OSAKA — Over the past year or so, Japan has figured in several popular Hollywood films.
Tom Cruise starred in “The Last Samurai,” a cheesy period drama that drew rave reviews, while Bill Murray turned in arguably his finest dramatic performance in “Lost in Translation” — an otherwise vastly overrated film set in a Tokyo that looks, and acts, like a “manga” cartoon.
These were films that make anybody familiar with Japan groan or mutter, “Typical Hollywood.”
But for the past two years, people in the Kansai region have had the opportunity to laugh, or marvel, at the Hollywood view of Japan.
Not at Oscar nominees or mega-budget productions, but at long forgotten B-grade fare like “Tokyo File 212,” “Oriental Evil,” “The Manster,” “Karate: Hand of Death” and “House of Bamboo” — all of which will make you think twice about declaring Ed Wood films the worst in Hollywood’s history.
Each month, Matt Kaufman, a 36-year-old American from Brooklyn, hosts “Hollywood Japan File” in Osaka, where the above movies and others are shown to enthusiastic audiences. Kaufman’s locally famous column of the same name in the magazine Kansai Time Out introduces the plots of these long-forgotten gems, offers trivia and tells you where to order copies for yourself.
Kaufman is a walking encyclopedia of Hollywood and foreign films with Japan as its theme. He began his collection several years ago with a copy of James Cagney’s “Blood on the Sun,” and now owns more than 120 such titles, including video copies of extremely rare films, including the silent “Madame Butterfly,” which was made in 1915 and of which only one original print survives.
“I look for the more obscure films that have fallen through the cracks. Unfortunately, most of these films have long been out of print. So I locate them through different channels and have even hired a ‘video detective’ who specializes in tracking down rare films,” Kaufman said.
Films made in the 1950s and early 1960s offer an excellent glimpse into past — and many say current — American attitudes toward Japan. They are often low-budget productions notable for their bad acting and scripts that are pure American propaganda.
For example, in “Tokyo File 212,” an American secret agent arrives in Japan and ends up in a “commie rat’s nest” of an “izakaya” pub somewhere near Shinbashi Station. Our hero, attempting rather poorly to imitate Humphrey Bogart in speech and facial expressions, is aided by a beautiful but mysterious White Russian woman whose sister, ironically enough, has been kidnapped to North Korea.
Our man in Japan is also aided by his friendly Japanese driver, who wears a Brooklyn Dodgers cap, and by the U.S. military, which helped produce the film. The secret agent and his sultry Russian girlfriend manage to party in Ginza, master the use of chopsticks at a traditional inn, and prevent a communist takeover of Japan — all before his tourist visa runs out.
Not all of the movies Kaufman shows are this campy. “Japanese War Bride” is a serious and thoughtful story about an American wounded in the Korean War and brought back to health by a Japanese nurse, whom he then marries. The two then move to his parent’s home in California.
Shirley Yamaguchi, who plays the bride, gives a superb performance as a young woman who must struggle to understand an alien culture and to overcome deep-seated racial prejudices.
The film’s ending is pure Hollywood, but the treatment of the subject matter and Yamaguchi’s strong, independent and likable character during a time, and in a place, where memories of race laws, World War II and internment camps for Japanese-Americans were still fresh, shows that Hollywood was capable of going well beyond crude stereotypes.
“Shirley Yamaguchi, a.k.a Yoshiko Yamaguchi, is very famous in Japan and China. Born in Manchuria to Japanese parents, she came to Japan and acted in films by Akira Kurosawa, as well as a number of Hollywood films, like ‘Japanese War Bride’ ” Kaufman said.
Yamaguchi would go on to marry and divorce noted sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Later, she became a television journalist, covering the Vietnam War and interviewing Yasser Arafat. She then turned to politics, serving in the House of Councilors from 1974 to 1992 as a member of the Liberal Democratic Party.
As Kaufman noted, however, Yamaguchi’s role in “Japanese War Bride” was the exception. The Hollywood image of Japanese woman was, and in some ways remains, very submissive.
“In the early 1950s, Hollywood had to reintroduce Japan to American audiences, and there were directives from U.S. Occupation authorities to make the Japanese as human and nonthreatening as possible. Postwar films focused on beautiful Japanese women, while Japanese men, often played by white actors in ‘yellow face’ were emasculated as sexual buffoons for comic relief. The women were shown as passive and submissive creatures who needed a big strong American GI to protect them,” Kaufman said.
“Today, we can laugh at how outdated these films have become. Yet the images about Japan remain to this day. The character Koyuki played in ‘The Last Samurai’ would have been perfect for any of the postwar films.”
Some other thoughtful films made in the early 1950s address cultural issues from unusual perspectives.
“Escapade in Japan” is the adventure of a young American boy who befriends a young Japanese boy. The two travel around Japan, mostly the Kansai region, with wide-eyed wonder. The film allows us to see Japan through their eyes, without the cultural blinkers of adults.
Trivia buffs will be interested to learn that a very young Clint Eastwood has a bit part at the beginning of the film.
Kaufman is quick to point out that while the title of his screenings is “Hollywood Japan File,” and while most of the movies he shows are indeed from Hollywood, many are not.
“I use Hollywood as a pretty loose term, but I have Japan-themed films from Australia, New Zealand, England, Germany, France, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Iran, Indonesia, India and even Iceland,” he said.
“In general, I would say that films from the United States and Australia contain the most stereotypes about Japan, while the two Iranian films I have portray the Japanese most realistically. Through non-Hollywood films, you learn about how the rest of the world sees Japan, and that Hollywood’s image of Japan is often more unrealistic than elsewhere,” he said.