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Citizen Tanouye

WGBH // Unrated // January 8, 2008
List Price: $19.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by David Cornelius | posted December 4, 2007 | E-mail the Author
In the 1990s, the U.S. military began reviewing the service records of Japanese-Americans who fought during World War II, many of whom were overlooked for recognition during active duty. Even the legendary 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which became the most decorated unit in American military history*, was found to be in dire need of a medal "upgrade," for lack of a better term. Finally, in June 2000, twenty-one recipients of the Distinguished Service Cross, seven of them still living, were awarded the Medal of Honor, a belated but much deserved bit of recognition for their outstanding service to the nation.

One of these veterans was Ted T. Tanouye, a Technical Sergeant who led his platoon through an agonizing battle on a hill near Molino A Ventoabbto, Italy, in 1944. The official Medal of Honor citation reads like an outline for an action movie extravaganza, with Tanouye shaking off injuries from a grenade blast while advancing on enemy territory alone, all under heavy fire, single-handedly forcing a German retreat. (Tanouye would eventually die from wounds received later that year.)

In 2004, a monument to Tanouye was dedicated on the campus of Torrance High School in Torrance, California, where Tanouye attended decades long ago. But would students know, or even care, about a former student who died sixty years earlier?

Which brings us, finally, to "Citizen Tanouye," a documentary from filmmakers Robert Horsting and Craig Yahata. Eight Torrance students were assigned to research as much as possible about Tanouye's life, all over the course of one very fast weekend. Cameras follow the teens as they venture from libraries and historical societies to research centers to the Go For Broke monument; along the way, they meet veterans, internment camp survivors, and Tanouye's brother, a wonderful man with fond memories of his heroic sibling.

The idea behind the film - and the research project it follows - is to make history palatable to students. The teens are separated into two "teams" (coded "red" and "blue"), and while there are no prizes at stake, such a separation (most likely done merely to cover more territory in less time) is played up somewhat like a reality show. The reality format is also used for "confessional"-style interview asides with the students, who talk to the camera about what they've learned so far, and how it relates to their own lives.

In some cases, the connection is deep: several students in these culturally mixed teams are of Asian descent; one of them even has a grandfather who fought in the war. Other kids discover personal analogies along the way (which range from bright observations comparing the post-Pearl Harbor Japanese backlash to the post-9/11 Muslim backlash to, um, less complex thoughts from the guy who compares war to water polo), and all discover a new appreciation for the era.

The research is presented in such a way that the kids seem to learn Tanouye's life story in chronological order. This may very well be a bit of filmmaking trickery, but it works, as the students' journey of discovery becomes our own, with the hero's story unfolding like a puzzle. Many facts relating to the war may seem familiar to older viewers, but part of the movie's success is in how we get to watch these students uncover history for themselves. When the history of Japanese internment camps becomes a major part of the research, we're not simply told such things dryly; we get to see such things as filtered through young eyes.

While obviously intended for teen viewers (the film's website says a classroom guide is also available), "Citizen Tanouye" is easily accessible to audiences of any age. Tanouye's story is a magnificent one, that of the ordinary American thrust into extraordinary circumstances. The film provides a renewed appreciation for the past, and as a reminder of history's impact on the present and the future.


Video & Audio

The filmmakers shot "Citizen Tanouye" on crisp digital video, which results in a vibrant anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) transfer. Archival footage is understandably weaker, while modern clips are very solid. The soundtrack is a simple but sturdy stereo track. Two optional subtitle tracks are offered: one formatted for widescreen televisions, one (slightly larger) for standard sets.

The set-up page also includes a simple test to make sure your TV is set for the correct widescreen image - a nice addition for folks who only recently upgraded to an HDTV and forgot to adjust their DVD players accordingly.


Four deleted scenes (4:27 total) offer just a little more with the students; while these were cut for time, they're good enough to deserve a spot in the movie and are well worth a look.

Archival footage gives us video of the complete citation reading from the 2000 Medal of Honor ceremony (1:51) and the dedication speech given at Torrance High School by Gen. Eric K. Shinseki (10:07).

An easy-to-find Easter egg reveals a slideshow of behind-the-scenes photos (7:14).

The film's trailer (1:57) rounds out the set. All bonus material is presented in anamorphic widescreen.

Final Thoughts

While enjoyable viewing for history buffs of any age, "Citizen Tanouye" is especially Recommended to teens who are starting to take an interest in 20th Century history.

* Update: I received an email from co-director Robert Horsting, who explains what the classroom guide entails: "There is a Teacher's Guide written by Gary Mukai, director of the Stanford Program on International and Cross-cultural Education (SPICE), which complies with both California and national standards. This was written to accompany a classroom version of CITIZEN TANOUYE, which both a 38 or 47 minute running time to accommodate the classroom time structure." I'll add that educators interested in this guide should visit the film's website for more information.

* Update #2: I was recently asked to clarify that the 442nd Regimental Combat Team holds the "most decorated unit" record on a per-capita, not total count, basis. They are considered the most decorated unit for its size and length of service. Even with the disclaimer, however, it's a mighty feat that deserves applause.
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