Unfinished Business: The Japanese-American Internment Cases (1984)

Whitney Strub

If it isn't a documentary masterpiece, Unfinished Business is still an impressive work, valuable for its documentation of three American heroes and its insistence that the tragic civil-liberties violations of the Japanese-American internment not be forgotten.

Unfinished Business: the Japanese-american Internment Cases

Director: Steven Okazaki
Cast: Minoru Yasui, Gordon Hirabayashi, Fred Korematsu
MPAA rating: Not rated
Studio: Docurama
First date: 1984
US DVD Release Date: 2005-12-26
Amazon affiliate

As Sean Wilentz recently noted in Rolling Stone, most historians consider the George W. Bush presidency a failure. They should know; these are, after all, the people who best understand the complex social processes through which the present was shaped. These same historians routinely place Franklin Roosevelt among the few "great" Presidents. Yet as terrifying as Bush's Big Brother policies are (a terror mitigated, perhaps, only by his administration's colossal ineptitude), and as massive an insult to civil liberties as Bush has delivered, he has yet to build concentration camps on American soil.

Roosevelt, on the other hand, did just that. Executive Order 9066, signed on February 19, 1942, empowered the military to designate "military areas," from which "any or all persons may be excluded." The express goal of this order was to facilitate the militarization of the entire west coast and the "relocation" of the more than 110,000 Japanese and Japanese-American people living there, on the ostensible grounds that they constituted a threat after Pearl Harbor. Torn from their homes and livelihoods, these victims of state power — two-thirds of whom were American citizens — were sent to internment camps spread across Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Arkansas, and elsewhere. Roosevelt himself publicly referred to the camps as concentration camps.

Unfinished Business addresses the Japanese internment, deftly approaching it through a set of personal stories that keep the documentary free of any overt ideological agenda, but never makes the common mistake of losing the broader picture in the particulars of its characters. The film, nominated for a 1984 Best Documentary Oscar, works not just as a reminder of the need for eternal vigilance over our precarious rights, but also as a testament to the courage of those who resist oppression. More subtly, it also tracks the generational development of Japanese-Americans, from the first-generation Issei immigrants to the American-born Nisei generation (who bore the psychic scars of internment quietly for several decades, preferring cultural assimilation to antagonism), and finally to the politicized third-generation Sansei, who reintroduced the internment to public discussion in the 1970s, demanding reparations.

Director Steven Okazaki hones in on three men who challenged internment. Minoru Yasui grew up in an Oregon farm town, served in the military and attended law school, then worked for the Japanese consulate in Chicago before resigning quickly after the Pearl Harbor attack. Fred Korematsu worked as a welder in Oakland until the union expelled all Japanese-Americans from the shipyards, and Gordon Hirabayashi belonged to a pacifist group in Washington.

Forced relocation began with a gradual stripping away of rights, and the very day Order 9066 was signed, Yasui violated an imposed curfew and demanded to be arrested. Police were initially reluctant, suggesting he simply go home, but Yasui insisted. He ended up spending nine months in solitary confinement, the harshest sentence possible. Hirabayashi, meanwhile, refused to submit to evacuation and was convicted by a jury in 10 minutes, spending five months in prison. Korematsu attempted to evade the round-up, even getting plastic surgery to alter his appearance, but he too was captured by May 1942 and convicted. All three cases reached the Supreme Court in 1943-44, and the Court, in a shameful display of subservience to the executive branch, upheld the convictions and refrained from declaring unconstitutional the racially-motivated roundup and internment of American citizens without due process of law, citing wartime exigency.

Interviewed in the early '80s, Yasui, Korematsu and Hirabayashi tell their stories with a surprising absence of bitterness. Director Okazaki conveys some of the hardships of internment and the often devastating loss of property and community it wrought, but he declines to dwell on these matters (for a powerful look at the experiential aspects of internment, see Lawson Fusao Inada's anthology Only What We Could Carry). Instead, having established the three narratives, he jumps ahead to the '80s, when a legal team spearheaded by Sansei lawyers sought reparations and the overturning of the convictions after several decades during which the internment went too little mentioned.

We briefly meet several activists, whose research uncovered evidence of governmental awareness that the fears of subversion used to justify the internment were completely unfounded. Instead of being based on legitimate concerns, the internment was a blatant case of pandering to the long-held anti-Asian racism that marked the west coast (in comparison, members of the German American Bund were also interned, but there was, of course, never any widespread attempt to round up German Americans, who were just as likely to have been loyal to the Axis). Unfinished Business ends on a high note, as Korematsu's conviction is overturned in 1983 because the government willfully withheld information at his trial showing the internment to have no basis in fact or reason.

After the film's release, Yasui and Hirabayashi also won their cases. But while the convictions were overturned on technical legal grounds, the Supreme Court decisions themselves still stand, a frightening legitimization of unchecked executive power in time of war. Docurama's reissue of Unfinished Business, alas, does little to bring the viewer up to date. It offers the short film Japanese Relocation, a WWII Office of War Information propaganda piece narrated by Milton Eisenhower, who justifies the internment and adds that its victims "cheerfully" handled the ordeal, but it's otherwise a bit barren. Most people who seek out the DVD will likely have a bit of context already, but it couldn't have taken that much effort to explain developments such as the 1988 Congressional approval for $20,000 in reparations to each surviving internee, or Bill Clinton's 1998 awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Korematsu.

For that matter, Okazaki tiptoes too quietly toward the middle of the road with the film, mentioning the racist sentiment that made the internment acceptable to white America but rarely conveying its visceral ubiquity. We see some newspaper headlines mentioning "Japs", but that's about it (for one indicator of how pervasive racist imagery was at the time, see Dr. Seuss' anti-Japanese wartime, cartoons). In focusing on his three male protagonists, the director also overlooks the equally compelling story of Mitsuye Endo, evacuated from Sacramento, who filed an important habeus corpus petition that led to a victorious 1944 Supreme Court decision critical to the demise of internment. Including her would have given the film a bit more gender balance.

If it isn't a documentary masterpiece, Unfinished Business is still an impressive work, valuable for its documentation of three American heroes and its insistence that the tragic civil-liberties violations of the Japanese-American internment not be forgotten. Does the story make Roosevelt a worse president than Bush? History will tell; Bush still has a regrettably long time in office, and civil liberties have eroded rapidly under his tenure. But it certainly undermines Roosevelt's status as "great".

As long as knowledge of the past precludes the repetition of its mistakes, Unfinished Business deserves the widest possible audience, to counteract the misinformed American belief that it can't happen here. If by "it" we mean the unjust internment of American citizens on arbitrary grounds and without due process of law, it already did, and it must never again.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.