THE BLOG
12/12/2013 12:26 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2014

Seeing Snow Falling on Cedars on Pearl Harbor Day Underscored Its Message

Many Japanese Americans who've grown up since World War II -- myself included -- dreaded December 7 every year. As kids (and sometimes as adults) we've been taunted with hateful calls to "Go home, Jap!," "Go back where you cam from!" and the classic, "Remember Pearl Harbor!"

As if we could forget.

The war happened decades ago, and as Japanese Americans we had nothing to do with the attack on the U.S. military on Hawaii that sparked America's entry into WWII. Hell, today, most people in Japan had nothing to do with Pearl Harbor. Yet, I still feel wary when I go out on Dec. 7. Although I haven't faced a dumb remark in years now, I know that feeling is always there, just beneath the surface of civility.

The ugliness comes out, perversely, when a tragedy occurs in Japan, like the "It"s God's revenge for Pearl Harbor!" comments that were tweeted out after the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeast Japan.

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So we decided this year, we'd face our trepidation directly. We bought tickets for "Snow Falling on Cedars," the stage version of David Guterson's award-winning 1994 novel about the after-effects of post-war racial hatred against Japanese Americans in a small Pacific northwest community. The book was made into an atmospheric film in 1999 starring Ethan Hawke that was nominated for a cinematography Oscar.

Seeing the play at the Vintage Theatre in Aurora would help exorcise the Pearl Harbor demons, we figured, even as it reminded us of the hysteria that the bombing caused. That hysteria led just a few months later to the imprisonment of almost 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry -- half American citizens, born in the U.S. -- in concentration camps away from the West Coast.

The audience that filled the smaller of the rooms at the Vintage was mostly Caucasian. Our friend Tarika, Erin and I, along with a couple of family members of the Filipina who played the starring role, were the only Asians. Most weren't aware that Dec. 7 was Pearl Harbor Day.

That's good, we figured. It means people are letting go of the stark pain of history. It's also good that this audience of mostly white people who didn't know it was the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor would be learning about the effect the attack had on Japanese Americans.

"Snow Falling on Cedars" is first a love story about a white boy (Ben Cowhick as Ishmael Chambers) and a Japanese American girl (Arlene Rapal as Hatsue Imada Miyamoto), who fall in love as children but are wrenched apart as teenagers by the war.

Second, the story is a courtroom drama, about the murder trial of the Japanese American man Hatsue marries (Dale Li as Kabuo Miyamoto) while imprisoned at Manzanar in California during the war. Kabuo is accused of killing a fellow fisherman, Carl Heine, because of a dispute over a strawberry farm that Kabuo's father had bought from Carl Heine's father, but lost when he couldn't make the final payments because of the war.

Rapal and Cowhick do a pretty good job of playing both children and adults as the script goes from scenes of the past to the murder trial in the present. Rapal in particular, who's Filipina, is terrific as a young Japanese American woman, not so much with a Japanese accent (the Japanese actress who played the part in the film wasn't believable as a JA because she sounded too Japanese), but because of her expressions and mannersisms. Likewise, the actor who played Hatsue's first-generation father, Robert Payo, had perfect Japanese pronunciation, thanks to a period when he lived in Japan and taught English.

Cowhick was heroic as the young man smitten by Hatsue, who has to face his lost love after the war and in spite of his rage pursues truth and justice as a journalist. Dale Li, one of our favorite local actors, is stoic as the equally rage-filled Kabuo, who's about to explode with the resentment of wartime imprisonment. Both these men end up serving in the military, and Ishmael Chambers comes back more damaged than Kabuo.

The trial's resolution gives both a way to find peace with their past.

Like the book and movie, playwright Kevin McKeon's stage adaptation is told in flashbacks.

The flashbacks can be jarring but director Sam Wood keeps the production from being chaotic. The biggest challenge is the Vintage's narrow room, which is better suited for intimate plays with minimal sets or props. The theater's larger main stage must be undergoing preparations for the Dec. 19 opening of "Young Frankenstein."

The huge set-piece of the boat-slash-courtroom took up so much room the actors were practically on top of the audience. in fact, some of the actors during the courtroom scene sat amongst the audience in the front row and along the sides of the room. Although Wood's direction was smooth and strong, we found ourselves snapping our heads back and forth at times like we were watching a tennis tournament when actors spokes from opposite ends of the stage.

Still, the strong performances and the intensity of the story kept the audience enthralled in spite of the crowded setting.

And, when we left the theater, we realized we didn't have that "Remember Pearl Harbor" feeling clutching at our hearts.

The Vintage Theatre's production of "Snow Falling on Cedars" runs through Dec. 15, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 and on Sunday at 2:30. www.vintagetheatre.com for more information.

Here's the trailer for the 1999 film version:

This article was cross-posted from Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View blog.