Race, Regionalism, and Rights: in Snow Falling on Cedars
Literature is an art form, which can convey love, hate, beauty, and ugliness. Literature, in the form of novels, has the capacity to challenge and reflect upon cultural and societal dilemmas. The David Guterson novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, and the 1999 film adaptation, illuminate the issues that a young Japanese-American man faces when he is accused of the murder of a white fisherman in the state of Washington. On the surface, the story is a mystery, which focuses on whether or not the young man is guilty, but on a deeper level, the novel is a narrative that contrasts the stark ugliness of racial intolerance compared to the beauty of the Washington island. Taking place upon the fictional San Piedro Island, part of the Puget Sound area of Washington, racial tensions ran extremely high between the members of the Caucasian majority and the smaller population of Japanese-Americans, who cohabitated on the island. One of the principal characters, Kazuo Miyamoto, is on trial accused of murdering the son of a former colleague of his father's, as part of a greater plot or struggle for land rights for the Miyamoto family. While the film's rejection of white racism is unsurprising, its focus on the landscape of the island suggests a more interesting technique for advocating tolerance and diversity. In the film, the land itself becomes a site where the film can imagine universal acceptance. Natural settings are the places where a forbidden love grows and nature is an observer of the trial of Kazuo.
The legal procedures metaphorically represent the racially biased feelings of the people of Washington, who judge Miyamoto not so much for what he has done, but more so judge him for who he is. This will later be a line in the film uttered by Kazuo's elderly lawyer. Regionalism in the film is played out in an intriguing and somewhat paradoxical manner. On the one hand, it is very clear from the dialogue and flashbacks in the film that the people of San Piedro are very proud of their island and consider it somewhat of an isolated community with a distinct culture. On the other hand, one learns very little about the actual physical location of the island over the course of the book and film, and the information provided is scarce. In this way, the regionalism is at once quite present and specific, but at the same time, the regionalism is non-descript, and this island could be any coastal island in the United States that is high enough in latitude to receive snow. The novel and film want to alert consumers that while these actions take place on a specific island at a specific point in American history, this trial and the prejudicial sentiments could have occurred anywhere in the country. The regionalism in the narrative is prominent and strong, specific and non-specific at once.
Regionalism was an art movement, which grew from the Modernist movement. Starting in the 1930s, regionalism focused on realistic representations of the real world outside the artist's windows. Regionalist artworks gave images of the American heartland, which provided hope and inspiration that there was indeed a better future coming for them as long as they persevered. In literature, the regionalist movement is seen in works, which focus on rural locations, local characters, and small communities serving as microcosms of the larger world. Such a technique is employed within Snow Falling on Cedars. Author Josephine Donavan writes that regionalism "depict[s] authentic regional detail, including authentic dialect, authentic local characters, in real or realistic geographical settings" (50). The heart of the movement was a moving away from large city metropolises and a re-embracing of the rural community, which had gone out of favor during the time of the Industrial Revolution. This included depictions of landscapes and the placement of people within the locations in the natural world. Central to the relationship between Ishmael and Hatsue, is their exploration of and time spent in natural settings. Nature is an essential element to their passion and romance, both in their innocence and in their passion. The regionalist movement was based on understanding of outsider vs. insider, which is a central concept within traditional Japanese culture, and rural vs. urban, themes which are present in the narrative of Snow Falling on Cedars. It is a regionalist film based on this principle. Its location, the island off of Washington, is extremely rural and isolated. We can feel the remoteness and wilderness of the island through many scenes in the film. In the middle of the movie, for example, we can see a hundred of red wood trees, hearing bird hardly chirping. (1:49:53) Thus, the island is separated from the rest of the United States and the rest of the world, but is connected through the opinions of those who live there.
Another theme that is present in the text, which reflects the regionalist artistic perspective is the conflict between feminine and masculine identities. In regionalism, the conflict between accepted social groups is an extremely important factor. Snow Falling on Cedars shows this conflict in a multitude of ways; one of the most important is in the dichotomy between reporter Ishmael Chambers and the main female character of the film, Kazuo's wife Hatsue. Ishmael finds himself inextricably drawn to the young woman. He desires her both sexually and emotionally. They have a past, which is extremely intoxicating and verging on obsessive, at least on the part of Ishmael. There are many reasons for this attraction, not the least of which is that as a woman of Japanese heritage, Hatsue is the ideal example of the exotic and unobtainable object of affection. As children, part of what made Hatsue so appealing was her "otherness" and the fact that because she was othered by the community, they had to keep their relationship a secret (Hrezo). Focus on the trial by using the scene from the trial. He likes her because she is exotic and different. At the same time, he looks down/others on her. The structure of the courthouse where the white people have gives you a visual example.
The racial biases presented in the film are not just those of the majority culture directed towards minorities, but can be reciprocal as well. In Snow Falling on Cedars one of the subplots is the former romance between Ishmael and Hatsue. As a young woman, she and Ismael nurtured a childhood and a teenage romance, which was not allowed to flourish because of her family's attitudes against Caucasians and in favor of her fellow Japanese. It is also insinuated quite a few times that Ishmael's mother is displeased with his feelings toward Hatsue. The tradition of respectability and the culture that was brought to the United States from the parents' home country was given more value than the new culture into which the immigrants were trying to assimilate. The pain of her parents increased when the family was sent to the internment camp at Manzanar. At that point, the Asian identity was strengthened and the idea that the white culture would never fully embrace the Asian immigrants was reinforced. Therefore, her mother forced Hatsue to break up with Ishmael via a letter from the camp and encouraged her to forge a more proper relationship with a fellow Japanese-American, which she did. Michael Bayly writes of the film:
The film doesn't single out any particular race as being capable of narrow-mindedness and prejudice. Yet without question, it is the prejudice of the white citizens of San Piedro Island (and by extension, the United States) that is the film's primary focus. For the parents, as well as for the racially prejudiced people of the island, there is a clear delineation between white and Asian and the two groups are not allowed to intermingle. This concept is shown not to just be within this small community, but a reflection of the larger cultural majority. Internment taught Hatsue's family and Kazuo's as well that they would never be equal to the white people and so they keep themselves isolated as much as possible to protect themselves from the imposition of prejudices of their neighbor.
Racial relationships in the film are not a one way street; to some degree, they are reciprocal. Like the snow traps people in the courthouse together, both groups are stuck in an intense situation and they both react to it. Japanese people are put against the White people; White people do not welcome or consider the Japanese people. This land is fantastic. The whole movie is like a trial of who gets to live in this island. Both sides are pushing against each other and making claims.
In the United States during the 1950s, time during which the narrative takes place, white people from Western Europe were the majority. The film's account of post-WWII American race relations reflects a larger national structure, connecting the film to the historical background. Those…