BY KEN MOCHIZUKI
Five years after the short film “Beacon Hill Boys” was released and made it rounds, I was invited to speak at a teachers’ seminar at Seattle’s Antioch College. Then working for the Washington State Commission on Asian American Affairs, I addressed the history and current issues of the Japanese American community.
During Q&A time, an African American male teacher asked me, “Did you have a lot of black friends while growing up?”
Being that I went to school on Seattle’s Beacon Hill, where every school I attended had student populations that were roughly a third white, third black, third Asian, I replied that it would be difficult not to.
“Because some of your mannerisms are very black,” the teacher explained. “The way you walked into this room, and sat down in that chair – that’s very black.”
Asians who grew up in Seattle’s Beacon Hill/Rainier Valley during the late ‘60s/early ‘70s can relate, but what was behind this social science phenomena? The lack of a self-identity and, therefore, the tendency to become a social chameleon, was one of the essential elements of the story behind “Beacon Hill Boys.”
Finished 21 years ago, “Beacon Hill Boys” focused on four Japanese American teenagers just out of high school in 1973. They do typical guy stuff: cruise around, do drugs, cope fake ID to worm their way into bars, become obsessed with the opposite sex and overdose on drugs. However, this 43-minute film was about more than – as co-director Wm. Satake Blauvelt put it in a 1983 International Examiner story – “‘American Graffiti’ with yellow faces.”
“Beacon Hill Boys” all began on a typewriter (remember those?) in an apartment in Glendale, Calif. I wanted to commemorate the early ‘70s and the folks who struggled to establish what we take for granted now: all things “Asian American” – history courses in college, literature, theater, newspapers and the concept of the “Asian American” community and identity. Asian America didn’t happen automatically or overnight. A few folks fought for it. Back then in 1981, I was an actor in L.A., part of the Hollywood routine for five years. Unemployed actors have a lot of time on their hands. I had 200 pages of a manuscript – 200 reasons to leave La-La Land and become a writer instead.
Returning to Seattle, I submitted a portion of “Beacon Hill Boys” to an IE short story contest. Didn’t win, but Evergreen State College film students Dean Hayasaka and Bill Blauvelt saw the excerpt, read the entire manuscript, and wanted to somehow turn it into a film. I thought they were out of their minds. But by autumn of ‘83, after many meetings, we had a workable script, condensing a year-and-a-half in the story to two nights and a day on film.
During one of those meetings in the old IE office on Sixth and Jackson, Dean asked, when it came down to it, what was this story/film about. Bill said it was about “friendship.” Even I the writer drew a “Duh!” over that question. I know now: it was about how Japanese/Asian American teenagers in the early ‘70s reacted to a society and its mass media that treated them as if they didn’t exist, or existed only for negative reasons – a generation of kids whose first media version of themselves they were exposed to was via the picture book, “Five Chinese Brothers.”
One of “The Boys” reacts angrily and physically during any confrontation; another is in self-denial, acting “black.” Another escapes real life through music and drugs. And the central character begins to question their reality – the makings of an early ‘70s activist.
The film also addressed some of the issues going on in the Japanese American community during the time. One scene that always stood out was what we called the “family scene,” in which the central character is eating dinner with his family as the parents discuss what is to become of his aging grandmother during the pre-Seattle Keiro/Kin On years – nursing homes specializing in the care of Asians. Before those institutions existed, the immigrant Japanese generation ended up in homes where they couldn’t eat the food, couldn’t communicate with the staff, and were called “Jap” by roommates/fellow residents.
The fact that the three of us called ourselves co-directors and were going to make this film became public in a November 1983 story in the IE. The bullet left the barrel; there was no turning back. But we were astounded by the turnout from Seattle’s Asian American community. Folks abundantly volunteered for everything from being actors, extras, part of the technical crew, drawing storyboards, and there were those who let us film in their homes, driveways and within businesses such as a bowling alley, restaurants and gas station.
The grueling grind of the “shoot” took place during the winter of ‘84, filming mostly on weekends during the dead of night, when businesses were inactive, and we had to finish before the sun came up, otherwise it wouldn’t look like night anymore.
After about two months of shooting, Dean and Bill then disappeared into an Evergreen editing room for almost a year. Keeping me updated on their progress, they told me of one instance where an Evergreen student peered over their shoulders, watched them work, and remarked, as Bill remembered: “something along the lines that no one wants to see minorities unless its kung fu or dancing.”
The reaction to the completed film proved that guy wrong. I thought we would have a showing or two of the film to reward the community who made it possible. But when a major story about the film hit The Seattle Times, “Beacon Hill Boys” was off to the races. Then IE Editor Ron Chew became irate that his office phone was ringing off the hook with inquiries about showings of the film. For the next few years, “Beacon Hill Boys” screened at film festivals around the country, and even in Europe.
Amazingly, after 21 years, there is still interest in the film. Dean, who was accepted as a student in the American Film Institute on the basis of his work on “Beacon Hill Boys” and is now a director of photography or works for other DPs in the Hollywood screen industry, stated in an e-mail that, for the filmmakers, it is “an honor that any organization is willing to show ‘Beacon Hill Boys’ after so long.”
It is at that.
“Beacon Hill Boys” will screen at the Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave., Seattle, on Oct. 9 at 7 p.m.