Judge Joel Pearce considers himself a Canadian-American.
"Neither the army nor the war relocation program relished the idea of taking men, women, and children away from their homes, their shops, and their farms, so the military and civilian agencies alike took the job as a democracy should—with real consideration for the people involved."—American Propaganda Video
In many ways, Unfinished Business doesn't do much to distinguish itself from dozens of other documentaries that are released each year. It is twenty years old as well, which makes it less relevant than it was when it first came out. Still, there is a certain charm to this production, which uses interviews and historical footage to examine the aftermath of the Japanese internments during World War II.
When this film was made in the mid-1980s, the children of the internment victims had started to fight in court to get compensation for their parents. This film focuses on three men who resisted the order, Gorden Hirabayashi, Fred Korematsu, and Minory Yasui. They lived most of their lives as criminals, a permanent criminal record acting as a daily reminder of their ethnicity.
What Unfinished Business does well, it does very well. On the top of this list is the film's exploration of race issues in North America. What does it mean to be Japanese-American? On the surface, of course, it simply means an American with a Japanese background, but racial issues are never that simple. In a nation without centuries of deep-rooted nationalistic history, a large percentage of Americans bring cultural traditions and ideas with them from other parts of the world. At what point do these people truly become American, in terms of culture as well as citizenship? According to the subjects of this documentary, the transition happens sooner than most of us realize. Most of the interred Americans were the sons and daughters of immigrants. Most had never even visited Japan. They too were pursuers of the American dream, excited about the limitless possibilities afforded them as citizens. When the government tagged them as potential Japanese informants instead, they were absolutely stunned.
Of course, the topic of cultural assimilation isn't reducible to easy answers. After all, we still refer to Japanese-Americans as Japanese-Americans, even though many families have been in the States for five or six generations. Should some groups be forever expected to assume two ethnic identities? I don't much like that idea, but the whole situation is problematic if they are no longer considered partly Japanese. Should their children be compensated for the atrocity of internment? If they should, then the assumption is that these people are part of a different group. If they should just be considered American now, then it seems unreasonable to compensate their completely American children. This exploration of race is a paradox, and Unfinished Business doesn't try to solve the problem. It simply explores what it meant for the Japanese-Americans who were placed in the camps in the '40s, and what it felt like for their children to grow up with that national rejection hanging over their heads.
Unfortunately, Unfinished Business isn't as strong in other areas. The first half tries to cover too much ground too quickly, and gets quite dry at times. The second half is much more interesting, as we get to know its three subjects and the loose structure becomes less distracting.
Also, the film is quite a bit out of date now. There is no supplemental material on the DVD exploring what happened to these cases after the film was made. We do get the ten minute"Japanese Relocation" video from during the war, as well as a brief biography of filmmaker Steven Okazaki (Days of Waiting). The DVD transfer of the film itself is clean considering its age and budget, and the stereo sound is easy to understand.
The images of the Japanese internment remain a powerful reminder that we must be careful when pointing fingers during times of war. The internment camps were nothing more than concentration camps, and it is one of the most embarrassing episodes in 20th-century American history. For those images alone, Unfinished Business is worth checking out. If Docurama had included some additional context and filled in some gaps, it would be a must-see for documentary fans.
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