You Belonged: Never Forget J-Town’s Atomic Cafe

When I moved from Los Angeles in November of 2019, I knew I was going to miss the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival terribly. It was an event that I regularly attended for many years. Whether it was just for one movie or the entire run-of-fest, I could always count on the LAAPFF’s programming for charming, challenging and entertaining content. Year after year, the LAAPFF has consistently kept me engaged in what I love doing most: watching movies. So having this virtual option and the wide access that they have introduced has been very satisfying.

This year, I started out by watching a World Premiere documentary short. I try to know as little about a film going in as possible so all I knew about Akira Boch and Tadashi Nakamura’s Atomic Cafe: The Noisiest Corner In J-town was that it was about Los Angeles and punk rock. Being born and raised in Los Angeles (Hollywood, specifically) and having cut my musical teeth on local punk, this film was definitively unique and dominantly Angeleno.

At one point in the film, an interviewee notes, “From pop stars to kids from East LA, everyone was [at the Atomic Cafe].” That was the punk scene in LA at the time. The ease with which everyone mingled at the Japanese American-owned restaurant named after the atomic bomb was impressive but like…punk AF. Years and years later, patrons of the Cafe still remembered their favorite dishes and relished describing them to the documentarians. But it really wasn’t ever about the food. It was about the space and those that made it happen. And isn’t it always?

Opened in 1946 by the parents of “Atomic Nancy” Sekizawa, the Atomic Cafe established the Sekizawa family in Little Tokyo/J-Town. Nancy’s parents had seen their fair share of suffering but the Cafe’s placement in Los Angeles weaved them into the downtown Japanese American community. The film does a wonderful job of looking at the kind of people the Sekizawas were and the kind of tolerance and acceptance they gave to the misfit punk kids who came to their restaurant (including their daughter who then ran the shop).

I felt wildly awkward because while I knew about the rest of the places mentioned in this piece- Madame Wong’s, The Masque- I knew very little about the Atomic Cafe and even less about Nancy Sekizawa and her family. I wanted to call myself out- LA punk rock cred has been rejected! Hometown privileges revoked! How did I not know the Germs hung out here? This was a place where X used to go? But by the end of the film, when they show where the location was, I realized that I had been to that place a thousand times (not as Atomic, of course) and it brought it home in a really surreal and sad way. I love my city so much and I love punk rock so I definitely teared up a bit. My heart was here for this film.

The Sekizawa family, LA punk, Japanese American history and the cafe are cleverly quilted together in this excellent documentary short. People in the film use the word “magic” repeatedly to describe the restaurant and I don’t think they were wrong.  Atomic Cafe: The Noisiest Corner In J-town is a vital story. The images shown examine the history of Los Angeles, music and the Japanese American cultural experience and what it really means to be punk rock.

This film is available to watch online via the LAAPFF through this link here.

Don’t miss it!!!

This film is only available to viewers in the United States from September 24, 2020 at 12pm PT to September 30, 2020 at 11:59PT. From October 1, 2020 at 12pm PT to October 31, 2020 at 11:59 pm PT, this film is only available to viewers in Southern California (excluding San Diego County).