Much like Sam Fuller’s Crimson Kimono (1959), Japanese War Bride’s title carries certain negative stereotypes, however, its central romance similarly feels groundbreaking, allowing it to exceed expectations.
The film opens during the waning days of the Korean War. A man lies incapacitated in a hospital bed, but he couldn’t be happier because he’s met the love of his life. Maybe it’s war fatigue or something else, but he simply cannot take his eyes off the pretty young nurse Ms. Shimuzu (Shirley Yamaguchi).
And although prospects don’t necessarily look that promising, since duty calls, Jim leaves that hospital bent on getting that girl for his wife. He’s serious. So serious in fact that he goes straight away to convene with Tae’s grandfather (Philip Ahn) that he might persuade him for Tae’s hand in marriage. Although warning that the road ahead will be a difficult one, the sagacious man, relents, reluctant to stand in the way of this blossoming love.
It’s after the happy couple is picked up at the train station by family and settle into the old family home, that it becomes obvious that things aren’t quite the same. They’ll be more difficult than they first appeared.
Jim’s parents and brother are welcoming enough, but there is still a necessary period of gelling as they get used to their new family member. Even Jim encourages his petite young wife to be more assertive and embrace American culture fully. She does her best.
Jim looks to build up a happy life with her as he looks to take some of his father’s land to keep a home of his own and raise crops. Tae begins to acclimate to her new life and gains the respect of the Taylor family while making a few friends including the kindly Hasagawa siblings (Lane Nakano and May Takasugi) who work at a factory nearby. The icing on the cake is when Tae announces she’s pregnant and Jim could not be more ecstatic.
Still, what crops up are the subtleties of racism through slight snubs and bits of insensitivity. First, the skeptical sister-in-law (Marie Windsor) drops pointed remarks towards Tae. At first, they are so veiled, they seem only a passing wisp of a word, hardly worth acknowledging. But following one of the neighbors confessing how much she hates all the Japanese, it becomes evident that all is not right in Monterrey.
One moment Tae is getting accosted by a drunken merrymaker at a party who jokingly calls her a geisha girl. Then the family is scared, rightfully so, when Mr. Taylor receives a threatening letter. It voices the opinion of an unnamed “friend” about the fact that there are rumors floating around that Tae’s baby looks fully Japanese and she has been spending time with Shiro Hasagawa. A scandal of this kind will ruin Mr. Taylor’s reputation among his fellow growers. It will ruin him period.
But most important to this story, it infuriates Jim with a fiery rage. He’s angry at all the narrow-minded folks he used to call friends. He’s mad at his family and most of all Fran for her part in Tae’s distress. It’s in these most tenuous moments that Tae decides to take her baby and seek asylum somewhere else to get away from the cultural chasm that has formed. Of course, they are reunited and there is a version of a happy ending, but it does not take away from the bottom line. They’ll still have to struggle against societal pressures and flat-out bigotry. However, if you’re in love, there are many rivers you are willing to ford and the same goes for Jim and Tae.
Japanese War Bride is continuously fascinating for the presence of Japanese within its frames. First, we have a rather groundbreaking and relatively unheard of interracial romance between the always personable average everyman Don Taylor and stunning newcomer Shirley Yamaguchi. Their scenes are tender and hold a great deal of emotional impact. It’s the kind of drama that has the power to make us mentally distraught but also imbue us with joy.
The film carries even more sobering underlying tension given the relative freshness of World War II. Mothers are still bitter about the deaths of their sons and that righteous anger is not discriminating between people. It only sees race. Meanwhile, Shiro and his sister reflect the times as Nisei, who were affected by internment and increased amounts of prejudice. While Shiro was imprisoned in Japan during the war, his family was interned at Tulare near Sacramento and his resentful father nearly had all of his land taken. Many other Japanese farmers were not so lucky.
For her part Marie Windsor plays her prime role as the antagonistic woman to the tee, effectively embodying all the small-minded, underhanded folks out there that live life without a genuine kindness for their fellow man. Poisoning other people’s mind just as they are poisoned, and it’s this type of rancor that leads to fear and bigotry. A breeding ground for hatred. In some shape and form, it still rears its ugly head to this day. What makes this film special is how it reflects the realities as it pertains to Japanese and Japanese-Americans. Veteran director King Vidor’s effort is a generally authentic and nuanced tale that pays his subjects the ultimate respect even in its more melodramatic moments.