The score is tied as the runner leads off third base, the batter tenses and the pitcher gets ready to deliver. The crowd in the small-town ballpark holds its collective breath as the battle between two local rivals comes down to the last inning and the last pitch.
A little earlier, the lovers, who had been separated by her father, share a tender, hidden moment under the grandstand.
Gary Cole, Leonardo Nam, Aaron Yoo, Masatoshi Nakamura
(Warner Brothers; US DVD: 22 May 2007)
It’s a classic movie plot, mixing two things Americans love: baseball and romance.
Except ... this is 1944, the game is between the local community’s ballclub and a team of Japanese Americans interned in a nearby relocation camp in rural Utah, and there’s a lot more at stake than a game of baseball.
American Pastime, a new movie released last week on DVD (Warner Home Video, $19.98, not rated) and enjoying a limited theatrical run in Los Angeles, Berkeley, Fresno, Salt Lake City and Tokyo, is set in Utah’s Topaz internment camp during World War II. Beginning early in 1942, after Pearl Harbor, more than 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent—of whom about 75 percent were U.S. citizens—were forcibly removed from their homes and locked up in camps in isolated parts of the country.
To help themselves survive, many of the internees played their favorite sport—baseball.
“I’ve always wanted to do a camp movie,” says writer-director Desmond Nakano in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “My own parents and relatives were put into those camps.
“But it was a matter of how to approach it so it could be accessible to a broader audience,” says Nakano, who wrote and directed the racial drama White Man’s Burden, starring John Travolta and Harry Belafonte, among other movie credits.
The idea of making a movie that brought together the internment camps and baseball was the brainchild of producer Barry Rosenbush (High School Musical). Five years in the making, American Pastime began to take shape when Rosenbush contacted Kerry Yo Nakagawa, a baseball player and author of the authoritative Through a Diamond: 100 Years of Japanese American Baseball, published in 2002.
As with Nakano, who joined the project a short time later, Nakagawa’s family spent the war years in internment camps. Unlike Nakano’s family, which included actors, singers, jazz musicians and gamblers, Nakagawa’s was steeped in baseball. His uncle John Nakagawa was known as the “Nisei Babe Ruth” and actually got to play on a 1927 barnstorming team led by the New York Yankees’ Lou Gehrig that defeated a team led by Babe Ruth.
In a recent phone interview, Nakagawa says he ended up serving as the movie’s “associate producer, actor, behind-the-scenes filmmaker, baseball consultant and human ball machine.” In the film, he plays Jumbo Tanaka, the shortstop—and the batter who starts the ninth-inning rally for the Japanese American team with a successful bunt single.
Baseball was important to the internees, says Nakagawa, “because it raised the spirits of the people and brought normalcy to a very abnormal condition and situation.”
For Nakano, although “baseball was a way that could let an audience into the movie,” he “wanted it to work on a level where a general audience would be able to understand the story.”
That meant making a film about families.
“To me, the movie is about two different families and how the war affects these two families—one is a Japanese American family, the other is a Causasian American family,” Nakano says.
The Los Angeles-based Japanese American family, the Nomuras, blend aspects of Nakano and Nakagawa’s own families. The father (Masatoshi Nakamura) is a baseball fanatic, and one of his sons, Lyle (Aaron Yoo), is a sax-playing baseball star who is forced to give up a college athletic scholarship when the family is shipped to the Topaz internment camp in central Utah. While the father and Lyle’s brother Lane (Leonardo Nam) try to make the best of things in the camp, including organizing a baseball team, Lyle immediately becomes alienated. And when Lane enlists in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a unit of Japanese American soldiers who left the internment camps for the front lines in Europe, Lyle views his brother with disdain.
The other family, the Burrells, live near the Topaz camp, where the father (Gary Cole), a former minor-league ballplayer and star of the local team, works as a guard. His antagonism toward the Japanese American internees is open and virulent—based, in part, on having a son fighting in the Pacific—but it is not shared by his teenage daughter Katie (Sarah Drew), who plays the piano and teaches music to the children in the camp.
Naturally—this is a Hollywood movie, after all—Lyle and Katie meet in the camp and fall in love, their shared affinity for jazz being the initial bridge between them. And, of course, once their respective parents find out about their relationship, there is consternation, and worse, on all sides.
The Romeo-and-Juliet romance, says Nakano, “was a way to tie all the characters together.” And the baseball game between the two teams, with Lyle now back on the Topaz team as its star pitcher, provides the dramatic climax.
But the heart of the film remains its depiction of the internment camp and the internees. Nakano, Nakagawa, Rosenbush and others went to great lengths to ensure that “American Pastime” remained historically accurate and honest in its personal characterizations.
“A lot of little things (in the movie) were experiences I heard about through my parents or my family,” says Nakano, whose father, Lane, was an actor, an internee and a veteran of the 442nd who actually had a leading role in Go for Broke, a 1951 Hollywood movie about the Japanese American combat unit.
Other elements were more subtle. Although Nakano points out that his parents and others of their generation did not like to talk about their time in the camps, his mother did share with him one of her experiences.
“She was about 12, and one of her strongest memories was that at night, she’d be sleeping and this bright light would come over her face,” Nakano says. “And that’s why there’s one shot when they’re sleeping in the barracks and a searchlight pans over their faces.”
Despite being made on a relatively minuscule budget of $4 million, American Pastime was shot on location in Utah, where the filmmakers had to build a facsimile of the Topaz camp.
“All those barracks were built to the original specifications,” Nakano says. “They still had the blueprints.”
Both Nakano and Nakagawa have high hopes that their film will help educate all Americans—particularly young people—about the internment camps yet also reveal parallels to contemporary American society.
“I think our film really resonates today,” says Nakagawa. “We now have Arab Americans, Sikh Americans, Muslim Americans really feeling the racial profiling and hatred after 9/11. And currently, Mexican Americans are having to deal with xenophobia. ... We hoped that we would have learned the lessons of the past and therefore wouldn’t repeat them.”
But the movie is also deeply personal to the filmmakers. Last week, Nakano’s mother and other relatives saw American Pastime for the first time, at a screening at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.
“I sat with my mother while she was watching it,” Nakano says. “While it was playing, I was a little uneasy because it was so quiet.”
Many in the audience were in tears, including Nakano’s mother.
“Then after the screening, (the audience) was very, very responsive. One grandparent came up to me and said she had never been able to speak to her grandchildren about her experiences (in the camps). But she wanted to give them the movie to watch, and then she’d be able to talk to them,” Nakano says.
“For me, it was a cathartic kind of emotion. As a filmmaker, I care if the movie works or not. But as a son, I’m still my mother’s child, and to be able to make my mother cry in a good way really meant something to me.”