American Pastime (2007)




Director:     Desmond Nakano.

Starring:    Aaron Yoo (Lyle Nomura),  Olesya Rulin (Cathy Reyes),  Carlton Bluford (Lester Johnson),  Sami Roe (Jimmy Gorney),  Masatoshi Nakamura (Kaz Nomura),  Leonardo Nam (Lane Nomura),  Judy Ongg (Emi Nomura),  Gary Cole (Billy Burrell),  Charles Halford (Corporal Norris),  Big Budah (Bambino Hirose),  Kerry Yo Nakagawa (Jumbo Tanaka),  Junko Yamamoto (Junko Tanaka),  Kale Nakagawa (Kale Takeshita),  Tod Huntington (Corporal Mack),  Jeff Herr (Director Watson). 

Japanese-Americans interned turn to baseball, the all-American sport to win some respect



Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

East Los Angeles, 1941.  A Japanese-American, a black kid and two white kids listen to the sounds of the Big Band era.  Dad tells his son Lane Nomura to go and get his brother Lyle for dinner.  Lyle will be the first to go to college from the family.

Bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Dec. 7, 1941.  Hate messages start showing up everywhere.  One says:  "Japs keep out, you  rats!"  A headline in the paper says:  "Ouster of all Japs in California near!"  Another says:  "100,000 Japs now cleared from coast!" 

Lyle as narrator says that the family  was given only ten days to close the family business and to clear everything from their house.  They gave their dog to the neighbors.  They could only bring what they could carry.  They were held at the Santa Anita racetrack and then were moved farther away.  "Everything we had known was gone."

Abraham, Utah.  The Japanese-Americans are being processed into the camp.  Mom drops her suitcase and the contents spill out.  Lyle goes to help her.  A soldier with a bull-horn, named Billy Burrell, tells Lyle to keep moving, the woman can pick up her own stuff up.  Lyle doesn't follow the advice so the soldier comes over and asks him if he speaks English.  Lyle ignores him for awhile, but his mother wants him to answer.  He tells the soldier that this is his mother he is helping.  A sign says Topaz Relocation Center, Central Utah.

The Nomura family is in a barracks with other families.  they want to change their clothes, so every agrees that the men and boys will face one wall and the women and girls will face the opposite wall. Just as they have removed some of their clothes, the soldiers come in to have an inspection of the barracks.  There is a curfew and everyone must be accounted for.  The women are a bit upset by the interruption and have to throw towels over themselves. 

Walter Watson, the director of the camp, comes in to speak to the families.  He says they want them to be able to establish lives here as close as possible to what they had before their internment.  

The area is a desert. 

A ball game is played is played in town.  It's Single-A  minor-league pro ball.  Billy Burrell, the catcher, hits a homerun.  Burrell is a sergeant in the army and works at the internment camp.

Lyle plays the saxophone away from the barracks.  An old Japanese man trying to make home made booze tells him go go way.  Lyle Nomua goes missing, so Burrell calls for a lockdown.  Some soldiers find the young fellow drunk.  Burrell demands to know where the booze came from and when no answer is provided, he starts to rough the teen up.  Lyle vomits on Burrell, who is thoroughly disgusted with the youngster.   Director Watson comes over to tell Burrell that he is not allowed to call for a lockdown.  He lets the Norura family deal with their son Lyle. 

Dad and Lyle Nomura talk to the people in the barracks.  They have permission from Director Watson to improve the barracks.  One thing they want to do is patch up all the holes in the wall so that the wind and the dust can't keep coming inside.  Lyle says there are over 8,000 at this internment camp.  If everyone will cooperate, they can make a new home out of necessity.  Lyle does not participate. 

Dad and Lyle go to the store owner to buy some plants and fertilizer.   Dad says that they will pay in cash.  One of the townspeople, a good ol' boy named Ed, says that now the government is giving these people money.  He is disgusted by this.  Dad says that they have their own money.  They don't trust the banks, because they think they might take their money.  Of course, nothing is going to satisfy a Redneck.  The store owner has most of what they want, except the gingham for the curtains and that he will order. 

Some of the people in the camp try to drum up a protest against their being held.  They ask:  "How can we be held without being charged with breaking any laws? . . . Where are all the Germans?  What about the Italians?  Demand answers!  Joins us!"  These men are taken out and sent to no one knows where.  One of the guys in the camp runs a gambling operation and sells his home-made booze for $1 dollar a drink. 

Dad talks to Lyle about making a baseball league here just like they had at home.  Lyle, however, is too cynical to want to share his father's dream. 

The Burrell girl is teaching music to the Japanese-American girls.  Her choice of music is pretty boring.  Lyle comes in and blows a popular tune on his saxophone.  The teacher asks him if he is making fun of them.  Lyle says he has jazz practice from 4:30 p.m. and it's time.  Teacher says he will just have to wait until they finish.  Lyle sits down and listens. 

At home Mrs. Burell realizes that the big league teams are losing their best players to the military to fight the war.  So she tells her husband maybe now he could get a chance to play pro-ball.  Her husband tells their daughter that mom is just dreaming. 

The men and young boys start playing baseball in the camp. 

1943.  A dance is held.  Lyle plays the sax in the band.  The Burrell girl comes in and Lyle asks her to play the piano with the band.  She is reluctant, but Lyle keeps the pressure on and she plays the piano.  After the band finishes Lyle and the young girl talk about music and bands.  She says that she didn't even know Japs knew how to play jazz.  This offends Lyle and he says he's not a Jap, he was born in the United States just like she was.  The girl apologizes saying she mean no offense.   

Billy Burrell complains about how the American men are out fighting and the Japs here just play baseball and have dances and beauty pageants.  And, says Billy, he himself has become a babysitter.  Billy hits  a ball out close to the old man and Lyle.  The old man pretends he doesn't know any English when the soldiers ask him to throw them the ball.  But the soldiers do know Lyle knows English.  Billy says if he can't get it back all the way to him, to throw it to the pitcher.  Lyle throws it all the way to Billy.  The less red-neck soldier says that Lyle has a pretty good arm.  He bets him $1 dollar that he can't strike out Billy.  Lyle says $5 dollars.  Billy says he'll cover the bet.  Strike one.  Strike two. The old man says that the soldiers didn't know that Lyle has a baseball scholarship to play ball.   Lyle asks to increase the bet to $10 dollars and Billy agrees.  Billy calls the next one a ball.  And the next one a ball.  The next one is a ball.  And then it's ball four called by Billy.  Lyle is mad about being cheated, but the old fellow pays the money, and tells Lyle to let it go.   

Lyle land the Burrell girl practice jazz music together.  She is a bit down on herself for not being able to pick jazz up very fast.  Lyle helps her out.  And the girl now starts seeing Lyle in a different light.

Billy receives a telegram that he son has been killed in action.  His wife watches him from the stands and knows what has happened.  She starts crying. 

Lane comes over to his parents and Lyle to tell them that he has enlisted in the army.  He says this way he can prove that he is as American as anybody else.  Lyle tells his brother to go over there and get himself killed and see what that proves. 

The barracks full of people come out to see Lane off.  They give him a senninbari (belly belt) to protect him from harm.  One thousand mothers have each sewn one red stitch into the belt.  Lane thanks them for their good wishes and for coming out to see him. 

Mr. and Mrs. Nomura have a picnic lunch inside the encampment but away from the barracks. 

Film of the actual barracks are shown along with some of the people who lived there.    Camp Shelby, Mississippi.  The Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team is in training preparing to fight for their country.

1944.  Burrell is still a guard at the camp.  Katie Burrell and Lyle are kissing.  They are shocked, flabbergasted when her father comes into the music room.  They almost got caught.  Mrs. Nomura shows Lyle an article in the camp paper that the Quakers are offering a scholarship for one fellow from each of the baseball leagues to the University of Delaware. 

Lyle says tells Katie that when he goes to the University of Delaware, she could come with him.  She says yes, she will.  Billy Burrell learns from the redneck Ed that his daughter Katie "has been seeing some Jap".  He asks her about it.  She denies it.  Billy tells he knows that's right because would never do such a thing to her family and to the memory of her brother. 

In town Lyle gets accosted by Ed who says the townspeople are getting pretty tired of his kind of people being around here.  Ed and another guy beat Lyle up.  Billy and Mr. Nomura break up the fight.  At home Billy tells Katie that a couple of people in town roughed up the Nomura kid.  Katie tries to get up from the table but her father tells her to sit down.  He says she's been fired from her job at the camp and she will never return to the camp again.   Now Katie does get up and walks away. 

The old man tells Lyle that he heard that he didn't get the scholarship because of his physical injuries from the fight.  His advise to Lyle is that whatever happens:  "Deal with it, kid!"

Newsreel footage.  "The Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team moving up from their battles in Italy into the Vosges mountains in France fighting in tough terrain against seasoned German forces trying to rescue a lost battalion of fellow Americans.  Mission after mission, these stalwart fighting men are proving themselves, bringing honor to themselves and the nation that is proud to call them citizens."   

Big stars are placed up on a bulletin board with the names of the Japanese-American soldiers killed in combat.  One of the soldiers tells Billy that the 442nd took 800 casualties to save 211 guys in the Texas 36th.  "These guys, they're all from Topaz", says the soldier.  Lane comes in to get a haircut from barber Ed.  Ed says:  "I don't cut Jap hair."   It's Lt. Nomura now.  He leaves the barber shop without saying anything to Ed. 

Lane comes home to his parents alive.  They are proud of him.  Lyle comes in and says hello to Lane.  He sees that his brother has a prosthetic foot.  His brother also earned a Silver Star. 

Katie comes to see Lyle.  She talks to him through the fence saying that she has to get out of here somehow.  She says she's going away -- to Delaware where she applied.  Billy comes by in a jeep and with a bull horn tells them to step back from each other. 

A baseball match up will take place between the Japanese-Americans from the camp and the local ball team.  Katie tells her mother she is going to college in Delaware.  Billy tells her that she is not going anywhere, but Katie is determined to get away from Abraham, Utah.  Dad says again she is going nowhere and certainly not back to the camp.  Now Katie lets her father have it verbally.  She says that the people in the internment camp are not Japs and they had nothing to do with killing her brother.  The person who did indirectly cause the death of her brother is dad himself, who was always trying to force his son to be like him.  He forced him to play baseball and made him practice for hours and hours.  She shouts:  "He hated it!  He hated you!"  He ran away to the Navy.  "It was you who killed him!"  Dad almost hits his daughter, but mother jumps in between them.

Dad helps Lyle train his arm in order to become a stronger and better pitcher.  The day of the game arrives.  The old man get $2,500 dollars in quarters from the people of the camp.  He makes a bet with the other team.  Lyle is the pitcher and he strikes out the redneck Ed.  Billy Burrell is up next and he strikes out.  And the major league scout is at the ball game.  Billy comes up to bat again and strikes out again  The big Hawaiian fellow hits a homerun for the camp team. 

It's the seventh inning stretch.  Katie comes to see Lyle and says she won't go if he doesn't want her to.  He says he wants her to go.  The two sets of parents bump into the couple.  It's a bit awkward.  Everyone goes their own way.  Ed bunts the ball and then slams deliberately into Nomura knocking him down hard.  Billy has struck out three times.  He comes up for his fourth at bat.  Billy hits a three-run homer.  Mrs. Burrell learns that the major league scouts didn't show up.  She nods no to Billy when he inquires about the scout.  He is disappointed. 

It's the last chance for the camp team to win.  A bunt puts a man on base.  The pitcher hits the next batter.  Men on first and second base.  Lyle comes up to bat.  Lane gets up and shouts to his brother:  "Go for broke!"  The fans in the stands start shouting the same thing.  Lyle gets a triple.  The big Hawaiian comes to bat.  Dad gives Lyle the signal and Lyle roars down headed for home.  He slides knocking Burrell down and causing him to drop the ball.    The umpire calls Lyle out and a big arguments starts.  Billy, however, decides not to cheat this time and says Lyle was safe.  Game's over.  Lyle is amazed that Billy was honest.  The camp team wins 4-3.  And Billy earns some respect from his wife and daughter. 

Old Ed the barber has to give a haircut to Lt. Nomura, while outside the shop a big crowd fills up the window space with on-lookers. 

"The last of the ten Relocation Camps closed on March 20, 1946, four years after the first of 120,000 persons were incarcerated.  In World War II the Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team suffered 9,486 dead and wounded in some of the fiercest fighting in Europe.  Man for man, no American unit in any war this nation has ever fought took greater casualties or earned more commendations of honor. During the entire war, there was not a single incident of espionage or sabotage reported in America involving any person of Japanese descent." 


Enjoyable movie about an injustice done to the Japanese-American citizens.  Despite this injustice, Japanese-American men signed up for the war, even from the interment camps themselves.  The Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team was the mostly highly decorated fighting unit in U.S. history.  The acting was good all-around.  I don't usually care for baseball games on film, but I enjoyed the one here because I felt identified with the struggle for the dignity of the Japanese-Americans. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


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