In “To Kill a Mockingbird”, a man, Tom Robinson, is accused of rape, largely because he is African-American, and because he was kissed by a white woman in the rural 1930’s South. In “Snow Falling on Cedars”, a Japanese-American in the Northwest is accused of murder because a white fisherman is found dead in his fishing net not long after World War II. The setting is in the wake of racial animosity because of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. The case is largely brought forth because of prejudicial attitudes prevalent at the time rather than strong evidence. (Ironically, German-Americans did not suffer the same fate as the Japanese during the same period.) The brilliance of the film, which I assume is more or less faithful to the book, is its handling of several separate but intertwined stories. At the forefront is the murder trial of Kazuo Miyamoto, a young Japanese-American in the 1950’s who fought on the American side of World War II, played brilliantly understated by Rick Yune. He is accused of murdering Carl Heine, a fellow fisherman, who now has land previously owned by Japanese who were forced to give it up (as well as most of their possessions) when they were unjustly forced into interment camps on the West Coast.
The other stories involve Hatsue Miyamoto (played wonderfully by Youki Kudoh) and Ishmael Chambers as star-crossed lovers before adulthood. We learn, largely through flash-backs, that the American white boy and Japanese girl met and fell in love on the eve of Japanese-American internment. Their story parallels the later court case, and the loss of their relationship is because of the racial divides imposed by the US Government, fearing that all Japanese-Americans were suspect because of their ancestry, rather than any evidence they were actually secretly in conspiracy with the Japanese Empire. The love between Hatsue and Ishmael is told through flash-backs. Hatsue is now the wife of the accused, and Ishmael has followed in the footsteps of his father and become a reporter and journalist. We learn that Ishmael still has strong feelings for the woman who once loved him when they were but children, but he is side-lined from their lives.
Watching this film is like having someone holding onto my heart so tight it’s strangled. The hate that lives in the hearts of some people is so dark and cold and mean it’s devastating. Too many do not know how Japanese immigrants were treated in the United States not even a century ago. What’s so shameful is the perpetrators were White Europeans who were immigrants themselves from Germany, Sweden, Holland, Great Briton. It’s a disgrace on modern society during its growing stages to know how non-whites were treated with such disdain and disrespect. It makes me angry and deeply disheartened at the same time. It would not be so bad if we, as a society could say that was a dark time we have evolved from, but alas, it is still happening. there are So many people who feel terrible hate and disdain against people other than their own color, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc., etc., we have not learned, we grow so slowly.
Snow Falling on Cedars provides a legendary combination of acting, cinematography, story line, dialogue and history. One has the sense that the actors knew they were memorializing a portion of WWII and therefore provided an extraordinary level of craftsmanship. Love, war, courtroom drama, history and the silence of the sea combine to rivet your attention to the screen. Max Von Sydow, James Rebhorn and James Cromwell absorb the courtroom roles and give great performances. The Cinematographer won several awards for his craftsmanship. Treat yourself to this wonderful film.