Bridge to the Sun is one of those films that was ahead of its time. Its main players are hardly remembered by modern audiences. Belgium director Etienne Perier was only a little blip on the Hollywood radar. The leading lady Carroll Baker was probably more notorious for her controversial role in Tennessee’s William’s Baby Doll than she was famous. James Shigeta was a pioneering actor, who was famously told, “If you were white, you’d be a hell of a big star.” He aged gracefully, but was slowly relegated from leading roles to bit parts in Hawaii Five-O and Die Hard. In truth, the film, based on the memoirs of one Gwen Terasaki, does suffer from a clunky script at times, and the box office returns were not too favorable. In fact, it was an outrageous flop back in 1961.
But now, with a fresh pair of eyes from the 21st century, Bridge to the Sun looks different and dare I say, groundbreaking for its candid depiction of interracial romance. Certainly, this is the story of two people falling in love, but under very different circumstances, in a very different world circa 1935. Gwen is a talkative young woman from Johnson City, Tennessee, who is more than thrilled to venture to the Japanese embassy with her aunt. Like any ignorant American she wants to meet a real-life Japanese, altogether bewitched by their manners and culture. Chopsticks are not exactly her forte, nor sushi. And yet the moment she meets the handsome young Japanese Ambassador Hidenari “Terry” Terasaki, there is an immediate connection. Yes, their cultures are so different which they will be reminded of again and again, but most importantly they love each other passionately. So much so that they disregard relatives and even superiors when it comes to whom they will spend the rest of their lives with. Theirs’ is a true romance.
In fact, this film does not shy away from showing that affection, even though it undoubtedly made some viewers squeamish at the time. More than once Gwen and Terry embrace in intimate moments that signify the deep-seated love that holds them together. Because it’s far from easy. Gwen finds it difficult living in a Japanese culture where the woman is meant to be wholly subservient to her husband. She’s fine with the bowing and the taking off of shoes even, but not being allowed to talk is about the limit. With his family, her strong, lovable husband now seems cold and distant. However, they cannot stay mad forever and soon enough their little girl Mako is born, making them a happy little family. But of course, imperial Japan and isolationist America are on the brink of conflict and Terry and his family are tottering on the brink of calamity. He’s seemingly one man trying to hold together the relations of two nations that he has such close ties to. One because of his wife, the other due to his birth. Then, on a fateful day in December 1941 Japan struck the first blow and life would never be the same. Terry is now being detained and Gwen is fearful she might be forever separated from her husband. Disregarding what everyone else says, she takes her young daughter and follows her husband once again to his homeland – knowing full well what might be in store for her and her daughter.
And when they arrive abroad there is the discrimination and the myriad of strange looks. Even as she makes the long journey across the sea all the white folk scoff at her, but Gwen takes it calmly and fearlessly. Once overseas the climate has changed greatly and now Terry is being questioned for his loyalty. The ethnicity of his wife doesn’t help and the firebombs raining down from above don’t exactly calm their nerves. But again and again, Terry and Gwen prove to be a resilient couple. The anomaly that should never have happened—seemingly could never have happened, and yet they did and they remained unequivocally together.
The days drag on and the plight of the people is worse and worse as Gwen waits anxiously for Terry to return. Finally, he does, badly battered, but soon enough the war ends and a happier ending seems in store. Well, perhaps it’s not quite as cheerful as we should want, but the one true fact is that Bridge to the Sun remains a love story to the end and that’s something you cannot snatch away from it.
As a Japanese-American myself, this film really hits home in many ways. There’s this strange dichotomy developed between Japan and the U.S. Both had their share of prejudice, but it was not so much modern systematic racism, but ignorant bigotry. They got so caught up in their own culture and ways of doing things they were not ready to open up to others. Thus, whites were meant for whites and “Orientals” with “Orientals.” Certainly, this is a narrow-minded presupposition and this story speaks to that longstanding injustice.
Mind you, there is no maliciousness in this statement because it goes both ways. The Japanese at times undoubtedly treated Gwen perhaps far worse than the Americans treated Terry. But the point is that these two represented something special. Maybe they did not think so in the moment because they were in love. But their story is gripping simply due to the fact that it feels like the exception, just like Carroll Baker and James Shigeta playing opposite each other was the exception. That is why I’m drawn to stories like this, and not just in film, but life and history. I don’t want to know just about the status quo, I want to know about those who were willing to step out and be different. I want to know who was brave enough to step out and be a bridge to the sun, whether that may be Japan or somewhere else altogether.