‘The Ito Sisters’ offers impactful story of empowerment in light of oppression

Ito Sisters
Ciecie Chen/Staff

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“The Ito Sisters: An American Story” spotlights three sisters retelling the story of their lives as Japanese-American immigrants in California in the early 20th century. The documentary offers a personal look at their trials, a firsthand experience of being unaccepted in your own home.

“The Ito Sisters,” which screened at the Multicultural Community Center on Thursday, features several UC Berkeley faculty offering insight on the situations faced by these Japanese immigrants.

“This is sort of an ultimate American story of arrival and disputed American identity,” said director and co-producer Antonia Grace Glenn at a Q&A following the film. “This is very much an American experience.”

In the film, Natsuye, Haruye and Hideko Ito (otherwise referred to by their American names, Nancy, Lillian and Hedy) share their experiences with being told they need to “talk United States,” seeing the phrase “Beware of Yellow Peril” engraved on signs around the local white schools and being sent to internment camps during World War II.

“(The film) provided a forum to folks who had repressed these thoughts and these memories to say it,” UC Berkeley Asian American studies professor Michael Omi said. “It shows that people have repressed these thoughts for years.”

Vintage photos of the family and detailed, richly colored animations punctuated the documentary, illustrating the recalled memories of the sisters and their family members. The accompanying newspaper graphics highlighted significant moments in Japanese-American history, and were notable standouts that kept viewers engaged through a dynamic sense of movement.

The score for the documentary, composed by Dave Iwataki, was singularly unique. The music behind the jazzy intro sequence was especially fun and perfectly matched the tone of the lighthearted scenes of the sisters. Traditional Japanese melodies accompanied the women’s storytelling, reducing the weight (but not the significance) of the heavier elements of their story.

Alongside the Ito sisters’ personal account of the anti-Japanese movement in America, the film featured an extensive background on discrimination against Asian people in San Francisco in the early 20th century, from the infamous 1906 San Francisco earthquake through the aftermath of Pearl Harbor.

“These are all people who left their homeland to try to change their lives,” said Evelyn Nakano Glenn, mother of Antonia. “It’s important to look at historical context,” she added. Nakano Glenn is professor emerita of the gender and women’s studies and ethnic studies departments, and the founding director of the Center for Race & Gender.

Although the main focuses of the film were the Japanese people’s lack of civil liberties and the strife of these individuals, the Ito sisters found it in themselves to create an endearing picture of close family relationships and laugh at their own fading memories.

When asked what her husband was like before he passed, one of the sisters responded, “I don’t know — I forgot. Just another husband, I guess.” Moments like this one created a nice comic relief for the audience amid the heaviness of their story.

The film ultimately closed by paralleling the 20th-century persecution of Japanese-Americans to modern-day systems of oppression.

During the Q&A panel with Antonia and Evelyn Glenn and Michael Omi, the audience drew comparisons between the Japanese people being encouraged to end their silence with the current #MeToo movement that encourages survivors to share their stories.

“Victims can feel shame,” Omi said. “None of my extended people in my family ever talked about their experience. When I grew up, we didn’t hear anything.”

Ultimately, the film addressed important issues still relevant today in a rich and impactful way, giving a voice to those who felt silenced for so many years. The Ito sisters illustrated the importance of speaking one’s truth — finding empowerment in histories, both familial and personal.

Contact Skylar De Paul at [email protected].