Keep on Wondering...

What are the connections between social and historical forces and the representations we see?
Why is yellowface still acceptable? When and how did yellowface turn into whitewashing?
How do these representations create and/or perpetuate stereotypes that are present in our world? What is the impact?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Crimson Kimono

An Asian American male kissing a white female! JAW-DROPPING and WONDERFUL!!
Crimson Kimono (1959) is probably the most positive portrayal of an Asian American I have seen yet. It's incredible. It's inspiring. It's got an Asian American male in a leading romantic role. It's accurate in it's representation. It was a flop at the box office. 
Japanese-American Detective Joe Kojaku (James Shigeta) and Detective Sgt. Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett) are best friends, old war buddies, and mystery-solvers. They investigate the murder of a burlesque dancer in downtown Los Angeles. Said burlesque dancer was going to have a new striptease act, directed by a man with a lot of knowledge about Asian culture, with a Japanese theme - geisha girl is fought over by a samurai and a karate dude. However, she ends up shot before the act can take place. Kojaku and Bancroft decide to find the two other men involved in the striptease act and find that an acquaintance of Kojaku's was the karate dude ("Joe, if my father knew I was going to work with a stripper, he'd chop me like a ripe banana!") and that a Korean buff dude was going to be the samurai. Kojaku decides to pursue the Korean man while Bancroft decides to find the director man. Bancroft ends up finding someone who knew the director man, one Christine Downs (Victoria Shaw), an artist. She is able to draw a sketch of the director man, and that sketch is circulated within the press to help find and catch him. Meanwhile, Kojaku pursues Korean man but finds that he did not kill the stripper lady. Someone then tries to assassinate Christine Downs and she moves into the apartment that is shared by Kojaku and Bancroft. After she moves in, Bancroft expresses his feelings of love for Christine, and the two plan to marry or date after the murder mystery is solved. Kojaku has begun to fall for Christine too (the murder case becomes forgotten). A little while later, Kojaku and Christine spend some time together and Christine falls for Kojaku and his sensitivity and appreciation of art and music. Bancroft finds out and becomes mad and Kojaku for stealing his girl, while Joe accuses Bancroft of being racist. They get mad at each other until they find another lead in the mystery and pursue it, eventually capturing the murderer and Bancroft accepts that Christine and Kojaku are in love - and they kiss for all of 10 seconds. 
The most glaringly wonderful thing about this movie (watch it here) is the relationship between Joe Kojaku and Christine Downs. Initially, they both think that they can't be together because they are of different races, but eventually they put that aside and end up together, happy as clams. A happy interracial couple! Christine doesn't love Joe because he's Japanese - she loves him for his sensitivity and poetic nature. She rejects the all-American white guy for the Asian dude!  How many times have you seen this in any film? Sure, there was Broken Blossoms, but they never kiss, and they both end up dead at the end. Yeah, there was Bitter Tea of General Yen, but Yen dies in the end and Babs Stanwyck is never happy around him - destructive relationship, huh? In Crimson Kimono, the only person who ends up dead is the stripper. Even Charlie Bancroft, Joe's best friend and at one point competitor for Christine's love, accepts and encourages Joe's relationship with Christine. In a time when interracial marriage was still illegal (Loving v. Virginia didn't happen until 1967) and anti-Asian sentiments were running high, this film and its concept were truly groundbreaking. 
The film also ends with them kissing and being happy, implying that they'll continue to be happy and smiley together forever. And their kiss? Close up! It's in-your-face-interracial-kissing! It even takes up a little more than a fifth of the movie poster. See how important that is! Definitely pushing some conservative buttons there. 
The Stripper's Manager: Picture this Geisha house setting. And the curtain slowly goin’ up on this guy cracking a real brick in half with his bare hands. 
Joe Kojaku: Karate, huh? 
The Stripper's Manager: Yeah that’s what they call it. This guy could bust anything in half with the palm of his hand… Just use your imagination now. This gorgeous geisha makes her entrance in a crimson kimono... Not an inch of flesh exposed, only her face. She begins dancing to Japanese music, and then she starts a real slow peel with this karate brick-smasher watching her. Suddenly her jealous boyfriend barges in, a samurai warrior with a sword… Well, the two guys begin battling over her, bare hands versus sword. The brick-crusher kills [the sword dude] with one blow, turns to collect Sugar (the stripper), but she tosses herself on the dead warrior and begins to bawl. The brick-crusher blows his top, kills her and exits as the curtain slowly comes down on the two dead lovers… How you like that for a striptease act?
This bit of dialogue is very interesting because it describes a yellowface striptease act. The stripper was white, and she would have been playing a (presumably) white stripper. Yellowface on stage? But not men in yellowface? Just the girl? In past movies I've watched I've only really seen men in yellowface, and the only example of female yellowface I can think of is Katherine Hepburn in Dragon Seed. Even more interesting is that this "opportunity" for yellowface is never actually seen in the film - it's just mentioned in passing. Does this count as an example of yellowface? Or not? And then two Asian men begin to fight over her - is this showing how the white woman, even when dressed as an Asian, is more desirable? 

Look at all of the Asians! Not one bit of yellowface anywhere! Look at how ordinary they are. Just like everyday people. Not opium smugglers. Not subservient stupid people. Not evil dictators out to conquer and rule the world. Not geeks. Regular people. No pidgin English here - even some American slang is used. You have no idea how refreshing it is to see these actors standing around and chatting in an American film during a time when Asians and Asian Americans were portrayed always as a sidekick, servant, or villain. 

Another interesting thing about this film was the amount of accuracy and specificity that this film possessed. The entire film did not try to lump Asians together - the film remained specifically Japanese-American. Only once did I hear the word "Oriental." All other times it was the word "Japanese," and never ever in a negative way. Many of the scenes were filmed on location in the Little Tokyo section of Los Angeles. Charlie Bancroft mentions the Nisei Week Festival. There's a kendo tournament. Joe Kojaku visits a Shinto Buddhist temple. There's a parade of lots of Japanese-American people wearing traditional Japanese garb. Sam Fuller cared enough to get all of that right! Groundbreaking! The intense work put in by Fuller into making this film accurate in its representation of Japanese-Americans is unlike anything we have seen before.

Towards the end of the film, Joe Kojaku is planning to quit his job as a cop because he's in love with Christine (this is another bit of plot that doesn't really make sense). He is all worked up and distraught because he's worried about the whole interracial relationship thing. He just told Charlie Bancroft that he loves Christine. And the exchange between Joe and Charlie went something like this:
Charlie: You mean you wanna marry [Chris]?
Joe: You wouldn't have said it like that if I were white!
Charlie: What are you talking about?
Joe: Look at you, it's all over your face! 
And Joe storms out to revoke his detective badge and run away. He thinks that Charlie doesn't want Christine and Joe together because of the difference in race (later, Joe finds that this was not the case at all, Charlie was just upset that he wasn't appealing to Christine anymore). Joe is so distressed he begins to question his identity and his race, saying, "I was born here. I'm American. I feel it and live it and love it, but down deep, what am I? Japanese-American? American-Japanese? Nisei? What label do I live under? You tell me." Definitely one of the more poignant points of the film. This questioning of racial identity by an American-born Asian person in a film is so ahead of it's time - it's incredible! This is in a film directed, written, produced by a white guy with another sensitive topic - racial identity! It ties in wonderfully with the interracial love idea as well. That quote makes me wonder about the Japanese-American (American-Japanese?) audience members who saw this movie and finally saw something on the silver screen that they could relate to and understand - a positive and also realistic portrayal of an Asian-American (played by James Shigeta, no less). Was it inspirational? Uplifting? How did white Americans see that quote? Were they disgusted that anyone of Asian descent could "feel," much less "be," American? Asian-Americans tried to assimilate but couldn't - you see this expressed in the quote above. Even today, people who were born or raised here feel American but are conflicted with their racial identity and their connections with the "old country" wonder about where they fit - too Asian to be American, too American to go back to Asia. And this film, this 1959 film, this tiny bit of monologue by James Shigeta, shows this perfectly. What label do [we] live under? 
It's a shame this film wasn't better received, or that is hasn't gained the legendary status of Flower Drum Song or something. Sam Fuller was known for making low-budget, "B-movie"-ish movies - is that why this film didn't rocket to popularity? Granted, the plot's a little weak when trying to solve the murder, but otherwise, it's a decent film. Way better than Flower Drum Song... But even after the release of the movie, why hasn't it gained the respect that most of his movies have? Fuller's films were usually about controversial topics, so why didn't Crimson Kimono get more appreciation for being ahead of it's time? Look at Flower Drum Song - big budget, A-list stars, written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, and an all Asian/-American cast. Incredible, right? No, that was actually a crap film. Now look at Crimson Kimono - low budget, one popular star, one breakout role (Glenn Corbett), and a controversial topic. Way more monumental than Flower Drum Song, but which one gets more praise and recognition? I think that Flower Drum Song got lost in the breakthrough casting and forgot about making a compelling and decent story. Crimson Kimono is slightly guilty of this too, because the plot has holes and meanders a whole lot. But the thing that Crimson Kimono has that Flower Drum Song lacks is integrity. Crimson Kimono was made to break down doors and face controversial issues like interracial love, which it does beautifully and, sadly, receives little to no recognition for it.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this info, this is something I've been seeking for quite a bit.
    Dan Andersson Scam