THROUGH THE FIRE: Little Tokyo in the Movies

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By BILL WATANABE

She caught me by surprise — a beautiful young woman was waving and smiling at me!

I was standing on the corner of Second Street and San Pedro Street in front of the Union Bank building in Little Tokyo, waiting for the traffic signal to change. I heard a woman behind me shout out “Hi there!” I looked to the right and there, about 25 feet from me, was a stunningly beautiful blond Caucasian woman smiling and waving at me! She was wearing a very sexy outfit and walking directly towards me!

I had no idea who she was and why she was coming towards me, but I felt this tremendous pressure to try to say something fitting for an occasion like this. My mind was blank and I started to raise my hand to wave back at her when she started to run and rushed past me!

That’s when I noticed there was a film crew across the street and she was an actress being filmed as she was calling out to another actor across the street! I was temporarily embarrassed at myself – and then was glad I didn’t actually wave at her! I hope I didn’t spoil the scene, but this is life in L.A., the movie-making capital of the world!

James Shigeta with future Rafu columnist George Yoshinaga in a scene from “The Crimson Kimono” (1959).

One day, I was in the Japanese Village Plaza and there, in front of the Mitsuru restaurant Imagawayaki window, was Billy Crystal and a film crew shooting a scene for a movie. On another occasion, I saw actor Arnold Schwarzenegger being filmed riding in a convertible that was sitting on a trailer going up Second Street at Los Angeles Street. Arnold has a big head and I could spot his profile from half a block away!

Sean Connery in the movie “Rising Sun” once portrayed a former LAPD cop who lived in Little Tokyo and was supposed to speak fluent Japanese. It was fun to watch a mystery movie about JA’s in L,A. but I was distracted and disappointed in Connery’s miserable attempt to speak Japanese. It was really bad — it was embarrassingly bad. He should have practiced more on his pronunciation, but I suspect he assumed it wouldn’t matter much to most of the viewers.

Of course, the classic movie made in Little Tokyo is the 1950s B-movie called “The Crimson Kimono,” which is a murder mystery that takes place during Nisei Week and stars an up-and-coming actor named James Shigeta who plays an LAPD cop. Unfortunately, even though it was a movie ahead of its time in featuring an Asian American setting and an Asian American lead actor, not a lot of people actually saw it.

Alice Cooper appears in “Prince of Darkness” (1987), a horror movie shot at the old Union Church building.

Another film came out called “Showdown in Little Tokyo” with Dolph Lundgren and Brandon Lee (deceased son of Bruce Lee), which also used Little Tokyo as a backdrop; it would have been more watchable if the story and acting had been better.

There are snippets or scenes of movies, such as the Bruce Lee story filmed at the Far East Café, and a Robert Mitchum movie (“Farewell My Lovely”) where he portrays the detective Philip Marlowe also shot at the Far East Café. Speaking of the Far East Café, the biographical film made by the Little Tokyo Historical Society about civil rights hero Sei Fujii was filmed at the Far East to portray a 1930s Little Tokyo gambling den.

Brandon Lee and Dolph Lundgren starred in the violent “Showdown in Little Tokyo” (1991).

For the past two Halloween seasons I have been leading a “Little Tokyo Ghost Tour” and one of the popular highlights is the horror cult classic “Prince of Darkness” by John Carpenter (it’s amazing how many people know about this movie), which was filmed at the old Union Church when it was run-down and abandoned – just right for a horror film!

Part of the fun and glamor of living in LA is to occasionally catch a movie or TV show or even a commercial being shot in our streets – and maybe even having a ravishing beauty waving at you!

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Bill Watanabe writes from Silverlake near Downtown Los Angeles and can be contacted at [email protected] The Rafu Shimpo’s management and staff continually strive to maintain high editorial standards for professionalism as well as accurate and balanced news coverage. The inclusion of a particular piece, including columns and op-ed submissions by contributing writers in print and/or digitally, does not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the owners, management, individual staff members, and editors. The Rafu Shimpo welcomes responses to any article published in print or digitally. Responses may be sent to author directly or emailed to [email protected]

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