Snow Falling on Cedars (1999)

by Renee Scolaro Rathke


Snowy White

Snow falling on cedars. The image is a beautiful one and director Scott Hicks and director of photography Robert Richardson certainly work it in their new film, which offers repeated tableaux of the stunning beauty of the Pacific Northwest, specifically, a fishing village on San Piedro Island. But once in a while, the film interrupts its mediations on snow-covered trees, strawberry fields, and churning surf with images that are equally vivid, but in a very different way. At these moments, serenity gives way to violence, in shots of a body on an autopsy table, its skull crushed, or waves rolling back to expose dead and wounded soldiers, or severed limbs in the midst of flashbacks to an idyllic childhood.

Through such cues and others less elusive, Snow Falling on Cedars begins to shake its viewers out of complacency, when its familiar star-crossed lovers plot becomes a sincere, if problematic, examination of racism and nationalist fervor.

cover art

Snow Falling on Cedars

Director: Scott Hicks
Cast: Ethan Hawke, James Cromwell, Richard Jenkins, Sam Shepherd, James Rebhorn, Max Von Sydow, Youki Kudoh, Rick Yune

US theatrical: 22 Dec 1999 (General release)

Set in 1950, Snow Falling on Cedars has two intertwined plot lines. The impetus for the action is a murder trial: local fisherman Karl Heine is found tangled in his fishing nets in a bay, his skull crushed; soon after, his childhood friend, Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune), is arrested and charged with the crime. Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke) is a reporter covering the trial; he is also the childhood love of the defendant’s wife, Hatsue (Youki Kudoh). The second plot involves Ishmael’s memories of his and Hatsue’s failed romance. The link between these stories is more than just the coincidence that Ishmael is reporting on the trial of a former lover’s husband: racism is a driving force behind Kazuo’s trial, just as it was the wedge that divided Hatsue and Ishmael.

This racism, however, is disguised as a fierce U.S.-American nationalism, which climaxed after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and is still palpable in the San Piedro Island community at the time of the trial. The prosecution’s witnesses make this all too clear. The coroner connects Karl Heine’s head wound to the Japanese martial art of Kendo and testifies that he told the police to “look for a Jap,” and prosecutor Alvin Hooks (James Rebhorn), after repeated references to Pearl Harbor, appeals to the jury to “consider [Kazuo’s] face — the truth is self-evident in him.” He refers to Kazuo’s emotionless, stoic expression, which, the film emphasizes, is a cultural misreading (his reference precedes a flashback to a Kendo instruction, “never show your emotions”). What the lawyer reads as callused indifference, the Japanese see as honorable strength.

But the film is also specifically calling attention to white racism against the Japanese, as Kazuo’s face identifies him as “the enemy.” Kazuo’s defense attorney, Nels Gudmunsson (Max Von Sydow) recognizes this dual appeal to nationalism and racism, pointing out that it works both ways: he notes that Kazuo lied in his original interview with the police because he assumed (correctly, as it turns out) that he could not trust the whites to treat him fairly.

Flashbacks to Ishmael’s childhood further illustrate the pervasiveness of racism in the community. Initially, Hatsue’s and Ishmael’s relationship is only “acceptable” outside the village, that is, among the cedar trees: we see them meet inside a hollowed-out tree, a verdant, wet, womb-like space that insulates them from societal pressures. Particularly in Hatsue’s case, the film focuses on the social construction of race and racism. Hatsue’s mother warns her, “Stay away from white boys”; and Hatsue complains to Ishmael, “She teaches me to be Japanese!”

While Snow Falling on Cedars is sometimes subtle in presenting the inherent racism of U.S. society, it is more often overblown and melodramatic. For instance, when the town’s Japanese-Americans are being “relocated” to internment camps during WWII, the camera looks down on the Japanese boarding a ferry with a U.S. flag billowing above their heads: surely, the irony is not lost on the viewer. However, when a subsequent shot of the Japanese (still on their way to the camps) being bussed through the desert includes a young Japanese girl singing, “The Star Spangled Banner,” the moment seems more than a little contrived, as if we can’t quite be trusted to understand that these Japanese are also American.

The most disconcerting element in the movie’s examination of racism, however, is Ishmael’s position. He is more acutely aware of prejudice than his dead activist father (whose memory he idolizes and feels he can’t live up to), because he has felt the impact of it directly, in Hatsue’s rejection of his love (“Even as I felt your body move against mine, I knew that it was wrong”). And so, we might assume that he is free from such hatred himself.

But the film shows how easy it is to slip into a conditioned racism and find a sad comfort in reinforcing one’s own identity through the obliteration of another’s. For instance, in the climactic moment when we hear Hatsue’s rejection letter to Ishmael as a voice over, we see him wounded in battle and then losing his arm to amputation (like the girl singing the anthem, a blatant combination of images and soundtrack). In agony, Ishmael reduces Hatsue to a racist and sexist epithet, “Fucking Jap bitch.” And yet, the movie almost makes his response acceptable, because it is spoken out of his pain of rejection, while his continued love and longing for her is evident in the present-day scenes. In other words, the film asks us to realize that he didn’t mean it, to see it from his point of view. But this leaves out the effects of such a sentiment, as it informs every minute of every day for those who are victims of racism.

What is more difficult to accept however, is the way in which the film places the fate of Kazuo squarely in Ishmael’s hands. Is Ishmael’s discovery of new evidence and plea to the judge meant to redeem him, to make up for the bitterness he has long harbored against Hatsue? Or does this coincidence ultimately reinforce a notion of white supremacy? It was, for this viewer at least, a profoundly uncomfortable scene when Kazuo’s family turns to face Ishmael, gazing up at him in the balcony of the courtroom, bowing to him to show their gratitude. A Japanese custom, yes, but with the camera angle from Ishmael’s perspective, looking down at the beneficiaries of his good deed, and the cut to the look of satisfaction on his face, it is an uneasy moment, and unfortunately, one of the last in the film.

The two different trailers for Snow Falling on Cedars pitch it as a murder mystery or a love story. But neither angle seems as interesting as the timeliness of the film and its subject matter. Fears of international terrorism within U.S. borders bring increasing media demonizations of Middle Eastern and Arab peoples, coinciding with a burgeoning of militant hyper-nationalist groups and domestic terrorism. Snow Falling on Cedars reminds us that nationalism is often inseparable from racism. If we feel relatively “enlightened” nearly sixty years since the U.S. government’s abuses of Japanese-Americans in the wake of the Pearl Harbor bombing, the movie also suggests we are not incapable of repeating that behavior under the guise of nationalism and national security.

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