Snow Falling on Cedars

USA 1999

Reviewed by Geoffrey Macnab


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

San Piedro Island, not long after the end of World War II. Local fisherman Carl Heine Jr has died at sea in suspicious circumstances. Kazuo Miyamoto, an American-born man of Japanese descent, is standing trial for his murder. Watching the case from the gallery is reporter Ishmael Chambers. As the trial progresses, the depth of the anti-Japanese feeling in this close-knit community becomes apparent. Years before, Kazuo's family had been offered the chance to buy seven acres of land from the Heines. With the onset of World War II, Kazuo's family were interned. When they came back, Carl's mother reneged on the deal. At the time of his death, Carl was contemplating whether or not to allow Kazuo back onto the land.

Ishmael, who was the childhood sweetheart of Kazuo's wife Hatsue, is still bitter about the loss of an arm in the war and Hatsue's abandonment of him. Nevertheless, he sees the flaws in the case against Kazuo and discovers that a freighter, passing by Carl's boat on the night of his death, may have caused him to fall from the mast. In court, Kazuo's lawyer Nels Gudmundsson makes an eloquent plea on his behalf, begging the jury not to allow themselves to be swayed by old anti-Japanese prejudices. With the jury in recess, Ishmael's new evidence is shown to the judge. The next day, the charges against Kazuo are dismissed.


It doesn't come as a surprise to learn that director Scott Hicks (Shine) is an accomplished stills photographer. His screen version of David Guterson's 1995 novel Snow Falling on Cedars is beautifully crafted, full of lovingly composed images of mountains, woods, water and mist. The intention here seems to have been to emulate Guterson's prose with equally subtle and self-conscious camerawork and editing. As we're dealt slow-motion sequences and exposed to director of photography Robert Richardson's artful focus-pulling, it seems at times as if we're watching some sort of experimental film poem. The problem is that all this magical imagery goes hand in hand with some very uncertain storytelling. Strip away the varnish and what is left is a conventional, rather clunky courtroom drama.

In uncovering the anti-Japanese prejudice which gripped wartime America, Hicks isn't exactly breaking new ground. We've been this way before, both in John Sturges' magnificent latter-day western Bad Day at Black Rock (1954), and in Alan Parker's more solemn Come See the Paradise. The defence lawyer (a scene-stealing turn from Max von Sydow) tells us that the jury are "marking a report card for the human race", but this kind of blandishment has been trotted out in so many other courtroom dramas that it no longer has much resonance. Besides, despite von Sydow's persuasive efforts, Kazuo is acquitted not because of any jury's decision but because of new evidence.

Nor is there anything striking in the way Hicks excoriates what seems a peaceable little community, revealing the prejudices which lurk beneath the happy facade. When Horace, the weasel-like coroner, allows racism to contaminate his evidence, or the prosecutor invites the jury to look at the defendant's inscrutable face and to read guilt in it, they're behaving little differently from Robert Ryan and his small-town lynch mob in Sturges' film.

In probably the film's most heavy-handed scene, we see Japanese families rounded up as ominous drumbeats are heard on the soundtrack. They're wearing tags, just like concentration-camp inmates. We hear anonymous voices hurling abuse down the telephone at Chambers, the local newspaper editor who refuses to be caught up in the anti-Japanese hysteria which grips the town in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Hicks, however, is so busy filming seagulls and driftwood that his attempts at exposing the inhabitants as bigots lack bite.

Ishmael is an enigma. It's through his eyes that we see most of the flashbacks, but he is given precious little dialogue. He's bitter after losing his arm in the war and being deserted by Hatsue. On one level, the film is as much about his struggles to come to terms with his predicament as it is about Kazuo's trial, but he is so sketchily drawn that we're given little sense of his internal conflict. What Hicks offers instead are endless lyrical flashbacks and montage sequences. They're all exquisitely filmed but ultimately only serve to draw attention to the weakness elsewhere in plot and characterisation.


Scott Hicks
Harry J. Ufland
Ron Bass
Kathleen Kennedy
Frank Marshall
Ron Bass
Scott Hicks
Based on the novel by
David Guterson
Director of Photography
Robert Richardson
Hank Corwin
Production Designer
Jeannine Oppewall
James Newton Howard
©Universal Studios
Production Companies
Universal Pictures presents a Harry J. Ufland/Ron Bass production
A Kennedy/Marshall production
Executive Producers
Carol Baum
Lloyd A. Silverman
Richard Vane
David Guterson
Associate Producer
Kerry Heysen
Production Supervisor
Paul Pav
Production Co-ordinators
Kaayla Ryane
Washington/LA Crew:
Heather K. Murphy
LA Tank Crew:
Lois Walker
Unit Production Managers
Patti Allen
Washington/LA Crew:
Charles Skouras III
LA Tank Crew:
John Schofield
Location Managers
Connie Kennedy
Kendrie Upton
Washington/LA Crew:
Kristin Dehnert
Post-production Co-ordinator
Valerie Anne Flueger
2nd Unit Director
Frank Marshall
Assistant Directors
Katterli Frauenfelder
Jacquie Gould
Paul Barry
Andrew Robinson
Blair Freeman-Marsh
Washington/LA Crew:
Wayne Witherspoon
Rebecca Strickland
Jennifer Wilkinson
LA Tank Crew:
Darrell Woodard
Script Supervisor
Christine Wilson
David Rubin
Ronna Kress
Stuart Aikins
Patti Kalles
ADR Voice:
Barbara Harris
2nd Unit Director of Photography
Ray Stella
Underwater Camera
Washington/LA Crew:
Pete Romano
Camera Operator
Nathaniel Massey
Special Visual Effects
Sony Pictures Imageworks Inc
Special Effects
Bill Orr
Washington/LA Crew Co-ordinator:
Bill Aldridge
Washington/LA Crew Supervisor:
Guy Faria
LA Tank Crew Supervisors:
Michael Lantieri
Louis Lantieri
Associate Editor
Paul Martinez
Art Director
Doug Byggdin
Supervising Art Director
Bill Arnold
Set Decorator
Jim Erickson
Costume Designer
Renée Ehrlich Kalfus
Costume Supervisors
Michael Dennison
Bren Moore
Washington/LA Crew Men's:
Ron Leamon
Washington/LA Crew Women's:
Sally Roberts
Key Make-up Artists
Rosalina Da Silva
Norma Hill-Patton
Make-up Artists
Margaret Solomon
Rita Ciccozzi
Washington/LA Crew:
Nadia Felker
Key Hairstylist
James D. Brown
Thom McIntyre
Washington/LA Crew:
Robaire Charbonneau
Stephanie Keiler
Pacific Title/Mirage
Solo Cellist
Ron Leonard
Shakuhachi Soloist
Bill Shozan Schultz
Artie Kane
Choir Conductor
Paul Salamunovich
Brad Dechter
Jeff Atmajian
James Newton Howard
Electronic Score Producer
Jim Hill
Supervising Music Editor
Jim Weidman
Music Editor
David Olson
"Moon over Burma" by Dorothy Lamour; "Would You" by Bing Crosby; "I Used to Love You (But It's All Over Now)" by Fats Waller; Mozart's "Laudate Dominum" by Aled Jones and the BBC Welsh Chorus; "My Blue Heaven" by the Canada Dance Band; John Philip Sousa's "Washington Post"; "Benny's Boogie" by C. Gault
Kendo Choreographer
Nicholas Harrison
Sound Design
Hank Corwin
Production Sound Mixer
Eric Batut
Sound Mixers
Roger Savage
Gethin Creagh
LA Tank Crew:
Tom Brandau
Re-recording Mixers
Randy Thom
Shawn Murphy
Rick Kline
Mix Technician
Kent Sparling
Mark Pendergraft
Dialogue Editor
Craig Carter
Sound Effects Recordist
Scott Heysen
Supervising Effects Editor
John Penders
Effects Editors
Antony Gray
Frank Lipson
Maureen Rodbard-Bean
Danielle Wiessner
Steve Alterman
Charles Bartlett
Yoshio Be
Brady Bluhm
Doug Burch
Aria Curzon
John Demita
Brian Doughty
Peggy Flood
Doris Hess
Miko Hughes
Carlyle King
Daamen Krall
Tak Kubota
June Kyoko-Lu
Christopher Naoki Lee
Hans Schoeber
Akiko Shima
Toshi Toda
Sabriana Wiener
Michael Yama
Supervising Editor:
Livia Ruzic
Gerard Long
Steve Burgess
Steve Burgess
Military Adviser
Mike Stokey
Marine Co-ordinators
Ransom Walrod
Dan Crosby
Stunt Co-ordinator
Raleigh Wilson
Ethan Hawke
Ishmael Chambers
James Cromwell
Judge Fielding
Richard Jenkins
Sheriff Art Moran
James Rebhorn
Alvin Hooks
Sam Shepard
Arthur Chambers
Max von Sydow
Nels Gudmundsson
Youki Kudoh
Hatsue Miyamoto
Rick Yune
Kazuo Miyamoto
Reeve Carney
young Ishmael Chambers
Anne Suzuki
young Hatsue Imada
Arija Bareikis
Susan Marie Heine
Eric Thal
Carl Heine Jr
Celia Weston
Etta Heine
Daniel Von Bargen
Carl Heine Sr
Akira Takayama
Hisao Imada
Fujiko Imada
Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa
Zenhichi Miyamoto
Zak Orth
Deputy Abel Martinson
Max Wright
Horace Whaley
Caroline Kava
Helen Chambers
Jan Rubes
Ole Jurgensen
Sheila Moore
Liesel Jurgensen
Zeljko Ivanek
Doctor Whitman
Seiji Inouye
young Kazuo Miyamoto
Saemi Nakamura
Sumiko Imada
Mika Fujii
Yukiko Imada
Dwight McFee
bus driver
Bill Harper
Xi Reng Jiang 'Henry O.'
Myles Ferguson
German soldier
Noah Heney
ship's doctor
John Destrey
A. Arthur Takemoto
Buddhist priest
Ken Takemoto
Larry Musser
gas station attendant
Jamie Kang
singing girl
Lili Marshall
strawberry girl
Lisa Mena
strawberry woman
Jethro Heysen-Hicks
parade boy with stick
Tom Heaton
Frank C. Turner
Marilyn Norry
Peter Crook
Ron Snyder
Mark Ainsworth Farrell
Jay Brazeau
Tom Scholte
Tim Burd
Gareth Williams
Anthony Harrison
FBI agents
Adam Pospisil
Johnny Brynelsen
Heine children
United International Pictures (UK) Ltd
11,472 feet
127 minutes 28 seconds
Dolby Digital/ DTS/SDDS
Colour by
Eastman Color Film/Alpha Cine Laboratories
Anamorphic [Panavision]
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011