A LITTLE TOKYO TIME CAPSULE: ‘The Crimson Kimono’ Reaches a New Fan Base

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James Shigeta (left) and Glenn Corbett (right) interrogate a suspect (played by Neyle Morrow) in a scene from “The Crimson Kimono.”

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

The 1959 film noir classic “The Crimson Kimono” was recently screened at the Japanese American National Museum, exposing a new audience to a cinematic portrait of Little Tokyo as it was more than 50 years ago.

The screening was part of “Night and the City: L.A. Noir in Poetry, Fiction and Film,” a series of events produced by the Los Angeles Poetry Festival and Beyond Baroque.

Directed by Samuel Fuller, “The Crimson Kimono” stars James Shigeta and Glenn Corbett as LAPD detectives Joe Kojaku and Charlie Bancroft, who have been friends since they served together in the Korean War. They are literally blood brothers because a transfusion from Joe saved Charlie’s life.

While investigating the murder of a stripper named Sugar Torch, their friendship is threatened when they both fall in love with a key witness, artist Christine Downs (Victoria Shaw). Joe begins to wonder if Charlie has feelings of racial prejudice after all.

The film was discussed from two perspectives by Alan K. Rode of the Film Noir Restoration Foundation, who is an expert on Fuller’s works, and Naomi Hirahara, author of the Mas Arai mystery series and several books about local Japanese American history.

“Fuller’s work invariably reflected the personal stamp of his varied background and his energetic personality,” Rode said. “… Serving in combat in World War II with the Big Red One (1st Infantry Division) in Europe … was really the defining experience of his life. He was wounded, very well decorated. He was there when one of the concentration camps was liberated.”

Rode quoted Fuller, who died in 1997 at age 85, as saying, “Film is a battleground. Love, hate, violence, action death — in a word, emotion.”

“There was nobody like Sam,” Rode added. “The late Cliff Robertson told me that Fuller did actually fire a starter pistol in the air while making the movie ‘Underworld USA’ (1961) rather than calling ‘Action!’ … That was the kind of guy he was.”

Fuller’s widow, Christa, was invited to speak at the screening, but was unable to attend.

Mystery author Naomi Hirahara and film noir expert Alan K. Rode. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

Rode described “The Crimson Kimono” as one of Fuller’s most distinctive films. “An urban murder mystery highlighted by a love triangle involving a Japanese American and a Caucasian American woman simply was not done in Hollywood during the 1950s … It was only 14 years after the end of World War II. Fuller absolutely loathed the reflexive societal racism that permeated the fabric of everyday life in America back then … So he employed racism as a thematic motif for the picture, but he did it in a way that no one really expected.”

The head of Columbia Studios, Sam Briskin, was nervous about the film’s content, Rode said, especially since it had to be marketed all over the country, including the Midwest and the Bible Belt.

“Even the critics that liked the movie weighed in, with one of them writing that star James Shigeta’s ‘clean-cut look’ dissipated the shock of watching him kiss co-star Victoria Shaw,” Rode noted.

But because Fuller kept production costs down and his films made a profit, the studio “would pretty much let him alone and he could kind of travel under the radar and put his own stamp on his films,” Rode said.

The Hawaiian-born Shigeta, a Korean War veteran in real life, became a successful nightclub singer in Japan, where he learned to speak Japanese. His career as an entertainer in the U.S. was launched by an appearance on “Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour.” Both he and Corbett, who was an actor while attending college in Los Angeles, made their film debut in “Crimson Kimono.” Shaw was from Australia and was said to have been discovered by Bob Hope.

Shigeta was the romantic lead in other films, including “Flower Drum Song” (1961), and continued to act in such films as “Lost Horizon” (1973), “Die Hard” (1988) and “The People I’ve Slept With” (2009). He lives in Hawaii. Shaw passed away in 1988, Corbett in 1993.

Samuel Fuller in 1987

“The Crimson Kimono” serves as “a virtual tour of where we are right now half a century ago … Never has downtown L.A. and specifically Little Tokyo been more distinctively displayed on the big screen,” Rode said. “After delving into Japanese culture on location with his film ‘House of Bamboo’ three years previously, Fuller also provided audiences with cultural insights, which was really unfamiliar exotica for 1959 audiences, such as karate and kendo.”

Rode pointed out some of the low-budget aspects of the movie. “The story is written so they were all in this hotel room (which served as Joe and Charlie’s apartment) together. There was no squad room, there was no car pulling up to the detective bureau … He didn’t have the money to do all of that …

“The opening of the film where Sugar Torch gets shot, Fuller just filmed that running down the sidewalk without any warning whatsoever. He just set everything up and had her run and people were wondering what the hell was going on.”

Gloria Pall, who played the murder victim, recently appeared with Rode at a Hollywood screening of “Crimson Kimono.”

Familiar Faces and Places

Hirahara noticed that during the screening, people in the audience shouted out the names of actors in the movie that they recognized, including George Yoshinaga, who played Willy Hidaka, an associate of Sugar Torch. “He writes a column right now for the Rafu Shimpo, which I edited at one time, ‘The Horse’s Mouth,’ and he’s pretty notorious.”

She also noted that one of the characters was named George Yoshinaga. Played by the late Bob Okazaki, he visits his son’s grave at Evergreen Cemetery and attends a memorial service at Koyasan Buddhist Temple. During the cemetery scene, a monument to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team is shown, including quotes from Gen. Mark Clark and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower about the valor of the Nisei soldiers.

Hirahara appreciated the inclusion of these local landmarks. Located in Boyle Heights, Evergreen in particular is “so meaningful to people of color and Japanese Americans,” she said.

A member of the audience said it was interesting and educational to see Maryknoll Japanese Catholic Center (in a scene where Joe talks to Sister Gertrude, played by Aya Oyama) and other parts of the neighborhood as they looked before gentrification.

Hirahara agreed, saying, “I think it has a lot of value as a historical document. I don’t know how many moving images we’ve really seen of that time period of the Little Tokyo area. There were certain businesses  — I recognized their names.”

Asked about Fuller’s connection to Little Tokyo, Rode explained, “He grew up in New York but he spent the balance of his life in Los Angeles and he loved the city, he loved downtown L.A. … He really felt that cultural connection … He really believed that the cultural aspect of the story and the reality of it and all the things he put in there were something that needed to be told about Los Angeles. He was looking to tell a different kind of Los Angeles crime story.”

Hirahara added that in the scenes where Shigeta speaks Japanese, it is proper Japanese. “That’s shocking to me because we’ve seen modern films and they just massacre the language.”

Rode said that “Crimson Kimono” is part of a DVD box set called “The Sam Fuller Collection.” “It’s very interesting, I have it and there’s a couple movies on there that you can’t get (elsewhere). For people who like to see downtown L.A. back in the day, there’s a movie called ‘Shockproof’ that was made in the late ’40s that was filmed all over downtown L.A. with Cornel Wilde. The Bradbury Building was used … There’s another movie, ‘Scandal Sheet,’ with Broderick Crawford, Donna Reed, John Derek, Harry Morgan … That’s a really entertaining movie. It has a lot of Sam’s good films on there and it’s well worth watching.”

He observed that for many people in the audience, watching “Crimson Kimono” for the first time was “a sentimental journey home.”

Earlier in the day, Hirahara discussed her novels in conversation with poet Carol Lem. Like the movie, Hirahara incorporates various aspects of the Japanese American community into mystery stories.

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