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Family Gathering (film)

Documentary film by Lise Yasui that chronicles her exploration of her family's hidden history—especially that of her paternal grandfather, Masuo Yasui —through interviews and family home movies and photographs. One of the most acclaimed films about the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans, Family Gathering was nominated for an Academy Award in 1988.


Told in the first-person voiceover narration by filmmaker Lise Yasui, the film begins with an image of Masuo and how Lise learned about his arrest after the attack on Pearl Harbor, which makes her wonder what else she didn't know. She then cuts to her father Robert Yasui's home movie footage of her childhood in Pennsylvania where she was born. We learn of Masuo's prewar story: migration from Okayama, Japan, becoming a successful businessman and community leader in Hood River, Oregon, marrying his wife Shidzuye and having nine children. The narrator recalls hearing many stories about her grandparents, but that "decades were missing from our history." Even when she went to Hood River in 1984 with a movie camera hoping to fill gaps in the family history with the help of another uncle, "I was continually reminded of the family's success, but no one mentioned any difficulties."

Upon her return, she reads books on Japanese Americans and perused family albums and scrapbooks which told a different story. Interviews with her uncle Homer Yasui and aunt Yuka Yasui Fujikawa reveal the racism they and their family faced in Hood River despite their family's relative success. With the attack on Pearl Harbor, Masuo is arrested and spends the next four years in internment camps. Most of the rest of the family is rounded up with the mass removal and incarceration of all West Coast Japanese Americans. One exception is Robert, who decides on "voluntary evacuation," taking a bus to Denver. Another uncle, Minoru decides to test the constitutionality of the curfew and removal in the courts and his case becomes one of four that eventually reach the Supreme Court. The voices of Masuo and Shidzuye are added through their letters, which are read in voiceover. When the war ends, Lise's father Robert is in medical school. She comes to realize that the old home movies of her childhood were her father's "celebration of a new life. For me they represented the boundary between the father I knew and the father whose real feelings about his past might always remain hidden from me."

While the rest of family had been released, Masuo remains interned at Santa Fe until five months after the war had ended. Now 61, he faced an uncertain future with his former prosperity gone. But when the Immigration Act of 1952 passed, allowing Issei to become naturalized citizens, Masuo threw himself into preparing for the citizenship test and proudly became a citizen in 1953. But awareness of the doubts about him sowed in the minds of others due to his long internment haunted him. Robert tells Lise finally that Masuo ended up committing suicide at age 71. Showing the same home movie footage as at the beginning of the film, the narrator concludes that "now I watch these movies and everything looks a little different. I'm aware of the history that lies behind these images." The film ends with an epigraph about Min's coram nobis case and subsequent activism.

Background and Reaction

Fimmaker Lise Yasui is the daughter of Robert Shu Yasui (1923–2012) and Phyllis L. Hoffman Yasui (1930–2015). After graduating as valedictorian of his high school class in Hood River, Oregon, in 1941, Robert enrolled at the University of Oregon and became a " voluntary evacuee " after plans for the mass forced incarceration of Japanese Americans were announced. He ended up in Philadelphia where he graduated from Temple Medical School in 1947 and opened up a surgical practice in Williamsport after a stint in the army. Phyllis, of European descent, was raised in Jersey Shore, New Jersey, the daughter of a pastor. She and Robert met at the Williamsport Hospital Nursing School, and they married in 1952. [1]

Raised as the only Japanese Americans in Williamsport, the five Yasui children saw the rest of the large Yasui family only occasionally. Lise came to know the family through the home movies Shu took of a trip to Oregon before she was born. While she wrote school papers on the family's story in both high school and at the University of Pennsylvania, she still felt she knew little of the story and, after entering the film program at Temple University, decided to make a documentary about the incarceration. Beginning with the aim of doing a conventional documentary, it evolved into a more personal film when family members told her contradictory stories. When Masuo finally told her about Masuo's death, she knew it was the climax of the film, but also realized that it would be a sensitive moment to include. Over the next few years, she was able to convince family members to allow her to include the scene. [2]

Finished in 1988 as a thirty-minute short, it won awards at several festivals, including a Golden Globe at the San Francisco International Film Festival and a Golden Hugo at the Chicago Film Festival. WGBH, a Boston public television station, approached her about turning it into an hour-long film to be shown nationally as part of The American Experience series and offering funding. Again, she struggled to get her family's permission for airing before what would now be a much larger audience. But the film's nomination for an academy award for best documentary short helped to confer legitimacy on it, easing familial concerns. The longer version aired nationally in the fall of 1989. [3]

Acclaimed by critics and scholars for its combining of conventional documentary and experimental techniques, it has become one of the most discussed films about the wartime removal and incarceration, along with films by Rea Tajiri ( History and Memory ) and Janis Tanaka ( Who's Going to Pay for These Donuts, Anyway? ).

Authored by Brian Niiya , Densho

Might also like Emi (1979); Who's Going to Pay for These Donuts, Anyway? (1992); Good Luck Soup (2016)


  1. Lauren Kessler, Stubborn Twig: Three Generations in the Life of a Japanese American Family (New York: Random House, 1993), 307–13; "The Yasui Legacy," exhibition by the University of Oregon, ; Obituary, Phyllis L. Yasui, Williamsport Sun-Gazette , August, 2015, , both accessed on July 25, 2017.
  2. Kessler, Stubborn Twig .
  3. Kessler, Stubborn Twig ; Pacific Citizen , Sept. 22, 1989, 3.
Media Details
Release Date 1988/1989
Runtime 30/60 minutes
Director Lise Yasui
Producer Lise Yasui
Narrator Lise Yasui
Starring Robert Shu Yasui (interviewee), Homer Yasui (interviewee), Yuka Yasui Fujikawa (interviewee), Minoru Yasui (interviewee), Norris M. Shimabuku (voice of Masuo Yasui), Kati Kuroda (voice of Shidzuyo Yasui)
Music Sumi Tonooka
Cinematography Richard Gordon
Editing Ann Tegnell
For More Information

For More Information

Davis, Rocío G. Relative Histories: Mediating History in Asian American Family Memoirs . Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2011.

Feng, Peter X. Identities in Motion: Asian American Film and Video . Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.

Kessler, Lauren. Stubborn Twig: Three Generations in the Life of a Japanese American Family . New York: Random House, 1993.

Mimura, Glen M. Ghostlife of Third Cinema: Asian American Film and Video . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Payne, Robert M. "Visions of Silence: History and Memory and Who's Going to Pay for These Donuts, Anyway?" Jump Cut 41 (1997): 67–76.

Xing, Jun. Asian America Through the Lens: History, Representation, and Identities . Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press, 1998.

———. "Hybrid Cinema by Asian American Women." In Countervisions: Asian American Film Criticism. Edited by Darrell Y. Hamamoto and Sandra Liu. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000. 186–202.

Van Buren, Cassandra. " Family Gathering : Release from Emotional Internment. " Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media 37 (July 1992): 56–62.



Chalfen, Richard. "Review of Family Gathering ." American Anthropologist , New Series 91.2 (1989): 525–27. [" Family Gathering is a beautiful film that is both emotionally and intellectually superb; it addresses problematic relationships between biographical and autobiographical film, historiography, and contemporary interests in the personal, social, and cultural constructions of memory and history—all of which have important lessons for visual anthropology."]

Daniels, Roger. The Journal of American History 77.3 (Dec. 1990): 1120. ["This perceptive and well-made film can be used to good effect to illustrate some of the nuances of this American tragedy for audiences who have already mastered its basic details."]

Hosokawa, Bill. "Pacific Citizen , Nov. 24, 1989, 4. ["... a gently and sensitively told story that depicts the human cost of the Evacuation."]