Daisy Kenyon (1947)

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Otto Preminger always moves through space so fluidly with his camera, and Daisy Kenyon is introduced with a single scene, but it’s the perfect post for the film to hang its hat on.

There’s Dan O’Mara (Dana Andrews) trying to get the cabby to keep the meter running only to relent when the cabby gives him the statistics on New York’s taxi shortages. Joan Crawford’s punching pillows as Daisy Kenyon, a successful artist who has had an amiable fling for some time with the man. He already has a wife and kids. It’s not where she wants to be. She’s not looking to be a homewrecker. But it’s partially O’Mara’s fault, a successful lawyer who walks in and grabs himself a cup of coffee as nice as you please — all part of his normal routine.

Moments later, another cab appears with Henry Fonda, the understated G.I. Peter Lapham, who winds up on Daisy’s doorstep to call on her for a date. In this opening moment, it takes us so long to know how these characters relate to each other. Maybe it’s the fact that for two people not married to each other Crawford and Andrew’s characters have such a casual, even comfortable, relationship. This isn’t the passionate tryst we’re accustomed to seeing. That’s a beginning and it only gets more fascinating as time marches on.

Henry Fonda feels like he should be the third wheel of the picture and though recognized as a phenomenal actor, he had been out of the game so long like his buddy James Stewart; it’s hardly possible to know what to expect from him. We have My Darling Clementine (1946) and that’s about all. When he pops up, we almost lose him behind the personality of Crawford and Andrews’ own brand of charisma.

But that’s why I’ll always admire Fonda as an actor, because his natural delivery leaves an impression that’s a perfect counterbalance, almost to the point of undermining what his costars are doing.

Meanwhile, Dana Andrews doesn’t appear to make a very convincing father, because every time you hear him say “Baby” to his daughter, a noir dame like Gene Tierney or Linda Darnell springs to mind. The associations have already been made long before this picture. It makes it hard to go back now. Remarkably, in all other respects, he fits the bill and he hardly places a foot wrong. It’s the side of Boomerang (1947) that’s rather more interesting. A big-time lawyer’s family life going to shreds outside the courtroom, spilling into his work as well.

Thus, Daisy Kenyon rolls out the carpet in the fashion of a romantic love triangle and we can make that assumption right off the bat with the stars whose names flash above the title. But what sets this picture apart mostly has to do with the account of the ensuing melodrama. Because it’s hardly melodrama at all, or at least, it’s a more authentic, even honest strain that feels noticeably genuine compared to what Hollywood generally seemed capable of in the 1940s.

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Case and point is a very simple sequence around a table at a bar. Our three stars are gathered there together to talk things out like rational-minded adults. They’re the kind of conversations that can be unpleasant and most certainly of a private nature. Still, in another picture, they might have continued the dialogue as the waiter comes up without a second thought, but here the conversation ceases because that’s more like real life. The film itself seems openly aware of this fact as well.

What becomes equally noticeable is the lack of the kind of soppy manipulative scoring we might see in other works. Embraces and kisses and sweet nothings but none of the same mood created. Again, a little like the real world. Choirs only play in lovers’ heads.

I do greatly appreciate David Raksin’s score, his work in Laura (1944) being transcendent, and here it fits the mood with its sparing arrangements around certain moments to accent nightmarish attacks and more tranquil interludes. It’s almost counter-intuitive if not refreshing.

Subsequently, we witness the most painful sequence of infidelity. Just watching things unravel gives me a heavy heart and I want to grieve even if this is only a cinematic space within which the events are taking place. Because it feels so brazenly real as the lines get crossed and irreparable damage is done.

A part of this messy process is the ensuing complications like divorce, settlements, splitting up custody of the kids, and all the future roadblocks that make people more embittered and jaded when it comes to life.

Though by title and content alone it doesn’t let much slip, there were also murmurs that Daisy Kenyon featured Japanese-Americans in its storyline and as one myself I usually jump at the chance of any such story. Because normally, they are few and far between in Classic Hollywood. That makes any picture with such content a minor revelation for me whether it was Preminger’s impetus or not.

At any rate, The Civil Rights Association comes a calling on O’Mara to represent a Nisei war veteran named Tsu Noguchi who came home to find his farm had been legally taken away from him. We never see the man and there’s not that much more said on the issue except that “It isn’t anyone’s kind of case” but Dan takes it up, assumedly because he wants to impress Daisy and there’s an inkling that he has a shred of decency in his being too.

Now here is another picture to add to that modest but still formidable list including The Steel Helmet, Go for Broke!, Japanese War Bride, and The Crimson Kimono. It proves to be a victory for even conceding that such a world and such a history existed. That is enough for me.

It’s an extension of the entire film really, constructed of minor intricacies that succeed in making this picture an unprecedented example of 1940s Hollywood. It’s ending is wonderful for how it defuses everything we expect from a courtroom drama or a woman’s picture or any other genre convention. It ends on a natural, smooth note like a nice glass of bourbon cradled in the palm of your significant other. Like clockwork, there’s Henry Fonda again. The man we should never, ever write off. What is the age-old adage? He who laughs last, laughs loudest? Yes, indeed.

4/5 Stars

Japanese War Bride (1952)

Japanese_War_Bride_VideoCoverMuch 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.

japanesewarbride2Jim 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.

japanesewarbride1Japanese 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.

3.5/5 Stars

Go for Broke! (1951)

goforbrokeWWII is always a fascinating touchstone of history because it has some many intricate facets extending from the Pacific to the European Theater to the American Home Front and so on, each bringing with it unique stories of everyday individuals doing extraordinary things. One of the best-kept secrets is the 442nd Infantry Division later joined with the 100th and effectively making the first all Japanese-American fighting unit which served over in Italy and France.

But perhaps the most striking thing about this band of men was the inherent hypocrisy they unwittingly pointed out within America’s own society. As their loved ones sat enclosed in tar paper barracks and barbed wire fences within internment camps, these courageous lads went off to prove their allegiance to their country. Reflecting the very freedoms and liberty that America was founded on, in spite of the injustices that were thrown their way.

But really instead of simply reflecting the bad, Go for Broke! is a far more empowering story and Robert Pirosh’s film does a stellar job at showcasing these men with a great deal of respect. He had previously shown an aptitude for realistic war films like Battleground, and joining forces with Van Johnson once more, he delivers another authentic picture.

Going so far to fill out the rank and file of the film with real 442nd veterans, Go for Broke! begins with a newly promoted officer born and bred in Texas. At first, he shows a slight distaste in being called upon to lead a unit of Japanese, partly due to the fact that he was torn away from his buddies, the other simply a result of his own narrow-mindedness.

After all, he becomes the stand-in for the prototypical viewer and as his character slowly begins to evolve as they go through boot camp, then Italy, then France, the impact on the viewer is duly noted. Thus, although he proves to be an important figure, it should not be forgotten that in many ways the 442nd is front and center.

Among the men we get to know are the level-headed Sam (Lane Nakano) who has a girl waiting for him back in the states while his family remains interned as public aliens. Tommy is the runt of the group, a funny sort of fellow, who makes the ultimate sacrifice when he gives his beloved pig to a starving family. There’s the bespectacled college boy who was in the process of becoming an architect and the defiant Chick (George Miki), ready to fight with whoever crosses him. Far from being stiff, these men lend a certain realism to the film that elevates it to that of a fascinating historical artifact.

There are some wonderfully humorous moments that diffuse the conflict of cultural identity. The recruits of the 442nd walk up the gangplank as the soldier in charge struggles to read off their family names and as each man passes by he responds with a very basic anglicized name. George W. and Thomas H. In another moment an angry Van Johnson looks over at his second in command Oharra during a patrol to inquire what a Japanese word means. Without skipping a beat the man quickly apologizes, “Sorry sir, I don’t speak Japanese.” Only later as these soldiers become his loyal comrades does he learn what “Backatare” means. It becomes a film where soldiers from California and Texas can poke fun at each other, but that’s only because mutual respect builds between the 36th and 442nd.

Lt. Grayson reveals his final transformation when he enters into an altercation with his old pal Cully who has a heavy dose of bigotry. By the end of the film, the man’s still not exactly a saint, but his eyes are opened at least a little bit. And in the end, the 442nd comes to the aid of their brethren. The film concludes with one of their greatest triumphs, rescuing the lost battalion pinned down by the enemy on all sides. The casualty tolls were high, but in such moments the Japanese-Americans proved their grit and determination right alongside all the other fighting men. This is the film they deserved and the type of recognition that they deserve even today. It’s a shame that more stories like Go For Broke! have not been told, but it makes this one all the more important.

3.5/5 Stars

The Steel Helmet (1951)

steelhelmet1“What a fouled-up outfit I got myself into” – Sgt. Zack

Samuel Fuller always had an eye for the visually dynamic and a nose for controversy. His war picture The Steel Helmet was at the forefront of films about the Korean War, in fact, it was probably the first.

Despite, being shot in a few solitary days in California, he somehow managed to develop a generally atmospheric terrain overflowing with fog of war and overgrown with foliage. It’s an unsentimental, gritty, sweaty storyline. In other words, it’s very Fuller and its cynical lead is Gene Evans as the thick-headed Sergeant Zack weighed down by war-induced pessimism. He’s got a bullet hole in his helmet to prove it. He’s been good enough to last through this game of survival of the fittest thus far, and he hopes to keep it that way.

Zack picks up a peppy young South Korean, the original “Short Round,” and the sergeant reluctantly allows him to tag along as he continues his pilgrimage. Next, comes the African-American medic Corporal Thomson, who like Zack was the sole survivor of his unit. In the forest depths, they run into a band of soldiers led by the experienced Lt. Driscoll. Although Zack wants nothing to do with them, he agrees to stick around after they get pinned down by a couple snipers.

Their mission: to set up an observation post at a nearby Buddhist temple.  However, the road ahead includes booby traps and other menacing perils of war. They have one of their hated “gooks” waiting for them, and he causes some havoc before being captured. However, perhaps more insidiously he tries to undermine the men by going after Thompson and the “Buddha head” Nisei vet named Tanaka (Richard Loo). The wily enemy, in perfect English mind you, notes the hypocrisy of an American society where African-Americans can die on the battlefield, but then only get to sit on the back of a bus. He then suggests how he and Tanaka have a great  more in common, aside from their eyes, especially since the American government put Japanese-Americans in Internment camps

steelhelmet2But the old WWII vet simply acknowledges the facts and retorts with his own piece of trivia. In the all Japanese-American regiment the 442nd 3,000 Nisei “idiots” got the purple heart for bravery. All he knows is that he’s an American no matter how he’s treated. That doesn’t change. Once more Fuller delivers some of the most engaging portrayals of Asian characters ever and the discussions of race relations were way ahead of their time. Both Richard Loo and James Edwards are honorable characters who hardly fall into any common stereotype.

After staving off this psychological warfare, the band calls in an artillery barrage on some nearby snipers. But soon the enemy is swarming them and it’s a wildly thrashing, blasting battle to the death.  The fight scenes are sheer chaotic madness, but then again isn’t that what war often escalates to? It just doesn’t make sense. Billows of smoky haze engulfing the war zone. Whirrs, bangs, explosions, and every other sound imaginable except silence. That comes when the bodies are dead and strewn all over the battlefield. In truth, silver stars mean very little when you’re just trying to survive.

Fuller was prophetic by suggesting that there is no end to this story. He was right. It went on for a couple more years and ended in a cease-fire that still continues between North and South Korea to this day. He’s also one of the great economical filmmakers where less is most certainly more. What a stroke of brilliance that he could use a weeks time, the grounds of The Griffith Observatory, and a few minor actors and extras to create such a fascinating film.

4/5 Stars

Bridge to the Sun: An Analysis of a Cross-Cultural Romance (2015)

bridgetothe7Bridge to the Sun is one of those films that was ahead of its time. Its main actors are hardly remembered by modern audiences. The top-billed leading lady, Carroll Baker, was probably more notorious for her controversial persona in films like Tennessee’s Williams’ Baby Doll than she was famous. James Shigeta was a pioneering Japanese-American actor, who was once told, “If you were white, you’d be a hell of a big star” (The Slanted Screen). He aged gracefully but was slowly relegated from leading roles to bit parts. Belgium director Etienne Perier was only a slight blip on the Hollywood radar. When it came out in 1961, its narrative based on the memoir of Gwen Terasaki ended up being an abysmal flop. Honestly, it’s not all that surprising, because the public was not ready for such a film, and its candid depiction of interracial marriage. Now, with a fresh pair of eyes in the 21st century, Bridge to the Sun looks quite extraordinary. Certainly, this is a love story, but under very different circumstances, in a very different world. Although it was made in the classical Hollywood mode, it still manages to groundbreaking, not necessarily due to its form, but thanks to its content. Because Bridge to the Sun places an Asian man and a Caucasian woman together, as they navigate two starkly different cultures both tottering on the brink of war.

bridgetothe6In truth, this film does not shy away from showing their 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-rooted love that holds them together. Sometimes it’s far from easy. For instance, when they first travel to Japan, Gwen finds it difficult living in a culture where women are meant to be wholly subservient to their husbands. She’s fine with the bowing and the taking off of shoes even, but not being allowed to speak her mind is about the limit.

This sentiment is reflected perfectly in a sequence right after some guests solemnly file out of Terry and Gwen’s home after a dinner party. Gwen is dressed in traditional garb with an annoyed look plastered on her face, and her husband silently glowers behind her. Their home is quiet and still, the light all but gone from the dark interiors. Finally, she turns around and breaks the silence by voicing her annoyance.

What follows is a single medium shot that frames both our protagonists and then a classic shot-reverse shot paradigm perfectly captures the ensuing quarrel between the married couple. It’s seamless, hardly extravagant, and it allows all the focus to fall on the verbal blows being dealt during their marital tiff. There is also great irony in how Gwen is dressed in a kimono and wig, while at the same time pushing back against the cultural expectations.  The intonations of her voice are high-pitched and enraged while Terry’s retorts are low and authoritative in juxtaposition.

One of the most telling lines comes when Gwen positively erupts after Terry chides her to keep her mouth shut, “according to custom.” The major distinction is that this is his custom and not her own. A cultural gap has developed. One set of customs feels antiquated, the other modern. One set seems honorable, the other blunt. There is this obvious dissonance between them, and in many ways, these two individuals are a perfect embodiment of the chafing that is going on globally. Except the important difference is that Terasakis manage to compromise, while the world around them plunges ever deeper into conflict.

bridgetothe3Gwen and Terry cannot stay mad forever, especially with the birth of their little girl Mako. In fact, it is actually in a moment when their family is in danger of being pulled apart that Gwen shows her true resilience and loyalty as a wife. Pearl Harbor has just blown up and that means there is a freeze on all Japanese aliens. Terry is stuck at the embassy about to be deported, and an FBI agent advises Gwen that she would be much better off staying in the states. But as she converses with him you can see the determination in her eyes. She knows what it means to go to Japan. Her daughter as a child of mix race will be scorned, and Gwen herself will be looked down upon if not endangered by her status as an American citizen.

Her blubbering aunt implores her not to go, but in one of the film’s most impactful close-ups, Gwen tells Aunt Peggy off. She is not about to be split up from her husband – not after all they have gone through. It is in this other high intensity moment that we see her for who she truly is. She’s not about to be constrained by the cultural expectations placed upon her, and it goes both ways whether they are Japanese or American.

Mrs. Terasaki traverses the gauntlet of jeering crowds with all the other Japanese wives. She’s an easy target in the sea of Japanese, and the racist slurs are aimed just as scurrilously at her as anyone else, perhaps even more so. A noose hangs around the neck of a grotesque caricature of Tojo outside the fence, and still Gwen goes bravely on, covering her daughter’s ears, and comforting Mako the best she can in the hateful tumult. In this moment, we have yet another fascinating intersection of cultures. Gwen, a Caucasian woman from Tennessee is being transported along with alien immigrants back across the ocean like one of “the enemy.” She willingly gives up her status, her comfort, and even her very safety to hold her family together.

Of course, the situation in Japan is not ideal either, and the Terasaki’s have it rough. When they arrive abroad there is the same discrimination and the myriad of strange looks. Terry’s loyalty is questioned as he tries to mediate between the two warring nations. The ethnicity of his wife doesn’t help, and the fire bombs raining down from up above don’t exactly calm their nerves. But again and again, Terry and Gwen prove to be a resilient couple.

With the war in high gear, the Terasaki’s eke out an existence, while Terry does his best to avoid imprisonment from his own government. Meanwhile, the bullets and bombs continue to rain down, even in the countryside where the family now resides. On one such occasion, Mako is scampering through town with a friend and “the enemy” strikes. To his credit, Perier convincingly pieces together aerial footage with what is occurring down below. Airplane motors whirr menacingly. The Terasakis race towards town frantic to find their daughter. The planes begin their descent followed by waves of bullets as Japanese soldiers get in position to fight back. It’s utter chaos with smoke, fires, overturned vehicles, fleeing people, and finally dead bodies. The death toll includes soldiers and a little child. Mako lives, but her best friend perishes trying to salvage a doll. It’s in this climatic moment that all the Terasakis are huddled together after both parents rush to protect their girl and give aid to the dying friend. The fighting persists and both look up. First, Terry yells out something almost completely stifled by the noise, and then with Mako cradled in her arms, Gwen screams, “No More!” at the top of her lungs in exasperation.

Miracubridgetothe4lously these individuals salvaged their marriage and preserved their family. Meanwhile, the world around them would not make the necessary concessions. It allowed cultural differences to define relationships, and ultimately increase the void between nations. The rubble of WWII was eventually cleared and new hope was built upon that foundation. In reality, the chronicles of the Terasakis was an emblem of that hope. Inherent in their story is the possibility that two people and two nations really, can be reconciled and even thrive together. Perhaps the United States was not ready for such a message to come out of Hollywood, even as late as the 1960s, but nevertheless, it seems like a message we can certainly take to heart today.

Bridge to the Sun (1961)

bridgetothe1Bridge 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.

bridgetothe2In 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.

bridgetothe5And 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.

3.5/5 Stars

The Crimson Kimono: An Analysis of Noir Realism and Race (2015)

crimsonk1What makes Film-Noir intriguing is not simply the crime aspect but the fact that they are films with worldviews that are often weighed down by cynicism. Film-Noir depicts the harsh realities of human nature that few other films would ever dare to acknowledge onscreen. People are broken at their core; continually led to their own devices whether it’s greed or their own personal insecurities. These films give us a fascinating microscope by which to examine all the pain and prejudices that abound within the human condition.  Samuel Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono (1959) shares some of these qualities, acting as a realistic procedural that employs cinematography and setting to say something about the world we live in. Furthermore, it has a remarkable stance on race relations, specifically for Japanese-Americans, that was ahead of its time and has hardly ever been matched.

Through an analysis of The Crimson Kimono it becomes obvious that it is a striking film in the noir tradition, blessed with an urban realism that brings 1950s Los Angeles to life for us. As Samuel Fuller himself points out, “The thing that is most noir about Crimson Kimono…is how [he] shot it.” He was “in Little Tokyo and lots of other actual locations downtown, with cameras hiding in trucks, shooting at night with fast film because [he] could not put out lights” and as a result, the film has “a hard, gritty realistic look” (Film Noir Reader 3). When the action heads to the streets and hooker Sugar Torch is fleeing from an unseen assailant, it definitely has the gritty, atmospheric realism that Fuller was alluding to. This is a real place where we could be. These will be the same streets that Joe and Charlie will soon be hitting on their beat. Ironically, when Fuller shot the scene live he noted that he didn’t really “get much dramatic reaction.” Despite the fact that “An almost naked, six-foot-tall blonde is running for her life down the street,” nobody seemed to care and nobody looked (Film Noir Reader 3). That is the world of Los Angeles, full of indifferent masses that could care less whether something looks real or is real. It makes no difference to them because it fails to affect their existence. It is a dismal worldview, very representative of noir, but the odd thing is that Charlie and Joe are not like this at first. They are heroic, honest individuals with the duty of weighing through this noir world as part of their vocation. Thus, they oblige out of necessity and only then does it get to them. Even so, there is an argument that it is not the world, but their personal hang-ups that tear them apart.

Their investigation leads them to “Little Tokyo,” which becomes an integral locale within the context of the film and Fuller uses it effectively. For instance, in one scene Joe walks the streets with a Mr. Yoshinaga after meeting him at a cemetery. It’s a highly mundane moment and yet Fuller still manages to make it interesting. It is also less austere than the earlier scene of Sugar’s murder since banners are flying and locals are milling about the storefronts. That’s why it becomes an interesting setting for a chase sequence, taking the everyday environment and turning it into a point of drama. It reinforces the fact that Fuller seems to be more interested in the realism of common incidences compared to high drama. It’s almost as if he’s a journalist again trying to get a juicy feature story. It’s ordinary, real and it meets people where they are at.

One of the most significant moments occurs later on during the kendo match where Joe and Charlie are supposed to face off as part of the Nisei Week Festival. It’s a big deal and flyers are plastered all over the town so people will turn out for the event. Within the context of the film, it matters on several levels. The fact that Charlie is Joe’s equal suggests that martial arts are not just stereotypically Asian, but they can be universal. Perhaps most importantly their bout reveals the descent of Joe into utter resentment because he disregards all the traditions of Kendo and begins to go after his friend with a vengeance. It’s the turning point that Charlie cannot forgive Joe for and for good reason. The sequence plays out as quick cuts between masked faces, swords, dancing feet, and exuberant onlookers. Practically before we know what has happened Joe begins beating Charlie over the head and lays him out. It is such a rapid about-face that is underlined by Joe’s own insecurities, which we will get to delve into later.

The culmination of the film occurs during the festivities, with music, dancing, banners, lanterns, and girls in kimonos. It seems fitting that Fuller’s entire story leads us to this point at such a public place full of your usual bystanders. It’s theatrical while still maintaining a sense of the real world. Here again, we have a third chase scene except this time Fuller does something especially interesting with the music. During the pursuit there is a symphony of conflicting tunes going on between the bands: “One plays classic music, one plays Japanese music, one plays hot music, and so on. Whenever [Fuller] cut from the killer to the pursuer, the music changed. That gave [him] the discordant and chaotic note” that was desired (The Director’s Event). It seems like such a simple detail and yet it truly is clever in conception, because it adds another layer of realism to the scene while simultaneously utilizing diegetic sound for dramatic effect. It could be implied that the music also reflects Joe and Charlie’s own feelings of confusion and friction, which injured their friendship and Charlie’s ego. It’s ultimately Joe who has to parse through all the noise and commotion ultimately finding the truth. It’s no small coincidence that once again we find ourselves on the urban streets at night just like when Sugar Torch was gunned down. Fuller parallels that earlier scene and yet so much has changed. This time around there is a hint of hope, but a sour taste is still left in the mouth. It suggests that you cannot fully escape the darkness and anxieties that seem to engulf us because this world can never truly have a perfect ending.

Fuller’s film crimsonk2has murder attempts, gunshots, fist fights, etc. However, he knows how to simplify scenes getting only the necessary elements out of them. When Sugar Torch crumples to the ground we hear the shot and that’s all we need. When an attempt is taken on Chris’s life we see the gun pointed ominously and again we hear the shot but that’s all. There’s a cut to a new scene and Fuller gives us all the details we need to know.  In a sense, it’s about an economy of images that allow this film to be short, at only 78 minutes, and still, pack a punch. It definitely was out of necessity that Fuller did many of these things which would have saved time and money, but it also undoubtedly caused him to come up with creative solutions. The Crimson Kimono like many of Fuller’s films is hardly sleek or polished and that is part of the allure. It is the opposite of typical Hollywood and it fits film-noir so beautifully. It has the same harshness as one of Fuller’s other works Pickup on South Street (1953). What it lacks in a femme fatale or Cold War sentiment, The Crimson Kimono makes up for in how it tackles romance and the job of a policeman with a subtle touch. For this reason, it may be less of a film-noir than Pickup and perhaps a lesser film, but there is still power in its story and the racial lines that it willfully challenged. It also seems necessary to acknowledge a bit of Samuel Fuller’s background, because it further influenced his filmmaking. He came from a Jewish family in New York and dropped out of school to write for a newspaper along with penning pulp fiction novels. He served during WWII and when he came back he began a storied career as a writer and director of frequently subversive “B pictures.” His versatility is especially remarkable, cycling through all types of films from westerns, to crime films to war dramas, elevating them above “B” quality. Part of the reason is that he never gave into conventions and his genuine depictions of race in films like The Steel Helmet (1951), Run the Arrow (1957) and The Crimson Kimono were ahead of their time.

crimsonk3The Crimson Kimono is an extraordinary film historically because it depicts something that we very rarely see, especially for 1959. The late, great actor James Shigeta portrayed the straight-laced policeman and former Korean War hero named Joe Kojaku. He’s a sympathetic figure and hardly a caricature. His best friend is the Caucasian Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett), who is on the LAPD with Joe and a war buddy. They are inseparable and they share a flat. Above all, the most amazing thing is that Joe gets the girl over his friend! That might be a small victory, but I have seen a lot of films to know that the Asian guy never gets the girl, especially if she is Caucasian. Sam Fuller subverts the norm and it is a major statement on interracial romance in an age when many would have scoffed at it. However, Fuller also takes immense care to look at both sides of the equation, and he allows both men the benefit of the doubt. Joe must figure out his own identity even acknowledging, “I was born here. I’m American but what am I? Japanese, Japanese American, Nisei? What label do I live under?” The question is not an easy one and it is one that he struggles with over the course of the entire film, navigating his feelings towards Charlie and then the beautiful artist Chris (Victoria Shaw).

The-crimson-kimono-1959_posterRegrettably, posters for this film were highly shallow and sensational reflecting the age with taglines like “Yes, this is a beautiful American girl in the arms of a Japanese boy!” or “What was his strange appeal for American girls?” It places this character in the typical category of an exotic lover. He’s not a real man, only an enticing mysterious foreigner with strange appeal. Likewise, the title Crimson Kimono itself brings to mind oriental exoticism involving strange dress and foreign culture. This could have just as easily been a dated film of yellowface and Asian stereotypes, but it’s superfluous to judge this film by its posters and title alone. When you actually watch Fuller’s work these are not the focal points at all. As Fuller later said himself, “The whole idea of [his] picture is that both men are good cops and good citizens. The girl just happens to fall in love with the Nisei. They’ve got chemistry” (A Third Face). Chris likes Joe because he is a genuine hero, not because the other man is not. Joe is sweet and shares a love of art (piano and painting) like her. She could care less that he’s Asian just like Charlie could care less. Those are the kind of people they are.

Fuller’s depiction goes both ways, however, because while he never sells Kojaku short, he also suggests that Joe might be part of the problem. Fuller notes that he “was trying to make an unconventional triangular love story, laced with reverse racism, a kind of narrow-mindedness that is just as deplorable as outright bigotry. [He] wanted to show that whites aren’t the only ones susceptible to racist thoughts” (A Third Face). This ends up happening with Joe since he gets so caught up in prejudice, his own prejudice, that it wrecks his relationships with his friend. Charlie is not angry because Joe, an Asian, stole his girl. Charlie is understandably irritated because his best friend took the girl who he really liked without telling Charlie his true feelings. Joe makes the mistake of attributing this to a question of race, but Charlie, like Fuller, is not that shallow. His reaction is purely a human reaction that develops in any romance when two men who are equals go after one girl and only one can come out on top. It hurts no matter what race, color or creed they are. That’s just the reality and that’s the lesson that Joe does not understand at first. He seems to care too much about the race question and potentially even his identity. It ultimately damages his relationship with Charlie and we cannot know for sure if it will ever be repaired, even if we would like them to patch things up. Thus, Fuller combats racism from both angles, including minorities who might take on the role of a victim too quickly. Because the reality is, issues of race almost always get blown way out of proportion with both sides being hypersensitive. Fuller seems to have the right handle on the situation, not stooping to unwarranted stereotypes and not heaping all the blame on the majority. Sometimes everybody is at fault at least a little bit. That’s simply how life is and that’s how it gets depicted in The Crimson Kimono, with a sensitive, albeit, realistic touch. Furthermore, one could argue that it is a typical noir ending because although Joe still gets the girl it came at a steep cost.

crimsonk4The Crimson Kimono is riveting from the beginning because it is such a groundbreaking and rare piece of film history. It presented on film something that we never see or very rarely see: a relationship between an Asian man and Caucasian woman. In the hands of Samuel Fuller, this unique but still mundane tale is kept thoroughly engaging. He infused his screenplay with visuals of Los Angeles and realism that makes his characters all the more believable. His camera is able to take the everyday and make it dramatic while we continue to invest in these people. It seems fitting to end the discussion with a quote from the man himself. He affirmed that “One film never really gives me complete satisfaction. Nor should it. All creative people must learn how to deal with the imperfect and the incomplete. There is no end in art. Every accomplishment is the dawn of the next challenge.” That’s what makes the films of Samuel Fuller meaningful. No one film can ever have everything. The Crimson Kimono does not have every answer on race and it certainly does not have every convention of film-noir. It’s imperfect, but it is a jumping off point for future endeavors and dialogue.

The Crimson Kimono (1959)

crimsonk1From director Samuel Fuller comes another welcomed addition to his canon. It features the same type of seedy urban landscapes and back alleys of Pick up on South Street (1953) and there are some equally interesting characters like Mac (Anna Lee). It all is underlined by some sleazy jazz music in the vein of Sweet Smell of Success except this one is set in L.A.

The plot line is basic enough following two policemen as they investigate the homicide of a local stripper with a heart of gold and wasted plans for a new show involving kimonos and karate. Their only real lead is a painting and the name that goes with it. That’s where the more interesting part of the story begins.

I failed to mention that one of the cops is Caucasian. His name is Detective Sergeant Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett). His partner is Japanese-American or “Nisei,” meaning the second generation. Detective Joe Kojaku (James Shigeta) is his name. The beauty of their relationship, which is one of Fuller’s focuses, is that they are equals who are inseparable ever since landing in a fox hole together in Korea.  Charlie was saved by a pint of Joe’s blood, Charlie practices kendo with Joe in their off hours, and they live together on the side. You cannot get much closer than that.

The movement of the plot leads them to Ms. Chris Downes (Victoria Shaw), a pretty young painter who is the only witness who potentially saw the man who shot Sugar Torch. In between looking at journals full of mug shots, she gets to know both Charlie and Joe. Charlie sees himself falling in love with her and like anyone he tells his best friend. Joe is happy for him until the fateful moment when he is alone with Chris. She makes her affection for him quite plain because he’s a pretty great guy, but as a good friend, he doesn’t do anything. It tears him apart and it only hurts them as they plod on with the homicide.

What follows is a painful love triangle embroiled with issues of race, friendship, and misguided notions. It’s jarring because these three are all likable and you want only the best for them, but it cannot be remedied like the murder which ultimately gets wrapped up neatly.

crimsonk4Samuel Fuller always tackles issues of race head on like no other. In fact, he was ahead of his time when no one else would show such relationships, romantic or otherwise, on the silver screen. Beyond whether or not an Asian man and a Caucasian woman romantically involved was accepted back in the 1950s or not, it probably was not what audience cared to see at the movies. To me, now, it’s really interesting, especially to see such non-stereotypical roles all across the board. It’s a breath of fresh air from the Charlie Chans and Mr. Motos.

On another level, Fuller’s camera makes solitary L.A. street corners and the bustling Nisei festival amazingly dynamic. It brings Little Tokyo alive, filling it with genuine people, sights, and sounds. Thank you, Sam Fuller.

It’s like mixing two dabs of paint together. You could never separate them.” ~ Mac on Charlie and Joe

It’s what you think is behind every word and every look.” ~ Chris Downes

4/5 Stars

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

8435a-bad_day_at_black_rockStarring Spencer Tracy and Robert Ryan with Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Dean Jagger, and Anne Francis, the whole story takes place in an isolated desert town. Tracy as the one-armed man Macready comes to the town and soon is face to face with many cold, detached, and suspicious folks. He has his own reasons for being there so that he can find the father of a Japanese-American war buddy of his. He asks around and no one is willing to talk. Macready soon realizes their secret and understands how much danger he is in. However, with the help of a couple of townspeople he is able to resolve everything. Then, he leaves town aboard the train just as calmly as before. This film intrigued me for a number of reasons but especially since a central topic was racism towards Japanese-Americans.

4/5 Stars

Go for Broke (1951)

Starring Van Johnson along with a handful of WW II vets, this film looks like your average war film. It follows this group of soldiers from their initial training all the way to deployment. Then, we follow their exploits in Italy and France that coincide with their everyday interactions. However, this film is very significant because it actually tells the story of Japanese Americans in the 442nd infantry unit. They not only faced the enemy on the battlefield, they also had to deal with a great deal of prejudice within the armed forces. However, as with the example of Van Johnson, the Budha-Heads were able to win respect because of their courageous fighting. In the climatic moments of the film these men save a lost division and then return home as heroes. Since I am half-Japanese it was exciting for me to come across this film because this kind of topic has not been covered often. The fact that it actually had Nisei actors and was  made quite soon after the war is also amazing.

3.5/5 Stars