Eye of the Story
Close Viewing of My America… or Honk if You Love Buddha
The film My America… or Honk if You Love Buddha is a film that combines humor with very serious subject matter as a way to explore what it means to be Asian-American. In my close viewing, I will be focusing on a few minutes from the segment about Bill and Yuri Kochiyama.
The scenes that show Yuri Kochiyama taking pictures with the camera she keeps around her neck are a good example of something that the film does so well, which is to inject humor into very somber subject matter. By blending humor and seriousness, the film its story in a way that makes it easy for the audience to relate to. Many of us, in our own lives, have that one family member who always wants to get a picture to capture the moment, and they won’t allow you to move on until they get the perfect shot. Our first introduction to Yuri is with her standing in front of the camera, with her own camera ready, and then we hear the click that means that she’s taken the picture, and then she says, “Wait a minute, I want to get another one.”
The scene in which Bill and Yuri are talking to Tajima-Pena about their first meeting is also a good example of this. They are conversing back and forth about when exactly they met, and it’s a very sweet, short glimpse into how they interact with each other, lovingly bickering about certain details. We find out that they met in the Jerome, Arkansas camp, where Bill went with his army company for the weekend and in which Yuri was being interned. The entire setting of their meeting is very dark; after all, it’s a camp where Yuri was literally kept prisoner for several years. But that’s not what they dwell on. Instead of focusing on what could otherwise make for a very depressing story, they talk about how they met, fell in love, argue good-naturedly about the specific date that they first met.
After we first find out about Yuri being interned at the camp, the film cuts to the voice of a man speaking cheerfully over images and videos of people setting up a camp in the middle of nowhere. The voice says: “Here in the land of Buffalo Bill, the government is erecting model camp towns, towns in which they’ll (meaning Japanese Americans) live unmolested, not as prisoners, but free to work, and paid by the United States government. Bathtubs, yes, all the comforts of home. The Japanese in America are finding Uncle Sam a loyal master despite the War.” The images that are playing underneath the voice show people happily setting up and constructing a camp, then proudly surveying the finished product. This is obviously propaganda, shown during the War to prove the government’s point that the camps were a great place to be.
Tajima-Pena shows this is in an ironically humorous way. The audience, hopefully somewhat knowledgable about U.S. history, has already heard the Arkansas camp be called a concentration camp where Yuri was kept prisoner, and they know that this was not some sort of haven where Japanese Americans could go if they so chose. Tajima-Pena’s choice to inject humor in this way very effectively contrasts with the very next scene, and the rest of the film, to show just how troublesome conversations about the internment camps were, and still are. In this scene is Bill and Yuri visit Jerome, Arkansas, expecting to see the camp where Yuri had been interned. Instead, what they find is an empty field, and Yuri is dismayed and angry when she realizes that the camp is gone. She exclaims “Wait a minute-what’s that empty space? Is that the camp?” She finds out from the man who comes by in his truck, John Ernest Owington, that he buried the camp, and he’s very unconcerned about her obvious dismay about this. Their conversation continues with him saying “Y’all wasn’t prisoners of war”, to which she responds, “Well, we kind of were”, and he denies this, saying, “You were interned for your own protection”. Yuri replies that the Japanese Americans who were in the camp thought of themselves as prisoners. (We find out later on in the film that one of Tajima-Pena’s teachers actually claimed that there were never concentration camps for Japanese Americans during the War, that something like that wasn’t possible in the U.S., thereby denying the experiences of an entire group of people, and invalidating the painful memories and experiences of the past.)
Even this troubling exchange is lightened, again by Yuri and her desire to document her life through taking pictures. Even though she has just found out that the place where she had been a prisoner for several years was buried, she keeps talking to John Ernest. When she finds out that he spent some time visiting with the Japanese Americans in the camp (although, to be clear, this is according to him, the same man who thought that it was for their own good and that it had been their choice to be in the camps), she is surprised, and wants to get a picture of him. She then proceeds to try to get a good shot of him, and when she can’t because he’s in the truck, she says “Put your head out more, cause I can’t see you,” and she actually gets him to open the door and face out of the side of the truck, towards the camera. It’s a moment that the viewer can easily relate to– most of us, or someone we know, like to document important moments in our lives, try to get that perfect shot, even if it’s impractical and exasperating for everybody else. Yet it’s also a moment that is based on a very painful past, something that remains in the back of the viewer’s mind, even as the interaction brings a smile while watching.
What My America does so well is to combine humor and history and very serious subjects in a way that allows the viewer to be absorbed in the film, and to empathize with the characters, without making the subject matter and the mood so heavy that a feeling of gloom permeates the entire film. Instead, what we see is an exploration of what it means to be Asian-American, in different ways and through the stories of many different people.