The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards is sponsoring “Good Luck Soup” at this year’s Cleveland International Film Festival. The two screenings are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 31 and 5 p.m. Saturday, April 2.
Director Matthew Hashiguchi calls “Good Luck Soup” a comedy. Yet this appealing new documentary takes up the forced internment of some 140,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians during World War II. And Hashiguchi places several generations of his own family in starring roles.
He characterizes the internment camps as “well-documented but seldom discussed.” He uses World War II-era propaganda footage from the National Archives in the film, as well as the photographs of Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange. Some 140 Japanese American families have flocked to the interactive web version of “Good Luck Soup,” often adding private images and documents.
At the center of the movie is Eva Hashiguchi, the director’s grandmother, now 90. Her comic persona enlivens this 72-minute film. It is sobering to learn this woman merrily hunting for Dove bars in the movie trailer spent three formative years—from ages 16-19—incarcerated in Arkansas internment camps. Authorities forced her entire family from their California fruit farm after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.
“The way my family has dealt with these issues was through laughter, through positivity,” the director said in a telephone interview. “I don’t think they’ve let bigotry or prejudice hold us back. It’s made it possible to not let the past hurt so much. My grandmother, she always looks for the light.”
Nevertheless, Hashiguchi says, he can’t recall a time as a boy growing up in a mostly Irish Catholic neighborhood when he was unaware of the camps. His grandmother spoke about them to his third-grade class at Gesu Elementary School in University Heights, and again to a gathering at Ohio State University. “I grew up with it, but I didn’t realize the gravity of it until later in my life,” he said. “When I was listening to her in Columbus, I think it dawned on me: this was an experience that caused some damage.”
In the 1940s, the Hashiguchi patriarch, Eva’s father, was making regular mortgage payments on his Florin, California acreage when the war in the Pacific started. The next year the Hashiguchis were forced from their strawberries and watermelon fields and sent to “relocation centers” in Jerome and Rohwer, Arkansas.
“Our family farm was taken away,” Eva Hashiguchi tells the camera. “Me, especially, felt California kicked me out, why should I go back and be a tax-paying citizen in California? So I call Ohio my home state.”
After the war ended, Eva and her older sister decided to leave the rural South. “Cleveland was one of the few cities inviting Japanese Americans,” Matthew Hashiguchi said. “There was a cultural committee reaching out, saying, ‘We have jobs; we have space.’”
Eva earned her first paycheck as a maid, but was ill-matched to the work. She righted herself through her knack with small children. “A number of women were hired by Jewish families,” Hashiguchi said. “I think there was a sensitivity within the Jewish community for what Japanese Americans went through.”
The director, 31, grew up with a brother and a sister in Cleveland’s eastern suburbs, regularly playing tennis at Gordon Park through the Nise Tennis Club, founded to bring the post-war Japanese diaspora together. The Hashiguchi children went to Sunday Mass at Gesu alongside their parents, Don, an engineer, and Roslyn, a librarian.
Matthew, who studied photojournalism at Ohio State and earned an MFA in Visual and Media Art from Emerson College, said he resisted making “Good Luck Soup,” which takes its title from a traditional broth made with vegetables, rice cake and seafood. It marks an auspicious start the Japanese New Year.
“This was the story I never wanted to tell or address,” he said. “In 2011, I finally said, this is the one film I have been thinking about for so long. I didn’t want to admit what I’d experienced with bigotry or racism, or to hear it from my family. At times, it was kind of a struggle to get them to talk about it.
“My cousins, my siblings, were more open. My father’s generation was less willing. And my grandmother was taught not to stir the pot, to keep quiet. In their day, who knows what might have happened if they spoke out?”
Subtitled “The American Experience through Asian Eyes,” this documentary tracks the nuanced experiences of multiple generations. Twice, the Anisfield-Wolf jury has honored books about the internment camps: “The Great Betrayal” by Audrie Girdner and Anne Loftis in 1970 and seven years later, “Years of Infamy” by Michi Weglyn.
“I think it was important not to make a one-note film,”’ Hashiguchi said. “I wanted it to have a fluctuation of emotions. And my grandmother is a character. She knows how to work a camera.”
Both Hashiguchis – grandmother and grandson — will answer questions at the two screenings. Tickets are $14 for film festival members, seniors and students; $16 for others. Moviegoers can receive a $2 discount at the box office, online or ordering on the phone, by using the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards code: ANWO.