Darren Harou Rae’s Nisei feels personal from the very first frame. The injustices brought on to Japanese-Americans during World War II should still shock and appall the entire country, but this short takes it a step further by honing in on how this tangled history affects one Japanese family. It is a film about identity, forgiveness, and how second generation (where the film takes its title from) immigrants must find their own path while paying respect to the parents.
During the height of the war, Americans displaced countless Japanese-Americans to internment camps. Nisei opens with Minoru and John Miyasaki on their way to see their father before they are deployed to fight in Europe–these young men spent considerable time with their families in such camps but they volunteered to serve. When Minoru is stopped by a guard before his visit, he is told by a guard, “If your father’s in here, he’s a bad man.” The man doesn’t look up from his clipboard as he says it, and the blatant racism is chilling at first before the interaction continues.
The conversation that Minoru has with his father, Jinkichi, is exactly why Rae’s film excels. It confronts these complicated, uneasy situations head-on while giving its characters the chance to speak openly. When Jinkichi tells his son, “History is full of foolish boys trying to be heroes,” the comment hangs in the air, and we know that Minoru takes that thought with him long after he walks out his father’s door.
When we shift to Italy, Rae flexes his muscles with action as we see these two brothers enter a dangerous situation when they are ambushed by the Italian army. We have seen countless films about this war, and Rae never lets us lose sight of the stakes of these brothers or their fellow soldiers. They are fighting for a country that has told them countless times that they don’t matter, but America is the only home that they know. Jonathan Tanigaki, as Minoru, is cautious but never passive or weak. His eyes convey so much passion.
How does one honor family, identity and resilience in a reluctant or aggressive place? Nisei never shies away from these complex and thorny issues, and we must face them, too, as we see what these brothers are fighting for. We cannot change the sins of our country’s past but Nisei proves that brotherhood, love, and strength can help heal the wounds of heartbreak.