|10. THE CRIMSON KIMONO
||[Jan. 25th, 2005|12:49 am]
dir. Samuel Fuller, USA 1959.|
Quick— it’s a film noir from the late 50’s, in which two male detectives, one Caucasian and the other Japanese American, trek through Little Tokyo to investigate the murder of a stripper, eventually finding a beautiful female witness, whom they must protect against the killer. Make the movie in your head, based on what you know of Hollywood film conventions – what do you see? Is it the all-American golden boy confronting Yakuza toughs and bosses, falling for the lovely Japanese woman he’s sworn to protect, while his Nisei (American-born Japanese) sidekick adds little more than color to the proceedings? Perhaps those choices seem too obvious, but now what do you want to see?
One important factor was left out of the preceding paragraph, one that would ensure that such a film would not so slavishly follow convention, yet still remain rooted in the credibility of real world experiences shared by both the filmmakers and the audience. That factor is that the film in question is the brainchild of writer/producer/director Sam Fuller, who first honed his observational and storytelling skills as a crime reporter and then screenwriter, and served in WWII campaigns across Europe and North Africa before directing his first film. Having experienced so much in his travels, it’s no wonder he became so prolific in his filmmaking, directing a score of films representing a wide range in setting, mood, and characters.
Here Fuller utilizes the noir expectations to do something completely different, shifting instead to a romantic melodrama involving one of the more tortured love triangles film audiences have yet to see. The exotic dancer whose murder kicks off the story demonstrates ambitions and dreams that are the first sign that this is not standard noir. Like the film itself, Sugar Torch (Gloria Pall) wishes to elevate her act from its seedy origins into something more culturally significant, dropping her ribald dance routine in favor of a quasi-Kabuki play, in which her stage character, cavorting with a martial artist, must deal with her jealous samurai ex-lover. The shots following the opening credits are close-up on Sugar’s face as she finishes performing her old act and returns backstage, and her change in expression as she leaves the stage reveals her weariness with mere striptease. After her death, her manager narrates the proposed new act for the investigating detectives, who have no idea how closely it will foreshadow their own arcs in the story to come.
As the detectives, both of whom are more lighthearted than the usual noir heroes, interview the manager in Sugar’s dressing room, Fuller and director of photography Sam Leavitt compose the scene to visually hint at the heroes’ characterizations. While the manager sits facing the right, the detectives themselves are not onscreen, but rather their reflections are framed in a mirror to the manager’s left. They are a team, sticking together in the same frame, just as they do in the hanging photos that appear later in the film that reveal more of their backstory. But as the interview progresses, the Caucasian detective, Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett), enters the screen, leaving his reflection behind – he freely navigates the full frame, changing the balance of the composition. The Nisei detective, Joe Kojaku (James Shigeta), on the other hand, stays where he is, still outlined in the mirror. And so more than Charlie, Joe will prove to be a man who is sensitive to how others perceive him, as he remains framed in reflection while others roam freely.
From their interview of the manager, the detectives obtain two tenuous leads – supposedly only a few other people knew about the new act. One is an artist known only to them as Chris, from the signature on the painting that depicts Sugar in her full crimson kimono costume. The other is a mysterious Korean national, Shuto, who was to play the role of the martial artist. Charlie begins looking into the artist angle while Joe canvasses Little Tokyo in search of Shuto.
Through the Little Tokyo sequences, Fuller organically composes a love letter to Japanese Americana, showcasing so many social and cultural aspects in these location shoots. No, Fuller does not explore the Japanese underworld as one might expect in a noir, but the locales and people he features in his constructed situations are unmistakably 1950’s Los Angeles. Joe and other characters interact in dojos, restaurants and shops that are not exoticized in the least, and Fuller makes it a point for Joe to meet up with a senior Issei (Japanese immigrant) gentleman at a cemetery, where the Issei’s son is buried with so many of his other comrades from the 442nd, the famed Japanese American military unit that fought bravely in WWII despite having been interned. These little touches, set as the neighborhood prepares for Nisei Week, an annual Los Angeles festival celebrating Japanese American culture, capture so many everyday aspects of Japanese American life without exaggerating them or taking the audience out of the story, and contain a verisimilitude that would be difficult to top even in a modern day production.
Meanwhile, Charlie, after consulting with Mac (Anna Lee), an accomplished female artist (and one of many strong older woman characters created by Fuller), finds Chris, who turns out to be Christine Downs (Victoria Shaw), a lovely and bright young woman studying art at USC. Charlie is immediately attracted to Chris, and works his confident charm, finding out more about the case while establishing good chemistry with her. Chris reveals that Sugar did not come to her sitting alone, but with another man, called Hansel. She produces a sketch of the mysterious man, who soon becomes the prime suspect.
In most of the early scenes, Joe walks around while munching on an apple, presumably because his mother didn’t have time to bake it into a pie for him. Later both Charlie and Joe are eating apples in their shared apartment, firmly establishing the Americana motif. Having served together in the Korean War, the two formed an intensely close bond and now solve crimes as a team, each working his way up the Los Angeles lawman’s ladder. The aforementioned photos that show them from their soldiering days hang prominently on their living room wall. This setup shows one of Fuller’s many progressive viewpoints on American race relations, which remain quite relevant in the 21st century, particularly in media representation. Though the two detectives worked well together when interviewing Sugar’s manager, the reveal that they live together remains surprising yet believable, especially given the historical context. Corbett and Shigeta perform in a comfortable tandem, establishing their characters’ strong friendship.
The two continue to work with Christine, trying to track down Hansel. However, most of these scenes pair Christine with Charlie while Joe continues searching for Shuto. Following several flirtations, Charlie and Christine share a kiss, after which Charlie tells Joe of his true love for Christine, which Joe seems to readily accept. Joe’s own love life is exposited by his jocular grousing over the arguments he has with a Kibei (born in America, raised in Japan) girlfriend over "the old country." At this point in the story, Fuller begins to shift the noir plot aside and transition into a character piece – Christine is attacked by Hansel, who escapes, compelling the detectives to protect her in their own apartment. The plot devices here are a bit transparent but not too far out for a film in which a stripper’s murder makes the front page lead story in more than one newspaper, making the props easier for the audience to read.
One night, an informant requests to meet with Charlie alone, leaving Christine and Joe in the apartment, where they begin to talk. They find they share interests in art and music, and discuss their family lives, as well as their career ambitions, and soon the chemistry between them is almost exceedingly electric. At first it seems unintentional, since both the men’s friendship as well as Charlie’s feelings for Christine have been so firmly implanted in the audience’s heads at this point. But then, Christine asks Joe why he doesn’t act on what he is feeling at that moment, and there it is. The film has shifted fully into melodrama, though it still defies expectations in a powerful and relevant way, as shown in further scenes.
Christine later confides to Mac, who knows both Charlie and Joe well, that she believes that Joe hesitated, saying it would be wrong, because of the racial difference. This would not be an uncommon theme, even in a movie made today, when race is still played up and is even the conceit for flicks such as GUESS WHO, a remake starring Bernie Mac and Ashton Kutcher, with the roles reversed from GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER, in which Spencer Tracy’s character had to come to terms with his daughter marrying a man played by Sidney Poitier. But Mac knows that Joe wouldn’t act on his feelings because of his loyalty to Charlie, which perturbs Christine far less than her assumed racism. However, especially in this context, it provides a much stronger and relatable theme, one that truly makes this love triangle an interesting one to follow.
For Joe’s part, he gains no comfort from consulting his priest, and begins to retreat into himself, shutting himself off from everyone, especially Charlie. Finally exploding in their yearly kendo match, Joe releases his emotions in a frenzied flurry. Afterwards, he can’t hide his feelings any more and he confesses his mutual love for Christine to Charlie, who is struck speechless. Then Joe takes a look at his friend’s face, and becomes angry – it’s clear, claims Joe, that not only does Charlie feel jealous and betrayed as he has every right to feel, but that he also feels ashamed and angry that he lost her to a Japanese man. The race card reemerges, but in a rather unexpected way – would Joe be so quick in dismissing such a strong fellowship from just one look? "It’s all over your face!" cries Joe, and Shigeta makes him wounded enough to be believable, but how can this be?
The answers lie in Joe’s further tirades to both Christine and Charlie, who attempt to talk some sense to him. "You only see what you want to see," pleads Christine, but to Joe, no one can understand how he feels, how can they? Fuller’s choice to stage the love triangle so melodramatically pays off very well here – as Canadian director Guy Maddin (THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD) once remarked, melodrama is not behavior exaggerated, but rather behavior uninhibited. The melodramatic character is free to express what he or she truly feels, as Joe does here – only in this form can Joe say the things he says, that pain him so deeply and desperately need to be expressed. All of the racial prejudice he has ever encountered has made him so sensitive to perceptions that he believes that he can even see a look of racism in his best friend’s face, even when it’s nothing more than just plain jealousy.
Emotions continue to build until the climax, set in the middle of the Nisei Week parade, no less. The ending is a bit on the nose, with Fuller literally trotting out all the pomp and circumstance he can to celebrate the story’s resolution, quickly tying together the noir plot with the romantic melodrama in a rather pat fashion, but the points he makes are ones that deserve to be hammered in, especially since they are far more subtle than the issues raised in 99% of other films dealing with race relations. And to be fair, some elements of the ending are unresolved and bittersweet, reminding the audience that there is a price to be paid for the lessons that the characters learned along the way. In a sense, history has shown that Fuller was right to emphasize a key moment in the ending as dramatically as he did, as it is something that has rarely happened in American cinema since then.
Racism has been so specifically demonized in modern American culture that most citizens believe its only real significance is when it motivates violent acts or discrimination in the workplace. But minorities like Joe have long felt that the racial criteria by which they are judged on a daily basis are far more subtle, especially when dealing with matters of the heart and masculinity. It is ironic that Fuller uses the genres of noir, in which appearances are so important, and melodrama, which has a reputation for exaggerating emotions and actions, to examine something so understated in everyday life.
The noir is necessary to raise the stakes, setting the groundwork for the melodrama to follow. The repeated line "You only see what you want to see" is a blunt statement of the film’s moral but also references key noir elements – how powerful would a femme fatale be if she was unable to make the hero see what he wants to see? Indeed, appearances are important. Fuller knows it, and that is probably why he deliberately balanced the foreign aspects of Japanese American life with ones that would be familiar to 50's audiences. For every woman in a kimono, he shows a youth in a Boy Scout uniform. For every gong hit accentuating the action, Joe plays a note on the piano. For every time the characters use chopsticks, they also eat an apple right down to the core. All of these are actual aspects of the culture, with nothing exaggerated or exoticized. Further, Fuller dispels the foreignness of certain images as well– in one scene, Joe is surrounded by Japanese American women in full dress kimonos. The camera gets close up to one of them, who turns out to be a cute little girl, smiling brightly, a far cry from the geisha images that have appeared in other American films.
In staging this powerful Los Angeles story, Fuller has made a film that transcends its genre limitations and explores subtle racial issues that most modern day releases fail to notice. Whether this film remains further and further ahead of its time depends on today’s audiences, who need to once again start recognizing the power of media representations that quietly pervade every aspect of American life. Until then, more and more Americans will only see themselves as they believe others see them, living under self-imposed limitations, never letting go of false perceptions. There are movements that began around the time of this film’s release, at the cusp of the 60’s, that learned from the lessons of a legacy of injustice. While some of those battles still need to be waged, there is a progression that must also take place not necessarily in these movements, but in the individual, who must address the societal subtleties that affect him or her personally. Such individuals need to be informed of their (self)-misconceptions through a wider representation of everyday life in the media, especially in films and television, which are more accessible than ever. But not only is this film largely unavailable to general audiences, but precious little of today’s material that is screened and broadcast for the masses even attempts to tackle these issues. The century of the self has left filmmakers and audiences under a global illusion, mistaking consumer satisfaction with personal satisfaction; much of what ails the common soul is either unexpressed or dismissed. Re-education for self-expression is in order, and popular media tends to teach these kinds of lessons better than anything else. Fuller understood it then; will anyone else step up soon?