In Lane Nishikawa's new film, "When We Were Warriors," concentration camp survivor Leon Erlich learns that freedom has many faces. When he is liberated from Dachau by an American soldier who carries him to safety, he looks up at this man and finds "an angel with a Japanese face."
Based on Nishikawa and Victor Talmadge's play "The Gate of Heaven," the 33-minute movie had its Bay Area premiere April 8 at U.C. Berkeley's International House. The film showing and discussion with Nishikawa himself, part of I-House's 70th anniversary celebration, drew a multicultural crowd of about 150.
The film opens with Kiyoshi "Sam" Yamamoto, the Japanese-American soldier (Nishikawa) being summoned to army headquarters in the Presidio 10 years after the war. In a shadowy interrogation-type room, Sam is questioned by an unidentified army officer about events from April of 1945. The interrogator has a thick German accent and cannot pronounce Sam's last name or Hawaiian hometown.
Claiming he does not remember the end of the war and getting increasingly edgy at the barrage of nosy questions — "Are you an American citizen?" "Is your wife pretty?" — Sam finally barks, "What do you want from me?"
The interrogator, Leon (Talmadge), emerges from the shadows and produces the army-issue blanket with Sam's last name stamped on it. It is the same blanket in which Sam wrapped Leon when he carried him to safety at Dachau. "I want your memory. Your memory, Samuel," says Leon.
This reunion launches a 40-year friendship in which each man nurses the other's pain of rescue and survival. Neither man, however, is ever fully liberated from the war or his memories.
Nishikawa said the 522nd unit which liberated Dachau was made up of 4,500 Japanese-American soldiers, 1,500 of them from internment camps and 3,000 from Hawaii, who volunteered to fight in the U.S. Army. Nishikawa interviewed many veterans of the 522nd as he was writing the play and screenplay, and learned that the volunteers wanted to prove their loyalty to America. Many were even willing to die to do so, he said.
"The veterans I spoke to said they felt a great sense of irony in liberating Jews from Dachau while their families were in internment camps," Nishikawa said. Their unit became one of the most decorated combat units in the war.
During a question-and-answer session, Nishikawa was asked why he chose to focus on the liberation of Dachau. "I like to choose situations and stories that a lot of people don't know about," he said, "and educate audiences as well as entertain them."
Afterward, audience member Mas Yamasaki, who spent 3-1/2 years of his childhood in an internment camp north of Sacramento, said he appreciated Nishikawa's attempt to educate the public about the quiet heroes of World War II.
One such story, which Nishikawa weaves into his film, tells of Chiune Sugihara, the consul general of Japan assigned to Lithuania before the war. Sugihara issued many visas to Jewish war refugees, enabling them to escape the Holocaust.
"Many people called Sugihara the Japanese Schindler, but I didn't realize he gave out even more visas to the Jewish people than Schindler," Yamasaki said.
Holocaust survivor Ann Gabor Arancio said the short film did not do justice to the subject. The director "made a goulash of events. He threw everything in a pot and cooked it up." The film, she added, left too many gaps.
In October, Nishikawa will be bringing an updated version of his play, which ran at the Marin Jewish Community Center several years ago, to the Eureka Theater in San Francisco.
As for his film, he hopes it will be used as an educational tool in California public high schools — informing students about Japanese internment camps as well as the Holocaust.