Dave Tatsuno, 92, Whose Home Movies Captured History, Dies





Dave Tatsuno, a Japanese-American businessman and amateur filmmaker whose home movies, shot in secret in the 1940's, offer a rare documentary portrait of life in an American internment camp during World War II, died on Jan. 26 at his home in San Jose, Calif. He was 92.

In 1942, Mr. Tatsuno and his family were interned at the Topaz Relocation Center in the Utah desert. Over the next three years, shooting covertly with a contraband camera, he recorded everyday life in his dust-blown barracks community, which at its height was home to more than 8,000 Americans of Japanese descent.

His haunting footage was later compiled into a 48-minute silent film, "Topaz." In 1996, "Topaz" was placed on the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

Mr. Tatsuno's film was only the second home movie to be included in the registry, which is dedicated primarily to Hollywood classics like "Citizen Kane" and "Casablanca." The first was Abraham Zapruder's film of John F. Kennedy's assassination.

Mr. Tatsuno's original footage is now in the permanent collection of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. It has also been prominently featured in other films, among them "Something Strong Within" (1995), by Karen Ishizuka, a critically acclaimed documentary about the camps.

Before the war and after, Mr. Tatsuno was a prominent businessman and civic leader in the Bay Area. For many years he ran a Japanese department store, Nichi Bei Bussan, which his father founded in San Francisco in 1902 and painstakingly rebuilt after the earthquake of 1906. Now in San Jose, the store is run by one of Mr. Tatsuno's daughters.

Mr. Tatsuno was also a home-movie buff, and he not only had his beloved camera smuggled into Topaz but also arranged for film to be brought in, smuggled out, developed and returned for clandestine screenings while he and his family lived behind barbed wire there.

On Feb. 19, 1942, less than 10 weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the internment of Japanese-Americans and immigrants from Japan living on the West Coast. By war's end, more than 100,000 people had been interned in 10 inland detention camps in six Western states and Arkansas.

One of these camps was Topaz, in central Utah, 140 miles south of Salt Lake City. It was little more than a collection of crude barracks, made of pine planks and tar paper, set in an arid, desolate landscape. Winters were brutally cold, summers oppressively hot. Nothing could keep out the dust — profuse, incessant, as fine as flour.

Shooting in color with an 8-millimeter Bell & Howell camera, Mr. Tatsuno chronicled ordinary moments in lives lived under extraordinary conditions. There were birthday parties and church services and people pounding rice for mochi, Japanese New Year's cakes. There is a stark image of a girl in a short skirt and ankle socks ice skating alone on a frozen mud puddle.



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