By JONATHAN VAN HARMELEN, Rafu Contributor
On Jan. 22, 1956, The Los Angeles Times reported on the latest production company to appear in Hollywood: a firm formed and backed by Japanese Americans.
Named Nacirema Productions (hint: it’s “American” spelled backwards), the company produced several B movies, ranging from westerns like “Sierra Stranger” to Japan-themed films like “Tokyo After Dark.”
While none of Nacirema’s films earned critical acclaim like rivals MGM or Paramount, Times reporter Philip Scheuer found that the company’s backers — Kenwood Electronics founder George Aratani and Pacific Citizen columnist Lawrence Nakatsuka — and Nacirema’s founder, David T. Yokozeki, represented a more fascinating story to readers. What follows is the story of one of the first successful Hollywood companies run by Asian Americans.
To understand the short but eventful life of Nacirema Pictures, you have to understand its founder. David Tsutomu Yokozeki was born in 1923 in San Pedro. An ambitious student, Yokozeki graduated among the top of his class from San Pedro High School in 1940. Shortly after Yokozeki began his studies at UCLA, he was incarcerated at Santa Anita Assembly Center in 1942 and transferred to the Amache concentration camp in Colorado.
Hoping to finish his studies, he received permission from the government to leave Amache and complete his bachelor’s at the University of Utah in 1944. He then earned a scholarship from the University of Minnesota to pursue graduate studies in economics.
In 1945, he joined the U.S. Army’s Counterintelligence Corps and served in the Pacific and in occupied Japan. During his Army service in Japan, Yokozeki served as chief of price and distribution controls for the Kanagawa military government in Yokohama. While stationed in Japan, he met his wife. The couple returned to California in 1948, and Yokozeki left the Army. Throughout his life, Yokozeki would travel back and forth between Japan and the U.S.
Upon leaving the Army, Yokozeki immersed himself in his studies, and quickly earned himself a Masters of Business Administration and an LLB from University of Southern California. Yokozeki was unique among his peers: in 1952, he became one of the first Nisei to pass the California Bar Exam.
He thereafter joined the distinguished firm of Aiso, Chuman, and McKibbin. The firm took on cases dealing with Japanese American issues, such as the defense of several Japanese Peruvians formerly detained at Crystal City, Texas and facing threat of deportation for “illegal entry.”
Additionally, Yokozeki took on several other cases defending immigrants threatened with deportation, such as the case of Korean student nurse Young Bok Song in 1955, and the case of a Thai police officer in 1958. As a sign of his leadership in the community, Yokozeki regularly served on the city’s Nisei Week committee. In 1954, Yokozeki was named head of the JACL’s Los Angeles chapter.
Sometime in 1955, Yokozeki began Nacirema Productions as a personal business venture with attorney Marvin Segal. Yokozeki looked to the Japanese American community for financial support; he told The Los Angeles Times that “most of us are war veterans, most have been through evacuation and relocation. Returning, these veterans were anxious to get into something new. In pictures we feel we are offering them a sound investment – in a business that has a fascination for everybody.”
Dubbed “the first Nisei production company,” Nacirema garnered nearly a million dollars in seed funding.
In 1956, Nacirema Productions released their first film, “Sierra Stranger.” Directed by Lee Sholem and starring Howard Duff, Gloria McGeehee, and Dick Foran, “Sierra Stranger” established Nacirema as a reputable producer of low-budget films.
Building on the success of “Sierra Stranger,” Nacirema Productions then backed several films that spotlighted 1950s car culture. The first, “Hot Rod Girl,” starred Lori Nelson as hot rod driver opposite baseball player and western star Chuck Connors. The movie garnered $100,000 at the box office and was declared a success. The following year, the company produced two similar films, “Girls on Motorcycles” and “Hot Rod Rumble,” which were distributed by Allied Artists.
The company also took on several films that focused on Japan. In 1956, Yokozeki announced his intentions of producing a film titled “Joe-San the Great,” a fish-out-of-water story about an American ballplayer who signs with the Giants, only to find out it’s the Tokyo Giants and not the New York Giants. The film, however, was never produced.
In 1959, Yokozeki and Nacirema Productions produced “Tokyo After Dark.” One of a few Hollywood films to cast Japanese Americans in principal roles, “Tokyo After Dark” featured director Norman T. Herman — a regular collaborator with Nacirema — and actors Michi Kobi, Teru Shimada, and Richard Long. The film also featured dozens of Nisei extras from the Los Angeles area.
While Shin Nichi Bei’s Fred Taomae gave the film a lukewarm review, he told readers “if you want to see Nisei actors and actresses, your friends and acquaintances perhaps, given a showcase to display their talents, this is the picture to see.” The film was distributed by Paramount, and achieved some success.
The success of Nacirema’s films elevated Yokozeki’s status among Los Angeles elites. In 1961, Mayor Sam Yorty named Yokozeki to the Municipal Arts Commission. Three years later, Yokozeki resigned from the commission, explaining that his travels to Japan and work commitments to Nacirema had prevented him from attending meetings.
Beginning in 1964, Nacirema Productions took a turn for the worse. First, Hollywood studios moved away from small-budget productions that were the staple of Nacirema Productions. According to Larry Tajiri, this shift prevented the studio from producing a successful film after 1960.
Yokozeki then became embroiled in legal disputes that endangered the company’s finances. Specifically, Yokozeki took on the case of Dr. Chang Ha Kim, who was facing a malpractice suit that exposed him to personal liability charges beyond insurance coverage. To pay Yokozeki without exposing his assets, Dr. Kim offered a $2,000 retainer fee and agreed to transfer other assets, including an apartment complex, to a company named To-Yo (connected to Nacirema Productions), which belonged to Yokozeki. To make the transaction appear official, Yokozeki sold to Kim the rights to films that both acknowledged had no value.
Yokozeki’s new asset carried a loan from the Bank of Tokyo with a promissory note of $65,000. When the bank attempted to foreclose on Kim’s apartment complex for failed payments, he requested additional time. On consulting a new attorney for advice, Kim discovered that Yokozeki had used the apartment complex as collateral for several bank loans he had taken out for To-Yo. In response, he sued Yokozeki for damages.
The lawsuit led to Yokozeki ending his practice and moving to Japan. In the process, he entrusted Nacirema Productions to Norman Herman. On April 25, 1969, The Los Angeles Times reported that Herman had dissolved Nacirema Productions.
The failure of Nacirema and Kim’s lawsuit forced deeply impacted Yokozeki. While he was not prosecuted for fraud over the Kim affair, in 196 the California State Bar banned Yokozeki from practicing law. In 1974, Yokozeki and his family settled in Guam. He successfully appealed the California State Bar’s ruling and returned to law, representing Japanese companies on the island.
David T. Yokozeki died on Feb. 20, 2013, at age 90. His imprint on Hollywood can still be found today. His name, along with Nacirema, appears on several online movie databases, including IMDB, Turner Classic Movies, British Film Institute, and Rotten Tomatoes.
The short yet turbulent life of Nacirema Productions offers a fascinating case study into Nisei entrepreneurship after incarceration. It specifically highlights how Yokozeki garnered support from across the community to build up the company. At a time when Hollywood producers excluded Asian American actors or cast them into stereotypical roles, the story of Yokozeki’s Nacirema Production is a rare example of how one Japanese American found ways to challenge the system.
Partial List of Nacirema Production films:
“Sierra Stranger” (1956)
“Hot Rod Girl” (1956)
“Hot Rod Rumble” (1957)
“Undersea Girl” (1957)
“The Young Captives” (1959)
“Tokyo After Dark” (1959)
Jonathan van Harmelen is a graduate student with the History Department at UC Santa Cruz, specializing in Japanese American history.