header image

Topaz – Karen Ishizuka

Dave Tatsuno, 33 min., 16mm, 1943–1945
Narration by Dave Tatsuno
Preserved by the Japanese American National Museum and Academy Film Archive
Added to National Film Registry: 1996

Essay by Karen L. Ishizuka

Called “the biggest surprise” of that year’s list by The Hollywood Reporter, 8mm home movies surreptitiously taken in what has come to be known as America’s concentration camps of World War II were inducted into the National Film Registry in 1996. When World War II broke out, although Japanese Americans had made the U.S. their home since the late 1800s, they were summarily pre-judged a threat to national security. Although the U.S. was also at war with Germany and Italy, only Japanese Americans on the West Coast – both American born citizens and their immigrant parents who were not allowed to become naturalized until 1952 – were rounded up and sent to ten camps surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by armed sentries.

Topaz, named for the camp of the same name located in Central Utah in which it was filmed, was taken by Dave Tatsuno, one of the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were incarcerated en masse, without due process of law, for the duration of World War II.  Among the predominating Hollywood classics on the National Film Registry, Topaz stands out as was only the second home movie to be inducted at that time and the first film to emanate from the grassroots of an American ethnic community much less a concentration camp.

Its historical and cultural significance, however, far exceeds its minority status as a David among Goliaths.  In contrast to the other documentaries and feature films about World War II on the National Film Registry, Topaz  – secretly filmed by an inmate –  is the only work to graph the racialization of the war as enacted within our own borders.

Dave Tatsuno bought his first movie camera when they became commercially available in 1936 and remained a prolific amateur movie maker until he died at the age of 92 years in 2006.  When he was incarcerated, cameras were designated contraband for Japanese Americans who were ordered to turn them into authorities. Tatsuno gave his 8mm movie camera to a friend because, as he said, “you can’t turn in something you don’t have.”

Tatsuno and his family were sent to Topaz, known for such mixed distinctions as having a distinguished art school as well being the camp in which an inmate was fatally shot by an overzealous camp sentry.  There, he discovered that the Caucasian supervisor of the camp co-op where he worked was also a home movie enthusiast – there weren’t many at that time.  Soon, they arranged for Tatsuno’s camera to be mailed to the supervisor because all packages to inmates were inspected and the camera would have been confiscated. All went as planned and the supervisor conspiratorially gave the camera to Tatsuo with the warning to be careful.

Home movie buff that he was, Tatsuno filmed daily life much as he did before camp – his wife showing off their new-born daughter, friends chatting after a church service; as well as everyday images of camp life –  his father and son trudging through the snow between barracks, girls trying to escape one of the incessant dust storms, and a lone teenager ice skating on a makeshift ice rink.  These scenes of daily living show the persistence of community under conditions of questionable incarceration.  They reveal the contradictions of history in each image.

In the web of racialized war hysteria, civil rights violations and illegal incarceration, the prohibition on image-making added to the silencing of an entire ethnic group. In this context, Tatsuno’s footage is especially poignant and historically significant since the very act of shooting in the camps was, in essence, an act of defiance. Not only did he have a camera sneaked in, he clandestinely bought film stock when he was allowed out of camp on buying trips for the coop, and – with much forethought and daring – he arranged to have the shot film mailed from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles to be processed and then sent to his brother who was a student at the University of Utah who would then give the processed footage to someone coming into camp.

In 1990, Tatsuno wrote, “When viewing these home movies, there are several things to keep in mind.”  First, he wanted the viewer to know that they were taken on the sly.  “Since I was afraid to take many shots in fear of being discovered, you will not see scenes of the guards and sentry at the gate, the barbed wire fences, sentry watchtowers.”

Secondly, he noted that the footage was in color and therefore “tend to make the scene more colorful than the bleak, dusty and arid wasteland it actually was.” Like all of the ten camps, Topaz, located in the desert of Utah, was deliberately placed in some of the most desolate parts of the country from California to Arkansas.

And third, Tatsuno reminded viewers that they are home movies. “As I was merely a hobbyist, these films were taken without the intent of being documentaries. I focused on family and friends …the camera shots, thus, do not fathom the emotions hidden within the evacuees – the fear, the loneliness, the despair and the bitterness that we felt.”

In contrast to the propaganda films produced by the U.S. government to justify the American concentration camps, the Topaz footage “speaks” from the point of view of the Japanese Americans contained within. The actuality images not only provide visual documentation of life behind barbed wire, they constitute a record of cultural agency in the face of victimization.

In these ways, Topaz stands an antidote to the glorification of World War II as the last great, honorable war fought on distant shores. Against the monumentalism of Hollywood’s big budgeted projections, Topaz functions as a reminder that World War II was fought not just in Europe and Asia but right here at home. Topaz maps the war – often visualized in melodramatic performance; and the Japanese American incarceration – often figured within a trope of victimization; as a process of continual negotiation of state power, community, resistance, and agency. By including Topaz, the National Film Registry acknowledged not only the diversity of film practices, it strengthened its virtue to truly reflect America’s film heritage as not only entertaining but ultimately cultural and historical.


Karen L. Ishizuka is a writer and Chief Curator of the Japanese American National Museum, which holds Topaz and other home movies of the World War II mass incarceration of Japanese Americans. She was an early champion of home movies, testifying before National Film Registration Board in 1996 about their historical and cultural significance.   She wrote and produced Something Strong Within (1995), an award-winning documentary film exclusively  featuring home movies from the WWII camps.  She co-edited Mining the Home Movie: Excavations in Histories and Memories with Patricia Zimmermann, and has written on home movies for International Documentary, Journal of Film Preservation, and anthologies La Casa Abierta: El Cine Doméstico y Sus Reciclajes Contemporáneos and Common Ground: The Japanese American National Museum and The Culture of Museum Collaboration,  She has also written extensively on the WWII camps, most notably Lost & Found: Reclaiming the Japanese American Incarceration.  Her latest book is Serve the People: Making Asian America in the Long Sixties. This essay is a revised excerpt from “The Home Movie and the National Film Registry: The Story of Topaz,” by Karen L. Ishizuka and Patricia R. Zimmermann in Mining the Home Movie: Excavations in Histories and Memories.