A film about a Japanese American family uncovering their forgotten history in the incarceration camps of World War II premiered at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo on Saturday.
Written and directed by Paul Daisuke Goodman, “No No Girl” stars newcomer Mika Dyo and Academy Award winner Chris Tashima, along with an ensemble of Japanese American talent.
Goodman, 30, developed the film with his own family in mind. His grandfather was among those incarcerated at the Rohwer Camp in Arkansas and later enlisted in the highly decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
“An enormous amount of ‘No No Girl’ is influenced by my upbringing as a Japanese American and the experiences of so many in my life,” Goodman tells NextShark of his second feature film. “It deals with the consequences of the incarceration of Japanese Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II and how that unlawful decision rippled through our community and history. I grew up not only hearing stories from relatives who were in those camps, but the stories of all my friends’ parents and grandparents who were also incarcerated.”
Goodman’s suffering during the production of “No No Girl” was not limited to revisiting painful memories. In 2016, he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which he has since battled with chemotherapy, radiation therapy and, most recently, a bone marrow transplant from his sister Laurie, who then served as producer for the movie.
Prior to his life-changing diagnosis, Goodman had been shooting for documentaries around the world, such as the Discovery Channel’s “Whale Wars.” But he said continuing that work became unachievable after his diagnosis, so he embarked on a different path, writing scripts in the hospital and shooting them as an outpatient.
“‘No No Girl’ was different because I began the pre-production as I was undergoing some of the most brutal regiments of my entire cancer,” Goodman recalls. “When the cancer relapsed, it had spread to my spine and brain, and the initial prognosis was the most intense I had ever experienced.”
“They were presenting me with situations and numbers that were hard to comprehend. They told me it was a bone marrow transplant, or I would not recover,” he adds.
Goodman’s transplant presented its own challenges. But as he lay sickly in his hospital bed, the Japanese American community stood strong for him, initiating blood drives “up and down California, Hawaii, Texas and even around the world.”
“My bone marrow transplant was unique due to the nature of the science behind donors and my nationality. I am mixed Japanese and European/Ashkenazi Jewish, and to find a match for BMT that was safe, the donor had to have a similar racial identity,” Goodman said. “My sibling, Laurie, would eventually be a 50 percent match and saved my life. We made ‘No No Girl’ together and I get emotional thinking about it.”
“No No Girl,” meanwhile, would become Mika Dyo’s big screen debut. The emerging actor said most of her other credits come from live theater productions at Long Beach Polytechnic High School and California State University, Long Beach, where she is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Theatre Arts.
Dyo plays the lead role of Sue, the youngest member of the Hasegawa family, who “never gets taken seriously,” Dyo says, so she “takes the step to uncover her family’s past” and ultimately becomes the one to bring them together.
Being the novice among the cast, Dyo had moments when she doubted her abilities. But she says everyone involved had helped and cheered on her.
“The biggest challenge I faced was dealing with imposter syndrome. This is my first professional film; everyone else in the cast has been doing this for a long time. We have Academy Award winner Chris Tashima, for crying out loud. I was just some nobody college student, trying to apply lessons from my acting classes hours after learning them,” Dyo tells NextShark.
The rising star said there was “never a moment of arrogance” from her and that she learned a lot from everyone.
“I was fully aware and honored to be working with people who have clawed their way through this industry, so I could be here. Everyone was incredibly kind and supportive of me throughout the filming process. They trusted me when I doubted myself and cheered me on when I wanted to shrink.”
Chris Tashima, who received an Oscar for the 1997 film “Visas and Virtue,” plays Sue’s Uncle Bob. The oldest among his siblings, Bob sees himself as a patriarch and feels responsible for the family.
Bob is a Sansei, or a third-generation Japanese American. Tashima told NextShark that he also identifies as one, and he relates with the film’s take on unanswered questions about the war.
“I have found there to be a great many Sansei whose parents, the Nisei, spoke very little about their camp experience during WWII, if at all. As a result, there are a lot of unanswered questions or secrets kept from these children of camp survivors,” Tashima says.
“It’s not the primary focus of the script — as it’s not what Sue goes through — but it was very easy for me to bring a lot of burden to the surface while shooting the climactic reveal in the film. It was an emotional moment which for me represents so much for the children of camp survivors. It is a healing moment for Bob that I wish more Sansei could experience.”
Goodman, who is a Yonsei — a fourth-generation Japanese American — said “No No Girl,” from Sue’s perspective, attempts to portray what it’s like to be “removed” from history.
“As a Yonsei with half a century between me and the camps; identity, family and history are at the heart of ‘No No Girl.’ The characters in our film discover that their ancestors, like many truly did during that time, chose to bury their valuables in their backyard instead of waiting to watch them be confiscated or destroyed as they were evicted from their homes,” Goodman shared.
“Eighty years later, when ‘No No Girl’ takes place, this family has to decide how to get it back or if they even should. Told from the perspective of the youngest in a multi-generational family, I tried to speak to what it’s like being removed from something so historically defining and yet not being able to recognize its influence. The camps are hard to understand and those in our past that survived them are almost all gone.”
Industry veteran Tashima lauded the film’s crew for their efficiency. He says he is grateful to Goodman for bringing such a story to life.
“The fact that this film focuses on a Japanese American family makes this unique, and very special to me. Very few works have examined the after-effects of camp and how that experience impacted the next generations,” Tashima says. “Post-war was a difficult time for those who lived through the incarceration, and the tendency was to not talk about it, which usually makes things worse. I am grateful that there are Yonsei like Paul who are taking the time to bring this out into the open and have dialogue about the impact of our WWII concentration camps and the lives of Japanese American families.”
For his part, Goodman says he hopes to make more films that highlight Japanese American and AAPI stories.
“There was a time when ‘No No Girl’ felt like it was the last thing I’ll ever do. But we did it, and now there’s more stories and more films to be made and more opportunities to look down at my cancer and succeed despite it. If there is any success to come from this film, my goal is to make another and share it again,” Goodman tells NextShark. “I’m just one filmmaker coming up trying to tell these stories, but given the opportunity, I’d tell every one of them.”
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