Following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, thousands of Japanese-Americans, including those born and raised in the United States, were shipped to internment camps, while others joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which fought with great bravery in the European theater.
Still others, as Junichi Suzuki’s documentary “MIS: Human Secret Weapon (Futatsu no Sokoku)” reveals, were recruited for the Military Intelligence Service (MIS), a secret unit comprised almost entirely of nisei — second-generation Japanese-Americans — who served as translators, interrogators and spies. After the end of the war they continued to work in occupied Japan, as U.S. aims shifted from democratization to the suppression of Communism in their former enemy and new ally.
Suzuki and his crew interviewed nearly 80 people, from MIS veterans to those preserving its legacy, such as U.S. Army historian James McNaughton and Hawaiian musician Jake Shimabukuro. Out of this cacophony of talking heads emerge stories, illustrated with rare archival footage and photographs, that are still fascinating, revealing and heartbreaking.
Also, though the presentation is heavily reverential and flat-footedly pedestrian, the personalities of the veterans shine through. Breaking long years of silence about their wartime experiences, they speak to Suzuki’s camera with salty frankness, calm dignity and, at times, overflowing emotion (which that camera needlessly underlines with corny zooms).
There is Takejiro Higa, a kibei (a Japanese-American sent by his parents to study and live in Japan) who was raised in Okinawa — and later returned with the MIS for the U.S. invasion of the island. He talked Okinawans out of caves, saving them from death by fiery immolation or group suicide, and interrogated his former classmates and teachers. But he also saw sights that make him wonder, decades later, “Why was I put in this situation?”
There is also Harry Akune, another kibei who lived as a child in Kagoshima and, in November 1944, parachuted behind the lines of an enemy that was also family. He expresses gratitude to a great uncle who “taught me the spirit and culture of Japan.”
Finally, there is Thomas Sakamoto, who landed at Atsugi air field with Gen. Douglas MacArthur (whom he sardonically calls “Dugout Doug”), was present at Japan’s surrender aboard the USS Missouri and visited Hiroshima a month after the atomic bombing. He recalls the burned bodies of women and children — a sight that silenced the Americans who had come expecting to exalt over their fallen foe.
“MIS,” which will play at the Ginza Cine Pathos theater with two previous Suzuki documentaries, “Toyo’s Camera Japanese American History during WWII” (2008) and “442: Live with Honor, Die with Dignity” (2010), is a precious witnessing to a vanishing generation of Japanese-Americans that truly deserves the adjective “greatest.”
Opening the same day is another documentary, Hiroki Iwabuchi’s “Santa Kurosu wo Tsukamaete (Chasing Santa Claus),” which examines the impact of last year’s triple-disaster on his native Sendai. The film begins with the city’s annual Christmas celebration, which features hundreds of parading Santas as well as thousands of LED lights. It serves as a symbol of Sendai’s survival (if not complete revival), since it was held on schedule last December only nine months after the earthquake and tsunami paralyzed the city and devastated the nearby coastal area. Among the survivors was Iwabuchi’s own mother, who made a narrow escape from the factory where she worked before the tsunami hit.
Footage shot immediately after the disaster, including the mother’s emotional reunion with coworkers in the ruins near their workplace, provide the film’s strongest moments, but much of “Chasing Santa Claus” is at the level of an indifferently shot student project or home video. Iwabuchi indulges in his own on-camera musings and fails to do more than surface reporting. Given his proximity to the biggest domestic story of his lifetime, this was a missed opportunity.