Monday, June 09, 2008

Picture Bride

Kayo Hatta's independent film Picture Bride (1994-1995) is a study in manners, culture, socioeconomics and place. Beginning in 1918 in Japan and Hawaii, it follows the practice of arranged picture bride marriages that spiked through 1924 (some 20,000 of them). In this film -- morphed from a documentary project into a historically accurate but fictionalized story version -- we follow a picture bride from marriage arrangement through reality. Upon arrival in Hawaii, 16-year old "city girl" Riyo is appalled that her Japanese-born picture fiance is much older than she'd been led to believe (he's 43). Furthermore, she's almost immediately thrown into the sugar cane production labor force. For much of the remainder of the film, we see a series of conflicting wants, reminding me of the Bad Santa line, "wish in one hand, and shit in the other. See which fills up first."

Working the cane fields, even in Hawaii, was not a big money winner for the laborers. Riyo pulls in 65 cents per day, eleven dollars a month -- "minus plantation store charges." Yet the Japanese workers are paid more than Filipinos working the same plantation, causing more resentment, while the Portuguese overseer has less power than a Scottish master, also causing resentment. Not full-blown slavery, but not a picnic, either. Some of the more interesting similarities with formal slavery and mass agricultural work in general are the (documented) call and response field songs (blues -- in this case, Japanese blues) and banter. Workers wear dog tags for identification, a visceral prototype version of a social security number for pay days and health inspections.

On the plus side, housing is clean and, by 2008 world standards, cozy (if small). There's apparently a bath house and decent food per family unit. But the sugar cane plantation workers are not exactly free, given their relative poverty. Final bonus in the film: a glimpse of the Obon festival, when the dead visit the living and paper lanterns are released in flowing water. Overall, this is a sweet, good-natured and compassionate film despite the hardships.

I was shocked to see that Kayo Hatta (3/18/1958-7/20/2005) accidentally drowned in Encinitas, California in 2005. She was only 47. Picture Bride is a fine work, a delicate microcosm of a larger history.

Today's Rune: Partnership.


Charles Gramlich said...

This is not one I've seen, or even heard of, I'm afraid. I should broaden my horizons.

the walking man said...

All history is a long view of strung together microcosms. I would wonder how many marriages one owner arranged to supplement his work force?

JR's Thumbprints said...

Hmmmm... Hawaii... A Right To Work State... With an added twist.

It's unfortunate about Kayo Hatta's sudden drowning.

Luma said...

I go to see if meeting this way this film. To work in sugar cane cuts, dry is not pleasant. Arranged marriages much less. Beijus

Erik Donald France said...

Hey all, thanks for the comments!

Charles, don't sweat it, go for the digests/reviews, they may be plenty ;-> So much is out there to cover.

Mark/WM, good points -- a happy worker is a more productive worker.
Still a worker. As noted by JR.

Luma, beijus back ;-> I wouldn't want to cut cane, but if I did, better perhaps in Hawaii? As for arranged marriages, I wonder if they are more or less successful than "voluntary" ones? My former bother-in-law from Syria used to quip, "Love is blind. Marriage is an eye-opener." Evil! (He has since remarried, as has my sister). What can I say?