Go For Broke: An Origin Story (USA, 2017) [CAAMFest 2018]

The opening of Go for Broke: An Origin Story is not the subtlest opening to have graced cinema. An image of an American flag and Japanese-American citizens passionately singing the national anthem set the tone for a film that at no point deviates from the clear message it is trying to communicate to the audience.

The film takes place during and after Pearl Harbor and explores the origins of the 442nd Infantry Regiment. After the Japanese bombing of Hawaii, all Japanese-American men were classified as enemy aliens and forbidden to serve their country. This decision would be revered in 1943 and Japanese- Americans were finally allowed to once more enlist in a special segregated infantry outfit that would come to be known as the 442nd Infantry Regiment.

Go For Broke: An Origin Story focuses on the Japanese-American citizens of Hawaii. Hawaii treated their Japanese- American citizens slightly different to the rest of the USA, although, as the film tells us, they were heavily monitored and a few were imprisoned for the most part they were treated better than in the rest of the USA. This would be clear when over 10,000 Hawaiian Japanese- American turns up to volunteer for the war. The story follows a group of University of Hawaii ROTC students after the 1941 attack and as they form the Varsity Victory Volunteers (VVV), to prove their loyalty to the USA. This, in turn, leads to the formation of the 442nd   – one of the most decorated units of the Pacific War campaign. The actions and activities of the 442nd have received several filmic and television treatments over the last few decades the most notable is Robert Pirosh’s 1971 film of the same title. Pirosh’s explored the lives and combat experiences of the platoon but only makes a few references to the internment camps and focuses instead on the development of Lt. Michael Grayson as he comes to appreciate the contribution of the Hawaiian Japanese-American platoon.

Although it shares the same title (the actual motto of the 442nd), Go for Broke is, as the title tells us an origin story. This is not a war film in the traditional sense as, bar for a few scenes about Pearl Harbor, we see little actual combat, but rather the narrative is on the aftermath of Pearl Harbor and the pathway to the formation of the 442nd. The main focus is on the experiences and the conflicting emotions of people who were, as far as they were concerned, American, whilst America saw them as potential enemy insurgents. Despite their commitment to learning the Japanese language and maintaining their Japanese culture, the film is clear to stress the lead characters continual commitment to the USA. When Pearl Harbor is bombed we see Japanese-American citizens dying alongside their white counterparts and yet in the aftermath, they are transformed into the enemy. Local men are arrested despite years of loyal service to the USA and others are mistreated in all areas of their day-to-day life. The impotence of the Japanese –American community to argue back when anti-Japanese emotions were running so high is reflected throughout the film. Japanese-Americans arriving to help in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor are sent away with verbal and racial abuse and Japanese members of the Hawaii self-defence force have their weapons removed from them. In response, and to show their patriotism, the ROTC students decide to volunteer and work for the USA until they are allowed to enlist and fight for the USA. Finally, this is allowed and they all sign up. The film ends in the current day with some interviews of the original members of the 442Nd and a reflection on their contribution to Hawaii and the USA.

With a few notable exceptions (the most famous outspoken critic of the USA in this period is George Takai), the internment of Japanese –Americans is another of the dark sides of American race-relations that is still under-discussed. As a result, Go for Broke has a clear mandate to educate. The film was released for the 75th Anniversary and there are plans to distribute it in across Hawaii as part of history educational program. It film was funded in part by a grant-in-aid of about a half a million dollars from the state of Hawaii through the 442nd Foundation that allowed access to the remaining servicemen but also sets the tone for the approach the film takes. With this background, it is unsurprising that the film has such clear aims and objectives. Producer Stacey Hayashi has long sought to bring the stories of this period to the public imagination. Her award-winning graphic novel, Journey of Hero’s (2012), opens the film’s credits and she has also produced two other films on this topic. The film was designed to celebrate and admire these men and to reflect a positive vision of Japanese-American in this period and the film does exactly that. Alex Bocchieri does a fair job of direction and the images, curtsy of cinematographers Anthony Vallejo-Sanderson and Jeremy Snell are the strongest part of the film.

However, the main issue with Go for Broke is the often-stilted acting and the tendency to lapse into over-sentimentality. For many who are already aware of the topic, the endless protestations of patriotism and images of the US Flag could be off-putting and somewhat disengaging. This film will appeal to those who don’t know much about this period and would like to learn more in an easily digestible and very human-facing fashion. I can see it working in a school setting very well and for Hawaii, a land desiring to forge its own cinematic identity away from Hollywood, the film represents a ‘local’ story told by a ‘local’ team and it should be celebrated as a result.

Go for Broke: An Origin Story is showing at CAAMFest 2018 on May 13 and 14.