Sunday , December 10 2023
Matthew and Robert at Rapid Run Park in Cincinnati (Courtesy of Celine Parreñas Shimizu)

Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival Interview: Celine Parreñas Shimizu, Director of ’80 Years Later’

The documentary 80 Years Later takes a close look across generations of a Japanese American family in the aftermath of Executive Order 9066. Signed and issued by Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, the order led to the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II. Director, producer, and writer Celine Parreñas Shimizu chronicled the experiences and the conversations of cousins Kiyoko Kasai Fujiu and Tadashi Robert Shimizu with their children and grandchildren. She is looking forward to screening 80 Years Later during its May 12 premiere at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.

Dr. Shimizu is a filmmaker and author. She is Dean of the Division of the Arts and Distinguished Professor of Film and Media at the University of California at Santa Cruz. She obtained a Ph.D. in Modern Thought and Literature from Stanford University, her M.F.A. in Film Directing and Production from UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, and her B.A. in Ethnic Studies from UC Berkeley. I spoke with her about how she and her team developed 80 Years Later. Here are the highlights of the interview.

On Museums and Mentoring

If the United States builds the National Museum of Asian Pacific American History and Culture in the future, what two artifacts would you put in?

From the Filipino American side of the family, it would be the artifacts of women. When you look at the archival photographs of Filipino American history from the 1920s and 1930s, the ratio of men to women was 14 to 1. The photos are really intriguing because there are the gallant, dashing men with head-to-toe denim and the bandanas. They look really great. In the corner, there’s a woman with a bowl of food. Is she serving the food? What’s happening? It would be the artifacts of women, [such as] the letters they wrote to newspapers to chart their experience and to be unafraid about what it is that they do write about. 

For the second thing, I think about this film and what gets passed on. What do kids see in the house? In my father-in-law’s house, he has a memento from the [internment] camp, Poston. My son paid attention to it. I think we shouldn’t turn away from artifacts of events whether it’s a relic from the camp or the experiences of women.

80 Years Later production still of Kiyoko Kasai Fujiu sitting in a chair and talking
Kiyo discussing her experiences (Courtesy of Celine Parreñas Shimizu)

On another topic, the Association for Asian American Studies presented you with the 2022 Excellence in Mentorship Award. What’s the key to being a good mentor?

When I first became a professor and graduate students approached me to help them, I realized that you have to be really selfless. Pay attention to the questions they are asking. Teach them how to ask questions versus already being decided on a project. Projects should be based on super open-ended projects that you’re curious about. It’s affirming or igniting that curiosity and leading them to that path. In investing time in them, you actually get a lot out of it. You get to see a future that will be populated by a curious next generation, is what I want. I want continuous learning to happen. That’s what should fuel the next generation. 

On Inviting Viewers into the 80 Years Later Conversation

In 80 Years Later, why did you incorporate questions between the sections of the films?

Dan Shimizu and Reid Miller, the producers and I, looked through [the film]. We said there are these themes that keep coming up that are embedded in the questions: inheritance, legacy, what gets passed on, what do you own, and do you claim it?

The film was repeating the themes that the subjects themselves were raising. The questions: Do I own my name? Where do I learn my race? What happens when I’m achieving proximity to whiteness?

Kiyo is 97 and Robert is 84. They’re still figuring things out and it’s okay. We wanted to affirm the confusion, vexing, and bewilderment through the questions and make sure it landed with viewers so they can ask those questions for themselves. The questions are an invitation. 

80 Years Later production still of Robert, Jenny, and Matthew standing in Soya Foods
Robert, Jenny, and Matthew talking in Soya Foods (Courtesy of Celine Parreñas Shimizu)

“Be Flawless and Exemplary”

Kiyo and Robert also visit places that are important to the Shimizu and Fujiu families. Have they been there recently?

I think they have not really been there in a while… Kiyo is definitely less mobile. Jean was the executive director of the Japanese American Service Committee 10 years ago. The Shimizu family lives in California, so they go to Cincinnati only occasionally. 

This film became a film for me in 2012/13, when Robert was inaugurated into the Western Hills High School Hall of Fame. It was an all-white crowd. He was being recognized for being this winning quarterback from the 1950s. He talked about how he and his brother were the only Japanese Americans there and he was trying to explain to the crowd what he had done.

For me, even recognizing what he had achieved is such a result of the Japanese American internment experience. When he was growing up, his mom told him that you have to be flawless and exemplary. The way that you behave will affect the way they treat other Japanese Americans. He really took that to heart and went all the way. He became president of his high school.

80 Years Later production still of Kiyo and Jean entering First Baptist Church of Chicago
Kiyo and Jean in the First Baptist Church of Chicago (Courtesy of Celine Parreñas Shimizu)

On What We Can Learn from Young People

Kiyo and Robert have important conversations with their children and grandchildren. What did you learn from witnessing those?

What I learned is the younger people have a tendency to say, “This is what this means.”

They want to pin it down, almost like you’re in the college application process… They learned a lot from talking [to] their elders. When they see their elders still processing what this means, it taught them to be more comfortable with ambiguity versus having to pin something down for the singular thing it means. That’s why the strength of the film for me was to really generate multi-generational conversations. You can also see the older people learning from the younger people. 

On Treasuring the Family Legacy

There’s some dance footage of the family at the end. Why did you add that?

There are cathartic moments at the end of the film, [such as] when Jean in the fire scene claims her inheritance. She says, “Don’t feel sorry for me. I’m powerful. I am claiming the position of being the caretaker of the story for the family.”

That was like a Michael Corleone move. We got the meaning of the film: I am the caretaker of my mother’s story and I’m going to make sure it gets passed on. I’m recognizing that she figured out these are important. I’m going to treasure it. 

Robert has had this incredibly charmed life. It’s true. He’s a very well-known pediatrician in the Bay Area, with his 40-year practice. People we run into say, “I respect, admire, adore, and love him.”

80 Years Later still of Kiyo and Jean visiting the Japanese American Service League
Kiyo and Jean visiting the Japanese American Service League (Courtesy of Celine Parreñas Shimizu)

You see that he leads his life with such dignity and integrity from the way he interacts with his grandchildren. They’re baking together. But at the end, he says something like, “But there were things that I lost along the way.”

I did not want the film to end with this melancholia. I wanted it to end with power and show that the legacy is very much alive, that they are dancing to it. 

Gearing up for the 80 Years Later Premiere

What else would you like to add?

It’s really special that we’re premiering at the Japanese American National Museum. That was a historic site where Japanese Americans were gathered before they were evacuated. It appears in the film, too, because that was one of the places that Robert and his mother, Toshi, wanted to take the kids.

It dispels this rumor, as you say, that people don’t talk about this legacy. They actually do all the time! That was in the mid-’90s, when they wanted to show their kids where they were interned. What was the actual place. It’s very important that the Japanese American National Museum exists. And this is how we began our conversation, with Asian American museums! These museums are a way for people to say this really happened and that we still feel the ramifications today in the way we choose to live.

For more information and to purchase tickets to a screening, visit the 80 Years Later website.

About Pat Cuadros

Pat Cuadros frequently covers theater and television for Blogcritics Magazine. Her portfolio includes interviews with Ndaba Mandela and actors Juliette Binoche, Fran Drescher and Derek Jacobi. She's also spoken with notable voice actors Petrea Burchard, Garry Chalk, Peter Cullen and Brian Drummond.

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