Putting the hard sell on a story that doesn’t need it, “MIS: Human Secret Weapon” is about the Japanese-American men who worked against Japan during WWII via a secret program established by the U.S. government — which, at the same time, was sending other Japanese-Americans to internment camps. At its best when the men are telling their own stories (most are in their 90s; some have passed away since production last year), Junichi Suzuki’s docu ratchets up the sentiment when a cooler touch would have sufficed. Despite the film’s small, ongoing theatrical run, TV is where it belongs.
Narrator Lane Nishikawa is burdened by a text that mires “MIS” in either pedantry or inertia. Certainly, he tells viewers a lot they likely didn’t know: for instance, that the Military Intelligence Service program was under way well before the U.S. actually entered WWII, or that, toward the end of the war, MIS soldiers helped save Okinawan citizens from committing suicide during the U.S. invasion. What Nishikawa needn’t have added, in schoolmarmish fashion, is a line like, “This illustrates the importance of communications,” a point viewers might well have arrived at on their own. Neither do they need to be told, as if they weren’t aware, that the Imperial Japanese Armed Forces bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
One possible reason for this lowest-common-denominator approach is that producer UTB creates content for U.S. and Japanese auds, including the two earlier films in helmer Suzuki’s trilogy: “Toyo’s Camera,” about Los Angeles photographer Toyo Miyatake, who shot in the Manzanar internment camp during the war; and “442: Live With Honor, Die With Dignity,” about a segregated U.S. unit of nisei, or second-generation American-born Japanese soldiers. It was the nisei — and the kibei, Japanese-educated Japanese-Americans — who were recruited by the MIS for service during the war and in postwar Japan.
Given that the subject matter cries out for delicacy, and that the film’s subjects seem emotionally fragile, Suzuki’s tactics are surprisingly hamhanded. The music of New Age-y composer Kitaro is so overused that it’s almost comical. And while most directors would make the point and pull away after a subject has been reduced to tears, Suzuki all but shoves the camera into his interviewees’ tear ducts (as with MIS vet Harry Akune, one of the film’s more memorable and likable personalities).
While the film takes great pains to overexplain, it never articulates the obvious parallels between Japanese-Americans of the ’40s and Muslim-Americans today. The U.S. hasn’t put anyone in internment camps recently, unless one counts Guantanamo, but it’s proved more than willing to compromise principles to assuage fear, an idea that “MIS” steers clear of
Production values are quite good, and the work of d.p. Masashi Kobuchi is often spectacular.