day in and day out, while subsisting on the meager returns of the farm. Watching the montage of their labors certainly jacked up my respect for all the small-scale farmers out there – especially those who lived on the frontier.
It’s pretty obvious that my favorite characters in the drama are Young Chokichi and Young Tomo. The comfortable chemistry between Tsuyoshi and Imoto Ayako is an added fillip to the actors’ strong performances, and how I wish they had figured in more scenes together. Chokichi and Tomo’s joy deepens when they are blessed with a son, whom they name Ichiro. And the fortunes of their small family go on a roller-coaster ride when they experience both the Good Side and <dun-dun-duuuunnnn> the Bad Side of America, both personified by characters in the drama.
The Good America, the benevolent, munificent, I-will-reward-you-RICHLY!!!-and-make-your-wildest-dreams-come-true-if-you-work-hard-and-are-nice-to-others! side of America, is embodied by Catherine, a widow living on a neighboring farm who has made it her morning habit to drive by the Hiramatsu homestead in her buggy to gawk at the strange little Orientals who work like bees and whose idea of “play time!!!” is, um, working like bees. (I couldn’t find a good photo of Catherine, but she reminds me of the woman from the painting American Gothic crossed with Widow Tweed from The Fox and the Hound.*remembers Tod and Copper and sniffles* So I’ll just call Catherine “Widow Tweed” from hereon.) Her daily ritual is admittedly kind of creepy, but Chokichi and Tomo interpret this as non-aggressive behavior (lol) and reach out to Widow Tweed through a daily
tribute peace offering of fresh produce from their farm. Moved by the strange little Orientals’ kindness, not to mention their industriousness and, um, cute displays of affection, Widow Tweed tells Chokichi and Tomo that she is bequeathing her land to them. (Yay!)
But OHNOES WHAT IS THIS????? Let’s not forget there is Bad America, personified by <dun-dun-duuunnnn> James aka the Ku Klux KLone Ranger, who gallops across the Pacific Northwest stamping out undesirable Asians on his chestnut bay while emitting a terrible laugh that can shame any self-respecting cartoon supervillain. (Heigh-ho Silver, away! The Lone Ranger rides again!) James also happens to covet Widow Tweed’s land and would rather get drawn and quartered by his own cattle than see American soil come under the possession of <heaven forbid> non-Americans. So if I had to describe James/Lone Ranger in one world? Easy: “LMFAO.” Sharing the blame for the FAILness of this character are the over-the-top “actor” who played him, and the writer of 99-nen no Ai for giving the character such groan-inducing lines as “I want you. OFF. MY. LAND! Go back to your OWN country! THIS is American soil!” There’s a scene where, as if to punctuate his vitriol-laced slurs, James sharply reigns in his horse at the crest of a hill so that it rears back on its hind legs!!! Rider glowers at trembling Asians below while horse neighs ominously. Viewer goes LMFAO.
This is the main issue I have with the American characters in this drama. It’s bad enough that the writer just had to dichotomize the entire U.S. populace into either warm, charity-minded motherly types OR evil intolerant racist pigs. There’s nothing in between. No gray-area characters that feel like real persons. Making things worse is the casting of sundry white people (spot the Eastern Europeans! Lol) who liked to deliver their lines as if they already knew that their work would be shown in a country where English was not commonly spoken. So I guess we’re supposed to thank the white cast members for being kind enough to SPEEEAK. SOOO. CLEEEARLYYYY, lol.
But despite wave after wave of adversity (e.g. their new house is set on fire one night by – GUESS WHO. Uh, Widow Tweed? GUESS AGAIN! Lulz), the young Hiramatsu couple stand their ground, working ceaselessly on Widow Tweed’s land until the farm flourishes – just as their own family grows. Fast-forward twenty years: first-born Ichiro (well hello again, Kusanagi Tsuyoshi! lol) is gentle, bookish and reserved, and prioritizes finishing college over running the farm — despite Papa Chokichi’s (Nakai Kiichi) desire that Ichiro inherit the family business. Whereas the more temperamental Jiro (Matsuyama Kenichi), a strapping lad, cares little for school and is a true farmer’s son, devoting his days to “growing things” and overseeing farm operations. (I swear, there’s even a scene where Jiro digs up a radish from the soil and takes a huge bite into it – organic produce at its rawest. Eeww.) And he goes around in overalls and a straw hat like, EVERYWHERE, just in case you forget that he has a! green! thumb! Matsuyama Kenichi is a talented and intuitive actor (more on him later), but every time he came on screen, “The Farmer in the Dell” started playing in my head, alternating with “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” Hahahaha
BilboJiro (voiceover): “A rather unfair observation, as we have also developed a keen interest in the brewing of ales, and the smoking of pipe-weed. But where our hearts truly lie is in peace and quiet, and good tilled earth. For all HobbitsHiramatsus share a love of things that grow.”
(from LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring)
Rounding off the Hiramatsu brood are Chokichi and Tomo’s two daughters, the teenage Shizu (Terashima Saki) and the tweener Sachie (Kawashima Umika). The actors playing Papa Chokichi and Mama Tomo bear a serviceable resemblance to their younger counterparts and are able to maintain a believeble degree of continuity to the characters’ younger selves. At the same time we can see on their sun-browned, weather-beaten faces how life in America has seasoned and toughened them over the years. Both still maintain their Japanese citizenship and are barred from legally owning property; but their four children, having been born on the farm, are American citizens, and thus stand to reap the gains that Chokichi and Tomo dreamed up and have tirelessly fought for.
Papa Chokichi wants Ichiro to find a nice sturdy Japanese lass to help propagate their sturdy peasant stock, but it turns out Ichiro has other plans. He gets himself a bluestocking girlfriend – and oh look, it’s Yankumi!!! The daughter of a diplomat stationed in the U.S., Yankumi’s character Shinobu meets Ichiro at the university, and being the only Asians on campus, the twosome immediately hit it off. (He’s bookish, she’s bookish! He’s a gentle soul, she’s a gentle soul! He’s a lover not a fighter, she’s a lover not a fighter! Etc! etc!) I know Nakama Yukie is one of the biggest TV stars in Japan, but throughout most of 99-nen no Ai I was wishing her character had never come to America. I wanted to like her but never could. Yankumi and Tsuyoshi have zippo chemistry despite the screenwriter’s attempts to sensationalize their affaire de couer: He rescues her from a gang of nasty white college boys – ohnoes! He takes her home, but Papa Chokichi doesn’t like her – ohnoes! Because she can’t tell a cultivator from a chisel plow – ohnoes! And because her culturati family would rather discuss the Manchurian Incident at tea parties than something so vulgar as livestock and cabbages – ohnoes!
Oooh, and love triangle alert — you know who else likes Yankumi? Jiro!!! (The farmer in the dell, the farmer in the dell…) Tsk tsk, but poor boy-o never had a shot in hell – for so devoted is Yankumi to Ichiro that when her diplomat otosan gets recalled home and she and her family board the last Japan-bound ship out of Seattle, the minute Yankumi is alone in her cabin she JUMPS OFF the OCEAN LINER and SWIMS BACK TO THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST — because she wants to BE WITH ICHIRO. <wait for it> HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. But at least she has the presence of mind to ZIPLOCK HER PASSPORT AND TIE IT TO A STRING before bailing. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. She miraculously survives the sharks and the undertow and the – oh, I dunno, vortex created by the ship’s giant rudder or whatnot – and FINDS HER WAY TO DRY LAND. Wow. Wow. Wow. What can I say — LOVE makes you STRONG!!! (LOL)
You’d think Ichiro would MARRY Yankumi the second he finds her bedraggled, seaweed-covered self camped out in the Hiramatsu barn munching on stolen turnips – but no. But you don’t feel any passion or urgency in their love. No snogging sessions behind the stable doors (with poor Jiro on the other side, crying), no quickie rolls in the hay (with poor Jiro hidden in the rafters, peeping), no lusty romps in the cabbage patch (with poor Jiro in the adjacent lettuce bed… erm, never mind, lol). Their relationship is just so… neuter. So Arashi-happy. In a word: Zzzzz. Now, had Yankumi played BOTH Ichiro and Jiro at the same time – like Julia Ormond did with Aidan Quinn and Brad Pitt in Legends of the Fall – THAT would’ve at least been interesting to watch, hahaha.
The news of Imperial Japan’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy is not welcomed by most Japanese-Americans. A Nihonjin visitor laments to the Hiramatsus, “Japan’s militarization is stifling. It no longer has an atmosphere of peace.” (Again, this is the drama’s way of distancing itself from anything that may be construed as a pro-war stance.) In short, the Japanese-Americans are living on a powder keg and it’s… uh, giving off sparks. Then Pearl Harbor is bombed – and the domestic anti-Japanese backlash reaches fever pitch in a tsunami of boycotts, hate crimes, and finally – Roosevelt’s signing of E.O. 9066, which authorizes the government to crack down on Japanese-Americans and force them off their properties and into “relocation camps,” where they will live under tight guard until the close of the War.
Papa Chokichi and other respected figures in the Japanese-American association suspected of aiding the Japan’s spy network (although the history books say that for some Issei, the charges were actually true) are personally arrested by the Feds and placed under maximum security at an undisclosed location. Forced to abandon their farm (and guess who’s plotting a takeover? James!!!), Mama Tomo, Ichiro, Jiro and Yankumi find themselves herded into trains and taken first to a racetrack, then to hastily constructed barracks at the Manzanar Internment Camp in California. The daughters Shizu and Sachi were earlier sent home to Japan to live with Papa Chokichi’s relatives. (More on the two later.)
Still, it’s amazing how the Manzanar inmates make the most of their situation. Ichiro and Yankumi volunteer as instructors at the school (and lemme guess what Yankumi must be teaching… Math!!! If Akanishi Jin were a Japanese-American – well, he’s practically a first-generation immigrant anyway, lol – something tells me he wouldn’t last a day in Manzanar without his preshus hamburgers and fries, tsk). Meanwhile, Mr. Agriculture 1942 (Jiro) and the other prisoners work to cultivate the desert terrain of Manzanar into thriving, well-irrigated vegetable gardens.
Then Ichiro does the unthinkable and signs up for the Army – the U.S. Army. Well, at least he doesn’t forget to marry Yankumi before leaving Manzanar. They have 5 days of bedded – er, wedded bliss, plus another week or so when Ichiro is granted furlough after his training and before he gets shipped off to war. (On their honeymoon in Seattle, Chokichi and Yankumi are given a rough time inside restaurants and hotels with a “No Japs and pets allowed” policy. But just when they’re about to sleep on a park bench, a Caucasian Fairy Godmother materializes bearing tidings of great joy – and leads them to an Asian-friendly B&B, oh wow. I would’ve been moved by this sequence had the whole thing not been another grand showcase of hammy actors dichotomized into Bad America vs. Good America. Sheesh.)
But Episode 4 is when the story picks up steam: Ichiro joins the 442nd Infantry Regiment, mostly made up of Japanese-Americans who volunteered despite having family members still living in the various internment camps. I found this story arc so engaging because (1) prior to watching 99-nen no Ai I had no idea that such a combat unit existed, or that the 442nd was in fact the most highly decorated regiment for its size in the history of the U.S. military; and (2) I love war dramas of all shapes and sizes (World War II dramas in particular!) because it’s times like these that bring out both the best and the worst in human beings, the noble and the monstrous.
This is also where the production finally earns its stripes as a bona fide “epic war drama.” Not only are the location shots vividly rendered – from the forests of “France” to the Okinawa caves – but the training and battle sequences are filmed on an impressive scale and are able to capture to a striking degree of verisimilitude the bloody hellishness (literally) of war. It ain’t Band of Brothers or The Pacific, but — come on. (The one glaring exception could be seen in closeups of Tsuyoshi’s face during key scenes. The makeup artist obviously thought we’d be too stupid to tell the difference between artificial blood and poster paint daubed haphazardly on Tsu’s skin – and you can actually see the brush strokes, LMFAO. So who’s stupid now, hah?)
Amping up the viewer’s emotional investment in the 442nd Infantry is the regiment’s selection by the powers that be (or rather, the brass that be) to rescue a beleaguered Army battalion holed up in Biffontaine, France. (Watching this sequence reminded me of the “Bastogne” episode of my mostest favoritest war drama Band of Brothers – and in a good way.) And having to break through heavily manned German lines to reach the so-called “Lost Battalion,” and to then hold their ground until reinforcements arrive, pretty much spells “suicide mission” for the Japanese-American soldiers.
This episode of 99-nen no Ai draws striking parallels to the 1989 film Glory, about one of the first Army regiments wholly composed of African-Americans who fought for the Union during the U.S. Civil War. Like the black soldiers, newly freed slaves all, the Japanese-Americans stepped up to the plate to fight for a government that had legislated injustice against their families on the sole basis of race, and to fight (and die) alongside white soldiers who had helped perpetuate the terrible lie that “all races may have been created equal, but some races are more equal than others.”
And like the black soldiers in Glory, the Japanese-American infantrymen of the 442nd also suffered grievous losses during the siege of Biffontaine, which would become their most famous battle. Perhaps these Japanese-American soldiers displayed the gung-ho intrepidity for which they would later be honored because they only wanted to prove that they were true patriots undeserving of any racist slur hurled their way. Perhaps they were only trying to live by their unit motto, “Go for broke!” – which had become their own “Banzai!” of sorts — even as they lay dying on the grimy slush-covered French countryside, thinking of their families who were still in the camps. Whatever the reason, these soldiers of the 442nd served their country well, although the gratitude and recognition from white America would not be accorded them till much later. To borrow from the Bard, these gripping stories are “such (epic) stuff that (History) is made on,” ne?
Back in Nihon, Ichiro’s sisters Shizu and Sachie are battling a different kind of enemy: loneliness and separation (Shizu is taken in by an aunt in Hiroshima, while Sachie is sent to live with another aunt in Okinawa), social rejection and bullying at school, and hunger and deprivation at the hands of abusive relatives. This story arc is also highly engrossing because as a viewer you can’t not feel for these two sisters as they suffer the horrors of war that all civilians experience – regardless of which side of the conflict they’re on. At the same time you question the wisdom of uprooting these young girls from their county of birth and sending them into such a volatile and risky situation with no assured favorable outcome. But you also understand that like so many Issei fathers, Papa Chokichi made his judgment call in good faith, fully believing that any hardships Shizu and Sachiko would face in Japan were the lesser evil compared to the threat posed by America’s growing lynch-mob culture. (There’s a scene where oniisan Ichiro rescues Shizu from a gang rape attempt outside the Hiramatsu farm, and the raw and honest aftermath where the shaken siblings draw comfort from each other – “We won’t be protected by Japan or America… we have to learn to take care of our own selves” – will break your heart to pieces.)
It turns out that the internment camps in America would have been a far better deal than the tragic ordeal awaiting the girls in Japan. In the intertwined stories of Shizu and Sachie you feel the overshadowing helplessness and isolation that echo the 1988 anime classic Hotaru no Haka, and you can’t help but rail at how war SUCKS, war is HELL, for all sides involved – but for the innocent civilians most of all. But you’ll also cheer loudly for Sachie as she learns to stand up to an oppressive aunt and assert her rights at home, refusing to play the victim or the martyr. Sachi’s spark of determination, courage and resourcefulness reminded me in so many ways of my own grandmother, who was Sachie’s age during the Second World War, and whose remarkable wartime story was chronicled by my mother (a writer by profession – yes, the kind that gets paid and stuff, lol) in a tribute essay published in one of our national broadsheets. Here’s an excerpt:
Life was a daily balancing act on the knife’s edge, and to survive, one had to cross it carefully without drawing blood. It was this same tightrope that my mother walked as she negotiated the demands of friendship and allegiance, mercy and justice, war and peace, that daily confronted her — complex issues for a child! Yet perhaps only a child could see rightly. Only a child would be brave and true enough to cut through the absurdity of war and decide in her heart that killing another human being was evil no matter what side of the war one was on, and that though an enemy was an enemy, once he assumed a human face and a familiar name, he ceased to be one.
When the War finally ends, two major Japanese cities are nothing but ashes and rubble. And two Hiramatsu family members are dead – one killed in action, the other by his own hand – while a third family member, sick from radiation poisoning, will be dead in two years. It’s now up to Jiro to take responsibility for his family – or what’s left of it – as they slowly pick up the pieces of their shattered world. At least the news that Yankumi – er, Shinobu is carrying Ichiro’s son gives them hope that all is not completely lost. But the War has also driven a wedge within the family in more ways than one. So embittered is Sachie by her wartime trauma that she refuses to be reunited with her family in America. A providential encounter with a kind couple (Osugi Ren and Takahata Atsuko, in small but notable roles) who have lost their own sons in the War paves the way for Sachie and Shizu’s adoption and new life in Japan.
It takes 70 years before Sachie (Kishi Keiko), now 81, returns to Japan to be finally reunited with her surviving brother Jiro (Kamijo Tsunehiko) and sister-in-law Shinobu (Yachigusa Kaoru), who were able to win back the Hiramatsu farm and restore it to full productivity after the War. (Now why the heck didn’t Jiro and Shinobu just GET MARRIED anyway? To honor Ichiro’s memory? Not very realistic if they spent all those decades living platonically under the same roof. And most of all I just wanted Jiro to find his own bloody happiness – but he never married out of duty to his dead oniisan’s widow and child, LIKE, HOW SAD IS THAT.)
It’s this aspect that proves to be the drama’s biggest minus: the “reminiscing” done by present-day Sachie, Jiro and Shinobu that serves as the narrative backbone crosscutting the drama. First of all, their reunion scenes at the baseball stadium and the hotel lobby weren’t convincing. At all. I found it hard to believe that Jiro (and Shinobu) never made an effort to search for the two girls after the war. Even if Sachie intentionally broke off contact with the Hiramatsus, were there no government agencies or humanitarian organizations that helped loved ones find each other in the peacetime years? Even the death of Shizu would have been registered somewhere and had Jiro launched any effort to seek her it would’ve been a matter of time before Shizu’s death record turned up. But in their “reunion” scene Jiro and Shinobu find out about Shizu’s death for the very first time – and their reactions don’t register pain and sorrow to any convincing degree. This entire modern-day arc just left me cold. Left me very, very cold.
Never mind that the actors playing Jiro, Shinobu and Sachie look more like sprightly sexagenarians than octogenarians (Sachie) and nonagenarians (Jiro and Shinobu). Never mind that that the actress playing Sachie is soooo self-conscious and doesn’t seem to understand that her character is supposed to be rehashing the most painful experiences of her life that she’s kept bottled up all these decades. Instead she recounts her wartime traumas as if they were last week’s trip to the zoo. The dynamics of the three elderly Hiramatsus don’t hit home because their reminiscing sessions feel so artificial, so bogged down by belabored dialogue that overexplains things — like the time Sachie tells
the viewers Jiro and Shinobu, “When I was eleven, I was abandoned by my parents and sent to Japan…” — AS IF the two didn’t know this already, lol.
And it doesn’t help ONE BIT that Shinobu’s great-grandson Michael Takuya (“Michael Takuya”??? lol whut), played by Imai Yuki (this creepy kid actor who unfortunately has appeared in way too much stuff; it’s time to think of another life direction, sweetie) gets summoned by his elders to recite “The Legend of Chokichi and Ichiro” (wholly from memory!!!) – all for the edification of Sachie’s impertinently ignorant young grandson, who apparently knows diddlysquat about his own forebears and is in sore need of a history lecture or two. So all the present-day characters are really just expository vectors that provide a running recap of the past 99 years of their clan’s history. And they do this more for the benefit of the viewer, who’s obviously too stupid to piece the story together on his own. This kind of stilted narration makes 99-nen no Ai feel more like a bad ripoff of a History Channel documentary than the living, breathing dramatization of a family’s personal journey – no thanks to the manipulative screenwriter who seems to have forgotten how actual human beings behave and converse in real-life situations. *giant rolleyes*
And don’t even get me started on the LMFAO-ness of the highly spurious “American accents” sported by the characters who *supposedly* grew up in the U.S. — Ichiro, Jiro, Sachie, Michael Takuya, etc. I understand that most of the Japanese actors on the show probably don’t speak a lick of Engrish, but really — a little more effort, people? Yes? Yes? Okay? Maybe the production could have at least hired a dialect coach to make sure the English dialogue was delivered with a leeetle more credibility, ne? Yes? Yes? Okay? Lol.
The problematic storytelling in 99-nen no Ai hits rock-bottom when both the modern-day arc and the World War II arc get “resolved” in such a pat, feel-good manner. At the close of the World War II arc, the Hiramatsus come home to find their property in a sorry, fallow state, no thanks to <dun-dun-duuuuun> James (!!!), who by now is old and gimpy but still refuses (!!!) to sell the land back to his mortal Asian enemies – UNTIL he learns that Ichiro served in the 442nd, the same regiment that famously rescued the Texas battalion in France, because <dun-dun-duuuun> surprise, surprise, James is ALSO FROM TEXAS!!! (From the Lone Ranger to James Walker: Texas Ranger, oh how you’ve come a long way, Jimmy! LMFAO) Moved to repentant tears, James gives the farm back to the Hiramatsus and vows to be “uh bettuh man.” So Jiro pushes aside dark thoughts of turning his redneck neighbor into sushi, and finally makes his peace with James. Everybody happy!!!
At the close of the modern-day arc, it’s revealed that one of Ichiro and Shinobu’s grandkids has been consorting! with! the Enemy! (read: she snagged an Eemrrrican boyfriend) and Granny Shinobu will have none of it (!!!). Granny Sachie, who in the space of a few days has experienced an epic epiphany of her own, reproaches her oneechan on the dangers of falling into the same racist trap that had caused their family so much suffering. The following morning, Shinobu realizes that she shouldn’t judge her granddaughter’s beau on the color of his skin but rather on the content of his bank account – er, character. I meant content of his character. Moved to tears, Granny Shinobu and Rebel Granddaughter kiss ‘n’ make up before Chokichi, Tomo and Ichiro’s graves. Everybody happy!
That said, it comes as no surprise that the best scenes 99-nen no Ai are those with no dialogue. My favorite scene is in Episode 2, showing Ichiro inside the vestibule of their farmhouse, with his parents on the porch discussing Shinobu and her family’s impending return to Japan (obviously Papa Chokichi is eager to get the girl out of his pomaded hair). Ichiro listens in silence for a few minutes, knowing full well the implications for his personal happiness. Deciding he’s heard enough, he pads over to the foot of the stairs — but stops when Jiro abruptly emerges from the darkened hallway, his face indicating that he, too, has heard everything. The brothers exchange a look that speaks volumes (and stabs little needles through your heart).
There’s an even briefer — but equally powerful — scene in Ep. 4 where Ichiro and his father Chokichi find themselves alone in the Hiramatsu quarters at Manzanar. Papa Chokichi has just been transferred to Manzanar from his internment camp only to find out that Ichiro will be leaving for combat training in a few days. Wordlessly the two men stare at each other, then cap the moment in a quick but fierce bear hug. (This time the little needles found their way to my eyes, squeezing out tears along the way.)
Ultimately it’s the strong performances from the Japanese World War II cast – especially Kusanagi Tsuyoshi, Matsuyama Kenichi, Kawashima Umika as Sachie, and the actors playing Chokichi and Tomo – that help alleviate the mind-numbing, eye-rolling effects of the lamentable writing and laughable Caucasian acting — but just barely. 99-nen no Ai might’ve actually been a standout and a keeper given a less self-conscious (and self-important) script and a more convincing supporting cast. But instead we are left with this ponderous family/war saga whose titular 99 years feel, more than anything, like a life sentence meted on hapless viewers instead of the sweeping tragic-romantic epic we had all hoped it to be.
Artistic & technical merit: B-
Entertainment value: C+
Photo credits: dramacrazy.net, japanprobe.com, la.us.emb-japan.go.jp, linearseat.org, listal.com, seichan1188.livejournal.com, tinhte.vn, wn.com
On a related note, Lea Salonga and George Takei are set to star in a new musical play Allegiance, about a Japanese-American family living in a Wyoming internment camp during the War. The production will have its U.S. premiere this year, with a Broadway run scheduled for 2012 to mark the 70thanniversary of the internment camps. (Source)