By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
The impact of the wartime incarceration on Japanese Americans today is explored in “No No Girl,” written and directed by Paul Daisuke Goodman.
The film was previewed at the Japanese American National Museum in August, followed by a week-long run at Laemmle’s Glendale theater; screenings at Orange County Buddhist Church, where Goodman is a member; an online appearance in the Silicon Valley Asian Pacific Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award; and most recently, the Culver City Film Festival.
Set in the present with brief flashbacks of the past, the story focuses on Yonsei and Sansei members of the Hasegawa family, all of whom were born after the war. They learn that their recently deceased Nisei mother/grandmother buried a chest in the yard of the family home before being sent to camp. The house has not belonged to the family for 80 years, and the Hasegawas argue about whether they should find out what is in the chest.
The discovery of old letters to Obaachan from a man — not their grandfather – deepens the mystery.
The cast includes Mika Dyo as Sue Hasegawa; Jyl Kaneshiro and Ken Narasaki as her parents; Chris Tashima and Gary Murakami as her uncles; Scott Keiji Takeda as her brother; and Kurt Kanazawa as her cousin.
Goodman’s sister, Laurie Miho Goodman, served as co-producer, co-production designer and costume designer.
“I couldn’t be more proud of everyone that worked on the film,” Paul Goodman, who was also the film editor and one of the producers, said at the JANM screening. “We started shooting in November. I started creating the film even in the year before that.”
The making of the film was accompanied by real-life drama. Goodman is a cancer survivor, having battled leukemia twice. A bone marrow donor was sought, and the best chance of finding a tissue match was among people with the same ethnic/racial background as the patient. An Asian patient’s match would most likely be another Asian, and being biracial narrowed the pool of possible donors.
“I think a lot of people here saw me during that time, and know that I went through a lot in the last six years, dealing with cancer and trying to find my place in my career, in my life,” Goodman recalled. “And this was in my twenties when I felt ambitious and I wanted to do things in the film industry. I did do a lot, and then when cancer came, I was 25 and I had to shift my entire life to figure out how to keep telling stories and being a filmmaker.
“It kind of manifested in doing things I could do in the hospital bed, which was writing and editing. I really love these things, and they allowed me pursue another path in filmmaking, which was narrative filmmaking. So I started writing a script and then … I would be an outpatient and we would go out and we’d shoot films.
Previously a camera operator for Discovery’s “Whale Wars,” he was able to complete his first feature, “Evergreen,” going on the road for days and then going back to chemotherapy. He would achieve remission, relapse, and remission again.
“I thought that would be the end of all the cancer, but I ended up relapsing in December 2020 at the height of COVID,” he said. “It was really hard because I couldn’t have my family or anyone else around me.
“I ended up getting a bone marrow transplant, and Laurie was my donor. And we made a movie about family — that was ‘No No Girl.’”
Regarding his approach to the subject matter, Goodman explained, “Laurie and I are Yonsei, which is fourth-generations Japanese American … Every generation has a different relationship with the camps, but the camps are part of our identity equally. I think our relationship with camp feels the most distant, maybe because it is the most distant, but the stories, the people that were there, including our grandfather, a lot of them have passed away and the first-hand sources aren’t around. So our relationship with the camps is very historical and anecdotal and second-hand, but it’s a huge part of who we are in our history.
“I think I told the story from the perspective of a Yonsei character or at least someone two generations removed from the camps. I just used that to channel how it is to be distant from something that’s so much a part of you …
“Our grandfather was at Rohwer, Arkansas and in the 442nd [Regimental Combat Team]. He went on to build space shuttles for NASA. He was a true American hero pair and we live in the shadow of this legend, like all of us who have relationships in the camp live in the shadow of all that past.
“Having the characters dig that up is a metaphor … but it’s like something to move that feeling towards. The family’s all looking at this treasure as something different, it’s like they’re all looking at the camps as it was a different relationship to them. The camps and the treasure and everything buried in the ground, their history, is just a way to get them all to come together and talk about what it means for them and what it took to get to this place.”
A Professional’s Opinion
Tashima is the veteran of the cast, having won an Oscar for his 1997 dramatic short “Visas and Virtue,” which he directed, co-wrote and starred in as Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat who rescued thousands of Jewish refugees from the Holocaust. He also directed, wrote and appeared in the 2003 dramatic short “Day of Independence,” which was about baseball in camp.
His other acting credits include Rea Tajiri’s “Strawberry Fields” (1997), Eric Byler’s “Americanese” (2006), Lily Mariye’s “Model Minority” (2012), Jeffrey Gee Chin’s “Lil Tokyo Reporter” (2012), Tim Savage’s “Under the Blood Red Sun” (2014), and Alexander Bocchieri’s “Go For Broke” (2018).
Asked what sold him on “No No Girl,” Tashima responded, “It was a combination of a few different things. Paul’s story, what took him to the point where I’m sitting there talking with him. He’s already made a feature film and he’s had cancer twice and he has this great script that he wrote. It would be hard to say no to that.
“Reading his script, though, I was really touched and moved. First of all, I thought it was really funny, very well written, but it was a nice, fresh view on the impact of internment. I told him I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film like this. I’m Sansei, third generation, which would be his parents’ age … I’m in theater and film and I’ve gone through a lot of history about camp and studying it and re-enacting it, filming it and putting it on stage. But it’s always been that experience during the war.
“There’s very little postwar that’s been produced and certainly not contemporary Yonsei experience. That really means a lot to me, that they care. It’s nice that there’s still, I think, respect and interest in what that was like, what that meant to all of our families, because each family was different yet we can all identify with ‘Well, what camp were you in?’ And the similarities and how that impacts the next generation.
“So that, I think, is really important to explore. We’re just barely touching the tip of the iceberg, but it’s starting to be talked about now. So there was no way I could say no to this and I’m really glad I didn’t.”
Laurie Goodman recalled, “When Paul reached out to Chris initially, I don’t think Paul was really expecting to get anything back … Paul’s still recovering from treatment at this point and so he was convalescing at my parents’ house. I remember him coming downstairs one day and he had this look on his face. We’re all like, ‘What’s wrong?’ And he’s like, ‘Chris Tashima emailed me back!’
“It was unbelievable and we’re so grateful and thankful for your contribution to this production because it would not have been the same without you. It’s been such an incredible experience. Having Chris be a part of this, I think, was influential for all the cast and crew on set. It just kind of brought everything up a level like we have to bring our stuff.”
Dyo said, “I was very nervous when I saw Chris’ name there because I’m just a nobody college kid … An Oscar winner in the cast, playing the most intimidating character and being the most intimidating person on set. It was very scary, but … Chris was very warm and encouraging through the whole thing.
“One day he brought his Oscar to set and we all just looked at it … Having him on set was kind of affirming for everyone … Okay, we are at this level of production and we can be at this level.”
A Star Is Born
Regarding casting, Laurie Goodman declared, “I was Team Mika from Day One.”
Paul Goodman agreed. “I remember watching Mika’s first audition … Okay, do we continue or do we just go here? We did our due diligence, we did do our casting, but she was just so good off the bat. We had call-backs and it was all just a formality. She owned us at that point. It was just over.”
Laurie Goodman added that the original script “introduces Sue’s character as having jet-black hair. That changed so fast.”
“Her audition was pink and now the poster’s pink and everything’s pink,” said Paul Goodman.
“This is my first-ever film,” said Dyo. “All of my credits before this been live theater … mostly stuff from college and a lot of high school. So this was definitely nerve-wracking.”
Her dad sent her the casting notice. “They’re looking for a 20-year-old Japanese American female, I’m 20 years old. I’m Japanese American and female-identifying, so why not? I sent in my self-tape. I was like all right, what did I learn in my classes? … Let’s frame it correctly. Let’s get one of my good friends to read for me … Might as well do this.
“For the call-back, Paul sent me the entire script … I was like, whoa, she’s in her third year of college, struggling to look for a roommate … She was struggling to find friends. She had an Uncle Kenny and I had an Uncle Ken. He’s in the audience. There’s just so many little weird overlaps with my life that I was like, whoa, did you like, spy on me? …
“There was even something small like the fact that she’s the youngest in her family and her brother and her cousin are best friends, and she feels left out from that dynamic. I’m not knocking my brother and my cousin … I love them so much but just because I’m so much younger than them and they’re boys and they would go play video games and I would go to movies and sew things with my aunt. There was like a disconnect there. That was also mirrored in the script …
“If they want someone who’s like this is my life, I will be there … If they need someone with more [acting] experience, I’m not that. I was like let it go and put it out in the world… Thankfully, they chose the life experience.”
She described her approach to acting. “It was kind of something that I heard in my classes. And then my first-hand experience nailed that in, not making it about me and really focusing on what can I give to the people I’m acting with so that they can do their best acting, and what can I take from them to do my best acting?”
Dyo said she was touched when Kaneshiro, who played her mother, told her, “You just give so much.” “That’s like all I’m trying to do … not get in my head about me being perfect and me being a star, because that just gives a very self-conscious performance that nobody really wants to see.”
Tashima recalled, “When I met Paul and I read the script and then I’d seen his previous film and I had faith in him and I said this is great, but I’m thinking, who’s gonna play Sue? Because that’s the whole movie. So I’m just really happy that we have Mika because it’s not easy to carry a picture. Not everyone can do it. You can cast a great actress but that’s not the same as being the star.
“I’m just speaking as a filmmaker. When you have a role like that, you have to put so much on that casting because that’s your whole movie. You can do everything amazingly, but if that fails your movie’s just not gonna be there.
“I told Mika earlier today the three questions, the three steps … if you are a movie star. The first one is getting picked, getting cast, check. Okay. The second one is performing it, what you’re doing on set. Check, we have all that. The third one was what’s the audience response? Because that’s not in your hands. That’s not up to you. That’s going to tell you if you succeeded. And I think they like you …
“I didn’t know until I saw the first cut of the film, which was a little while back … and seriously, what a relief. What a joy. This movie’s gonna make it because we have an amazing story and an amazing lead, and what can we do now to get people to see it?”
Tashima also complimented the crew. “I was really amazed at how small this crew was yet how efficient it was and how friendly it was and how easy it was. I’m kind of thinking like, all the other films that I’ve been on had all these other people on it and it’s not like they weren’t working, but as you can see everyone did double, triple duty …
“That was really important for all of us to keep going because you can get bogged down on things and all kinds of things can go wrong. When you set out to make a movie, everything is set up against you and you’ve gotta pull everything in your favor and make it work for you. And I think that comes down to Paul. The atmosphere on set, the people that he brought in, his direction, and he did all the post-production. So it’s been a lesson for me just to watch him work and look at what he can do with so little.
“Again, his whole story is so inspiring and the movie’s inspiring. So I’m so happy for you, Paul, I really am.”
For more information on “No No Girl,” including upcoming screenings and how to support the film, go to: https://www.eighteastproductions.com/
Photos courtesy Eight East Productions (except where noted)