Politics, Family Separation and Identity Conflicts

The Link between Politics, Family Separation, and Identity Conflicts

Documentary films are utilized to highlight various issues that have faced individuals or societies over time. Such films are used to show events and situations that are visible parts of individuals’ shared experiences (Nichols, p.ix). As a result, documentary films are utilized as tools for representing reality through highlighting the shared experiences of people. Historical documentary films provide important lessons on various themes relating to the shared experiences of people in different historical periods and geopolitical configurations. Analysis of documentary films help in understanding the various issues that have faced people in different societies. For instance, Dear Pyongyang which was directed by Yang Yong-hi and History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige which was produced by Rea Tajiri are the examples of historical documentary films that have been used as representations of reality. These two films show different geopolitical configurations and provide significant insights relating to family experiences. As shown in these two historical films, politics has a strong link to family separation and identity conflicts.

There are some similarities and differences between these two films which plays a critical role in their portrayal of the different historical contexts. One of the similarities between both films is that they are both documentary films that provide historical accounts of groups of people in different periods. Dear Pyongyang highlights the life of Zainichi i.e. North Koreans living in Japan after the division of Korea. History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige provides the experiences of Japanese Americans in internment camps in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor. These films are similar on the premise that they highlight the impact of geopolitics on the experiences of different groups of people. Both of the films are projects to remember personally, to remember for her brothers, parents and the global community.

One of the differences between these two films relate to the cinematic elements utilized by the directors or producers of the films. In Dear Pyongyang, Yang constantly uses first-person voiceover narration rather than direct conversations with her father to demonstrate her astonishment at her parent’s convictions and commitment to the vision of a unified, Communist Korea (Koehler par, 1). The use of first-person voiceover narrations as a cinematic element for expressing her surprise is attributable to the fact that it was a means for Yang to show her respect for elders, which was held at a high premium in the Korean culture. Through this process, she avoids familial confrontations which would be considered disrespectful.

On the contrary, in History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige, Tajiri includes her own video footage and her mother’s recollections of the family experiences of internment. Tajiri’s narrative structure in this film is juxtaposition. Juxtaposition is the film editing technique of combining two or more shots to evoke an idea or state of mind (Hollywood Lexicon, par,1). Tajiri relies on the testimony of her family member who experienced life in internment camps. She intends to evoke viewer’s awareness of Japanese Americans’ internment experiences. The testimony is presented as inconstant audio with various visuals. She also used the text on a black background to represent the imagined memories of her ancestors.

Secondly, the two films differ with regards to sources that are utilized by the directors or producers to express their message. In History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige, Tajiri relies on a variety of sources in order to develop a historical image where none exists. In this case, she utilized different sources to create the documentary film including government propaganda, Hollywood spectacle, memories of real people, spirits of the dead, newsreels, and her own intuition (Women Make Movies par, 3). Tajiri relies on different sources including footage filmed during World War II to mimic the complex nature of remembered history. Since the remembered history never capture the truth, she has to build the history by different times, texture and changing shape as it is remembered through the filters of different subjects. In this case, Tajiri’s use of different sources helps in constructing collective memory of her family experiences which is a critical component in her film. For example, the film starts with a few family photos taken at the internment camp. Since cameras are not allowed in internment camps, the photos that Tajiri released are rare. Her most successful use of visuals in this film is her effort to show the memory with her unexperienced history.

On the contrary, in Dear Pyongyang, Yang does not utilize different sources to create the film, but simply focuses on her daily life and engagement with her parents. Yang presents with her video recorder as viewers never see her except in photographs and at the very end when her hand appears. Unlike Tajiri who focuses on collective history, Yang specifically focuses on her father’s political convictions. Her focus is to understand how her father would value political convictions and why is he loyal to the North Korean government. Therefore, Yang narrows the scope of the film to her family experiences because she was surprised with her father’s decision to destroy his family in favor of political conviction and loyalty.


Despite their differences, the two films provide significant insights on geopolitics and its impact on people’s lives, particularly family unity and personal identity. Geopolitics is a concept that refers to politics that is influenced by geographical factors or international relations. In Dear Pyongyang, the geopolitical concept is highlighted in the political struggles between South and North Korea and the different life experiences in North Korea and in Japan (Flowers par, 1). At the beginning, Yong-hi outlines 1945 Korean liberation from Japanese Empire and division of Korea between North and South with the establishment of Republic of South Korea and Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea.

South Korea’s vibrant democracy is as a result of the movement of students, intellectuals and middle-class citizens. South Korea is officially a democratic country. Life in South Korea is full of entertainment, energy and the style of capitalism. It is the ideal lifestyle that Yong-hi yearns for, so she asked her father if she could gain South Korean nationality. Being a North Korean means a lot for Yong-hi since it would be much easier to work and study. In North Korea, the state ideology of self-reliance was used to consolidate the Kim family’s one-man rule, while reproducing a certain mode of thinking designed to help the regime survive. The possession of any foreign book or media was strictly forbidden. Pyongyang is a ghost city since after 10 p.m., most electricity had been turned off, there were no more cars on the already empty roads, most people were in bed, and there were no entertainment venues whatsoever. The audience could feel Yong-hi’s brothers and their families lived in the highly controlled, and stagnant environment of Pyongyang. Yong-hi also recorded thousands of torch-carrying youths rushing around the stadium in formation, making patterns, symbols and slogans to worship their leader. This reflects how Yong-hi could not understand North Koreans’ political loyalty.

As Yong-hi’s father was a North Korean patriot, he dedicated his entire life to the ideologies of the country. His seemingly irrational commitment to politics eventually resulted in family separation and generated Yang’s identity conflicts. He sent his three sons to North Korea as human gifts to Kim Il-sung. Yang struggles with her North Korean identity in Japan like many Japanese North Koreans who are unwilling to own up or accept their roots (Shoji par, 2). She struggles with her dual identities and has to learn how to live with them in Japan. This can be partly attributable to the fact that Zainichi ethnicity is largely rooted in traumas of post-colonial dis-recognition (Dew, p.27). Despite growing up in Japan and speaking fluent Japanese, Yong-hi maintained Korean tradition and speaks fluent Korean. However, when people asked her if she was Japanese, deep down she would say no because she is North Korean. Even though she never lived in North Korea and only visited North Korea to see her brothers, her identity lies in North Korea. Japan formally no longer recognized Koreans as Japanese citizens pursuant to the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty. In 1945, the Election Law took away ethnic Koreans’ voting rights (Koreans in Japan, p.2). Zainichi Koreans are faced with many challenges such as social benefits, obtaining employment, and racial biases. Through the film, Yang struggles to understand how politics would be more important to her father than family as well as whether she was North Korean or Japanese. These struggles demonstrate that politics lead to family separation and identity conflicts.

History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige highlights the difficulties Tajiri faces in reconciling her family experience and her personal identity. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans had fear about national security and suspected Japanese Americans’ loyalty to their ancestral land especially on the West Coast. In 1942, President Roosevelt decided to relocate Japanese Americans. Most of the internment camps were built in arid areas where the climate was not suitable for most life forms. They struggled to live in poor condition camps and the food was mass produced in army style grub. In additional, their life in internment camps was highly controlled by the American government. For instance, a voiceover in the film states, “This is a camp? This is a fxxk damn it jail!” which is a powerful criticism of the internment camp. Thousands of Japanese Americans are forced to move to internment camps though many of them have never been to Japan. The internment camps are the political ramifications that affect the multiple generations of Japanese Americans. The relocation of Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II was one of the most flagrant violations of civil liberties in American history (Japanese Internment Camps, par,2).

One of Tajiri’s narrations in the film states, “Begin searching because I feel lost and grounded, some like a ghost flowing in the dreams missing their lives and yet not having its own.” This narration indicates that she lost her own identity without knowing her ancestral history. Tajiri’s struggles to reconcile the past in order to shape her personal identity are reflected in her difficulties to reactivate the past from the pieces of available images (Marks, p.32). She feels miserable and eager to find out the history that is forgotten and lost in her generation. Throughout the movie, there is a repeating scene of a woman filling a canteen. Since her family did not have photographs or belongings that could serve as memoirs, she drew from her memory an image of her mother filling a canteen in the desert. This scene is the epitome of Tajiri, she works so hardly to trace and fill the missing part of history and memory that belongs to her. It seems like Tajiri was isolated in the desert and she was part of the few groups of people trying to understand the forgotten history.

The decision by many Japanese Americans who lived in internment camps to conceal the memories of their experiences has contributed to identity conflicts among second generation immigrants including Tajiri’s generation. As shown in the film, Tajiri seemingly struggles with identity conflicts because of the difficulties in finding a traditional historic account of her family experiences in internment camps. The disjointed photographs and videos are the nature of the film and expresses how hard it is to represent the past. The images follow one after another, sometimes in quick mode and sometimes after a pause on a particular object. Each image represents a new piece of puzzle in her family history, such as her grandparent’s ID and wooden birds that were cut sharply and quickly.

It appears that Tajiri is facing identity conflicts because she lost her own history and ancestral history as a second-generation immigrant. Tajiri considers defining her identity as a process that involves knowing her ancestral history that she would be able to tell to her next generation. It is necessary for her to find the history in order to avoid repeating such sadness. Therefore, her search for collective memory of her family’s experiences in internment is part of the process of shaping her own identity. It is necessary for Tajiri find out the truth and connection memory and history since the negative impacts of internment camps on Japanese Americans forced many of them to conceal their experiences in a cover of silence and forgetting (Women Make Movies par, 1).

Tajiri sought to deal with her identity conflicts through the search for her own history and revisiting memories that her family members preferred to conceal and forget. According to Tajiri’s explanation, her search for her own history through the film was fueled by the fact that she felt lost and ungrounded. She states, “… I had known all along that the stories I had heard were not true and parts had been left out. I began searching because I felt lost, ungrounded”. She felt that she was witnessing other people live their lives while she was not living her own life because of the struggle with identity conflict. She lost her culture and forgot her own background so she is not a citizen of anywhere. Therefore, through searching for her own history, Tajiri would shape her own identity and live a life of her own (Boyle, p.11).

In the end of the movie, Rea Tajiri goes to another city near the camp and states, “In Parker, the memory of relocation is the memory that everyone wants to forget. But as soon as they see an Asian face, they remember.” The negative impacts of internment camps on Japanese Americans forced many of them to conceal their experiences in a cover of silence and forgetting (Women Make Movies par, 1). She understands why people prefer to forget their painful memory of internment camp and not telling their history to the next generations. The experiences of Tajiri’s family during internment was largely as a result of politics, which had significant impacts on the wellbeing of many Japanese Americans during the Second World War. During this war, many Japanese Americans were evacuated and forced to live in internment camps, which made their lives complicated and very difficult. Consequently, most them preferred not to recollect their experiences as part of healing and continuing with their lives and opted to stay for fear of recriminations.

However, the intentional forgetfulness ended up affecting the generations like Tajiri who were faced with identity conflicts as highlighted in History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige. It is important to remember the past and where we come from. While this film does not show any linkages between politics and family separation, it demonstrates the link between politics and identity conflicts. As shown in Tajiri’s experience in the film, politics contributed to her identity conflicts through affecting the experiences and history of Japanese Americans including her family. Tajiri imagined her mother’s face as she smiles and splashes water on her face. In this perspective, she wants to invite audience to an awareness of a Japanese American community that is forgotten and absent by historical dialogue of global community. Tajiri’s wants viewers to actually see the person (her mother) and remember the historical event. In other words, the internment camp of Japanese American citizens during the World War II is just an event should be remembered by collective consciousness.

In conclusion, History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige and Dear Pyongyang are two documentary films from different geopolitical configurations that highlight the themes of geopolitics, family separation, and identity conflicts. The films have some similarities and differences relating to the experiences of the main characters and cinematic elements. However, the key aspect of these two documentary films is the attempts by the main characters i.e. Yang and Tajiri to reconstruct the past in order to determine their personal identities and shape their future. Yang struggles with dual identity as a North Korean and Japanese through she understands the culture and languages of both countries. On the contrary, Tajiri struggles with reconciling her past with her present because of the preference by her family to conceal and forget their experiences in internment camps. The relatively painful experiences in Yang’s family and Tajiri’s family are brought by politics, which forced each of these families to live in different societies and cultures other than their own. Through contributing to relocation, politics affected family unity as shown in each of these films, which in turn generated identity conflicts in successive generations. Therefore, despite the difference in historical periods and geopolitical configurations, the two films demonstrate that geopolitics can be the root cause of family separation and identity conflicts.



Works Cited

Boyle, Deirdre. “History and Memory: On Visual Media and the Collective Memory of the Japanese American Internment.” The New School, The New School, http://www.newschool.edu/nssr/historymatters/papers/deirdreboyle.pdf. Accessed 15 Dec. 2017.

Dew, Oliver. Zainichi Cinema: Korean-in-Japan Film Culture. Springer International Publishing, 2016.

Flowers, Neil. “Dear Pyongyang.” Elevate Difference, Elevate Difference, 26 Nov. 2010, http://www.elevatedifference.com/review/dear-pyongyang. Accessed 15 Dec. 2017.

Koehler, Robert. “Dear Pyongyang.” Variety, Variety, 23 Jan. 2006, http://www.variety.com/2006/film/markets-festivals/dear-pyongyang-1200519116/. Accessed 15 Dec. 2017.

Marks, Laura U. The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses. Duke University Press, 2007.

Nichols, Bill. Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Indiana University Press, 2010.

Shoji, Kaori. “Double Life of a North Korean Japanese Filmmaker.” CNN Travel, 4 May 2011, http://www.travel.cnn.com/explorations/life/double-life-north-koreanjapanese-filmmaker-038337/. Accessed 15 Dec. 2017.

Women Make Movies. “History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige.” Women Make Movies, Women Make Movies, 2005, http://www.wmm.com/filmcatalog/pages/c111.shtml. Accessed 15 Dec. 2017.

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