Go For Broke

The ever-growing definition of a “comic book movie” expands in a deeply meaningful way with the creation of “Go For Broke.” Directed by Alexander Bocchieri (a helmer of short films, making his feature length debut) and written/produced by Stacey Hayashi, this made-in-Hawaii, World War II drama depicts the lives of young Japanese-American men living in Hawaii during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Their long suffering journey led to the formation of the 442nd, the most highly decorated unit in U.S. military history.

Hayashi and illustrator Damon Wong first released their “Journey of Heroes” graphic novel in 2012, composed of true stories of the 442nd in combat and their lives before and after war time. The graphic novel cleverly avoided being a dry history lesson by depicting the soldiers as cute manga figures; in this film adaptation, the handful of main characters are played by charismatic actors but the approach is no less inventive.

The opening credits sports imagery from the graphic novel and Hayashi’s screenplay builds the narrative in an unconventional way: we follow the journey of the established central protagonists but the focus jumps around, even leaving the islands for a look at a Wisconsin Japanese internment camp. The episodic nature allows for more ground to be covered than in a conventional film.

There’s also the dreamy cinematography by Jeremy Snell and Anthony Vallejo-Sanderson, first rate editing by Aaron Yamamoto and a lovely, versatile score by Jake Shimabukuro. While the story does build to an inspiring finish, the style allows isolated personal incidents to drive the narrative. There are moments in this approach that reminded me of “The Thin Red Line,” including a scary, deeply unsettling staging of the Pearl Harbor attack. Thanks to the hand-held cinematography, some exceptional CGI and the focus on human struggle, this sequence is remarkable and, for a low budget indie, surprising in its scale.

Of the large cast, Chad Yazawa (playing Akira Otani), Kyle Kozaki (as Dan Inouye), and especially Shiro Kawai (as Principal Maehara) stand out. Some of the supporting cast performances aren’t as polished, which causes the spell of the period setting to wane at times. Occasionally, the dialog is too on the nose (“More than just war is at stake”), sounding like modern editorializing on history. These flaws don’t undermine the overall impact of “Go For Broke,” which is not simply a great Hawaii-made movie, but a great film, period.

This is a deeply felt work, with many scenes playing like painful memories faithfully recreated. There are brief but potent bits throughout, like a little girl who barely survives a blast outside her home during the Pearl Harbor attack. We see a Japanese man arrested in front of his wife and son (who insist, correctly, that he is not a criminal), a teacher warning the students of his Japanese school that war is inevitable and that they are not to forget that they are Americans; this latter aspect haunts the film, as well as this horrible period of U.S. history. The film recreates the time when Japanese-Americans (particularly second generation Nisei citizens) were rounded up, denied their rights and put in camps. There’s a scene here that moved me to tears, where a group of imprisoned Japanese men plead with a carpenter to contact their loved ones; the carpenter is stunned but continues to do his job and ignores them.

While “Go For Broke” is thoroughly entertaining, concludes at an opulent ceremony in front of Iolani Palace and features an epilogue of the real soldiers interlaced with their onscreen counterparts, it’s the pain and hardship in this story that resonates.

Considering how there are only a handful of truly great, locally made, independently films about Hawaii that have received wide circulation, the question some may wonder is how this one holds up. The answer is easy: Bocchieri and Hayashi’s film feels like a companion piece to “Picture Bride,” the superb 1995 film by the late Kayo Hatta. “Picture Bride” also depicts early 20th century ┬áJapanese-Americans living in Hawaii, pressing against prejudice and social injustices, and finding meaning in the history and future of their heritage. Bocchieri and Hayashi’s ambitious and often spellbinding film is a worthy companion piece to “Journey of Heroes” and a unique, vital tribute to the 442nd and their legacy.

Three and a Half Stars

originally published in Maui Time Weekly