When I heard through the grapevine that James Saito (“Eli Stone,” “Farewell to Manzanar”) was playing a former internee of America’s concentration camps on an upcoming episode of “Hawaii Five-O,” I was guardedly optimistic.
After seeing a preview of it Monday at CBS, where 16 members of MANAA, East West Players, the Japanese American National Museum, the JACL, and The Rafu were invited, I am pleasantly surprised and deeply moved. This special episode, which you shouldn’t miss, will air Friday, Dec. 13, at 9 p.m.
It all started with Jeanne Sakata, who wrote a play about Gordon Hirabayashi, “Hold These Truths,” which ran in New York and starred Joel de la Fuente (“Law & Order: SVU”) as the civil rights leader. Sakata (who was there to see the preview of the “Five-O” episode) told me the actor had gone to New York University, where he became close friends with Daniel Dae Kim, who flew out to see the show.
Kim was impressed enough to sponsor the play for six performances in Honolulu, where he invited producers of “Five-O” to see it. They were reportedly moved to write an internment-based episode, and this is it.
Now, I can’t vouch for the historical accuracy of everything that supposedly happened in World War II in this episode (e.g. I’ve never heard of the Japanese shooting down servicemen in the streets vs. just bombing the harbor and its ships there). But we see flashbacks of how the Toriyama family suddenly became “Japs” and were treated rudely by police, who came to their home and told them whatever they couldn’t carry became the property of the U.S. government.
Looking back on those experiences, the now 80-year-old David Toriyama refers to himself and his family as “Japanese” as opposed to “Japanese American,” so the uninitiated may get confused as to if he’s talking about Japanese nationals who attacked Hawaii or Americans of Japanese descent. However, there’s a powerful scene where the decorated Korean War vet angrily reminds Five-O — and the audience — that not one “Japanese American” was ever found guilty of treason against the United States.
In a very well-executed segment, Toriyama, McGarrett and Chin Ho Kelly (Daniel Dae Kim) return to the site of the actual Honouliuli camp, where Toriyama remembers his mother planting vegetables in their garden, which we see from the ’40s, as he stands there on the soil as an old man. Most don’t know that Hawaii had five internment camps.
Also surprising: Unlike most episodes, there are no distracting subplots (e.g. McGarrett’s sister, mother, girlfriend, ad nauseum). The entire show is focused on the case of Toriyama, who tries to kill an old man he accuses of murdering his father in camp. So it’s intense.
Toriyama asks Chin Ho if he’s Korean (which is what actor Kim is). Chin Ho answers that he also has some Japanese in him, which is a surprise. In the original series, Chin Ho was supposed to be half Chinese/half white. So “Chin Ho” is now a Korean name?
Overall, though, this special episode was very moving. Please spread the word. And special thanks to executive producer Peter Lenkov and Ken Solarz for writing it.
Speaking of Whom Department: Know how I knew my last column was posted online at rafu.com? Lenkov sent me an email at 6:50 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 21. He cited a passage in my column that accused the show of being racist against Asian Pacific Islanders. He wanted an apology. Lenkov asserted I hadn’t watched the show or else I would’ve known that half of the six regulars are Asian Americans.
Well, if I hadn’t watched the show, then how could I have asserted what I said in that passage he excerpted? “Daniel Dae Kim is the only regular with any kind of API presence on this show, and he’s not enough to balance the portrayals of Asian good guys vs. bad guys.”
The following Wednesday, I wrote back explaining that I had watched every single episode of his reboot and was therefore confident of what I’d asserted. I won’t repeat everything I wrote, but longtime readers of this column know that compared to the 1968-80 series, where on average there were at least 10 locals given speaking parts per episode — and as people in powerful and positive positions like cops and judges — when locals appear on this new version, it’s usually as suspects or villains.
Lenkov shot back a quick and short response saying he refused to believe I watched the show beyond the opening credits and named a few Asian guest stars to prove that he’d employed a lot of APIs. He also insisted there’s racial balance on his show. He didn’t want to engage in further discussion, feeling that although I seemed like “a nice, educated man,” I hadn’t done my homework. Wait, don’t educated people do their homework? Isn’t that why they’re educated? Well, as an Asian American who was well-liked by all the well-liked teachers in Hawaii for always doing his assignments and understanding them to boot, I’m offended!
It’s a shame that some people insist on resisting the truth and believe what they want despite evidence to the contrary. Intelligent and secure producers know when they’re out of their element when it comes to cultures outside their experience and try to learn from those in that culture instead of imposing their familiar, comfortable, but limited frame of reference upon that community (sigh, that’s why so many Hawaiians hate tourists).
That’s why Rob Cohen, who co-wrote and directed “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story” (1993), did such a fantastic job of capturing the discrimination Lee experienced as an Asian man. Cohen told me he insisted those around him tell him when he got things wrong because he knew he wasn’t Asian American and didn’t want to screw it up.
In any case, I know it’s not personal. In the past, Lenkov sent angry emails to the legendary Wayne Harada of The Star Advertiser (who’s written about entertainment since the late ’50s and regularly also criticizes the show for not accurately reflecting the 50th state), so I’m in good company.
Nice Gals Finish First Department: As I’ve said in the past about ABC’s “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” the show hasn’t lived up to the hype of critics who voted it the best new series of the television season. It’s directionless and most episodes lack a strong villain. In fact, this is more like “X-Men,” where Professor Xavier and his students sought out other mutants who were just coming into their superpowers and not knowing how to control them. Supposedly 20th Century Fox owns the rights to the term “mutant,” so it can never be uttered in a production that doesn’t come under their banner.
I always thought it strange that Ming-Na Wen was billed second in “S.H.I.E.L.D.” yet seemed to get the least amount of screen time of the six regulars. Well, last week, the focus was finally on her character, Melinda May, and it was co-written by Asian American Maurissa Tancharoen and her husband Jed Whedon, who, along with brother Joss Whedon (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Avengers”), are the executive producers of the show.
It was becoming a joke that May rarely smiled and usually looked annoyed, like she didn’t want to be wherever she was. This week, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) explained that she used to be warm. She’d get into trouble, think rules were made to be broken, and pull pranks. But years ago, without a gun, she had to save a bunch of their agents and civilians in Bahrain. She wouldn’t explain what she did to accomplish it, but it clearly forever changed her.
Well, at the beginning of this episode, we learned that she’d just slept with one of the 20-something agents (yuck!), so she’s not dead from the waist down. And in the closing scene where one of the techs complains about a prank that leaves shaving cream on his face, everyone in the room denies being the culprit. The camera cuts to May and she smiles. So there’s still a little bit of the “old her” still there.
Around 2002, I had dinner with Maurissa and her talent agent friend whose last name was Cho (can’t remember her first name!) of ChoBusiness in West Hollywood. We talked about the business and what I did with MANAA, and I later attended shows where she and other Asian Americans performed their work in showcases sponsored by Cho. At the end of the evening, we said our goodbyes. Then Maurissa turned around, ran toward me and asked, “Can I hug you?!”
OK, so how can I not think of her as a sweetheart? Well, that’s my disclaimer.
Maurissa’s the cover story of the latest issue of Occidental College Magazine (our alma mater), which reminded me that she was part of the Motown girl group Pretty in Pink, which reached #96 in 1991 with “All About You” when she was just 15. With Jed, she later co-wrote the online cult favorite “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” and the Fox series “Dollhouse.”
Her brother Kevin directed Britney Spears’ 2004 tour and even hired her sister and Jed to write the singer’s between-song banter! If that’s not enough, her immigrant father serves as transportation coordinator for Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams.
I may not yet love “S.H.I.E.L.D.,” but I’m happy for Maurissa Tancharoen’s success.
’Til next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.