Snow Falling on Cedars (film)


Title Snow Falling on Cedars
Date 1999
Genre Drama
Director Scott Hicks
Writer David Guterson (novel)
Screenplay Ronald Bass
Based On Snow Falling on Cedars (novel)
Starring Ethan Hawke (Ismael Chambers); Youki Kudoh (Hatsue Miyamoto); Max von Sydow (Nels Gudmundsson); Rick Yune (Kazuo Miyamoto); James Rebhorn (Alvin Hooks); James Cromwell (Judge Fielding); Reeve Carney (young Ismael); Anne Suzuki (young Hatsue); Richard Jenkins (Sheriff Art Moran); Sam Shepard (Arthur Chambers); Arija Bareikis (Susan Marie Heine); Eric Thal (Carl Heine Jr.); Celia Weston (Etta Heine); Daniel von Bargen (Carl Heine Sr.); Akira Takayama (Hisao Imada); Ako (Fujiko Imada)
Studio Universal Pictures
Runtime 128 min.
Country USA
Language English; Japanese; German
IMDB Snow Falling on Cedars

Film based on the popular novel by David Guterson set in a small island village in Washington state about a young white newspaper publisher covering the postwar murder trial of a Japanese American fisherman. Flashback scenes depict the forced removal of Japanese Americans and their wartime incarceration. Directed by Scott Hicks from a screenplay by Hicks and Ronald Bass, Snow Falling on Cedars garnered an academy award nomination for its cinematographer, Robert Richardson.

Set in 1950 (four years earlier than the book), the story begins with the drowning death of a local fisherman, Carl Heine (Eric Thal). But an apparent head injury and a long-standing family dispute with the Miyamoto family lead to the investigation and murder trial of a Nisei fisherman and decorated World War II veteran (presumably of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, though this is not stated), Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune). The dispute stems from the prewar purchase of seven acres of farmland by Kazuo's father from the Heines—done surreptitiously to get around the alien land law—that the Heines take back when the Miyamotos default on the final two payment due to their wartime incarceration. Kazuo had approached Carl about buying that land back just prior to the latter's death. Meanwhile, Ismael Chambers (Ethan Hawke), a young newspaperman, covers the trial, but is haunted by his long ago romance with Hatsue Miyamoto (Youki Kudoh), now the wife of the defendant. In flashback, we learn that Ismael's late father, Arthur Chambers (Sam Shepard), had defended the rights of Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor, incurring the wrath of the local community. Ismael discovers lighthouse records that could exonerate Miyamoto, but doesn't come forward with it, torn by his conflicting feelings about Hatsue and struggling with the exalted legacy of his much admired father. In courtroom, prosecutor Alvin Hooks (James Rebhorn) draws on racist tropes in an attempt to sway the all-white jury, while elderly defense attorney Nels Gudmundsson (Max Von Sydow) appeals to their sense of justice.

Though set after the war, Snow Falling on Cedars is one of the few Hollywood films to depict the mass forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans in various flashback scenes. Hatsue's father is first arrested and taken to an unspecified internment camp; we see presumably Issei men sleeping in rows of double decked bunks while military police patrol the aisles. The scenes depicting the removal of the rest of the Miyamotos and the rest of the Japanese Americans on the island are clearly influenced by photographs of Bainbridge Island Japanese Americans being evicted from their homes in 1942, and we later see the Miyamotos entering Manzanar by bus. We see the barracks, fence, and guard towers at Manzanar, and later scenes depict the interior of the barracks. Hatsue and Kazuo are married in Manzanar, and we see the lack of privacy, when they spend their wedding night separated from the rest of the family by just a hanging blanket. The character of principled newspaper publisher Arthur Chambers is clearly based on Walt Woodward the publisher of the Bainbridge Review, who also defended the rights of Japanese Americans on the island.

Mainstream reviews of the film were mixed, with the cinematography of Robert Richardson often being singled out; the movie's lone Academy Award nomination was for its cinematography, and Richardson did win several other cinematography awards for his work on Cedars. The film's domestic gross was a reported $14 million, as against a production budget of $35 million.[1]

Asian Americans (and Asian Americanist) critics and scholars also had mixed feelings about Cedars, often in combination with the earlier Come See the Paradise, with which it shares several key elements. While praising the somber depiction of the Japanese American islanders' eviction from the island and of their subsequent incarceration (historian Alice Yang Murray calls these scenes "incredibly moving" and Elena Tajima Creef praises "painstakingly detailed representations of the camps"), they are critical that "... the stories and troubles of the white male narrators dominate, relegating the internment narrative to a secondary position," as legal scholar Taunya Lovell Banks put it. Creef and others note that the focus on Ismael's obsessions reduces Hatsuye to "a one-dimensional character of surface beauty and inscrutable depth." In the most detailed Asian American critique of the movie, legal scholar Keith Aoki reinforces these general critiques, situating Hatsue in the history of portrayals of Asian Americans in mainstream movies, calling her character "an empty vessel waiting to be filled with stereotypical content," and citing this as "the crucial weakness, the empty hole at the heart of the film." Aoki also argues that the film is a vindication of "the legal system and on optimistic post-war legal liberalism" that that "perceives racism as essentially an aberration, an irrationality, in a system that otherwise works generally well and justly," something he argues is belied by the legal history of racial minorities in the U.S. The Asian American media watchdog group Media Action Network for Asian Americans also criticized the casting of the Japanese actor Kudoh—who speaks with a marked Japanese accent—in the role of a Nisei.[2]

Authored by Brian Niiya, Densho

For More Information

Aoki, Keith. "Is Chan Still Missing?: An Essay About the Film Snow Falling on Cedars and Representations of Asian Americans in US. Films." Asian Pacific American Law Journal 7.1 (Spring 2001): 31–37.

Creef, Elena Tajima. Imaging Japanese America: The Visual Construction of Citizenship, Nation, and the Body. New York: New York University Press, 2004.

Footnotes

  1. Box Office Mojo, accessed on March 6, 2015 at http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=snowfallingoncedars.htm.
  2. Alice Yang Murray, Historical Memories of the Japanese American Internment and the Struggle for Redress (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008), 433–34; Elena Tajima Creef, Imaging Japanese America: The Visual Construction of Citizenship, Nation, and the Body (New York: New York University Press, 2004, 114–16; Taunya Lovell Banks, "Outsider Citizens: Film Narratives About the Internment of Japanese Americans," Suffolk University Law Review 42 (2009), 781–82; Keith Aoki, "Is Chan Still Missing?: An Essay About the Film Snow Falling on Cedars and Representations of Asian Americans in US. Films," Asian Pacific American Law Journal 7.1 (Spring 2001): 31–37; Hawaii Herald, March 3, 2000, A-14.