“… James Shigeta has matinee idol good looks and a soothing baritone voice that should send the record companies mad for his autograph on recording contracts.” — A smitten reviewer from The Sydney Morning Herald. 23 March 1958
I’ll never forget how exciting it was when Miiko Taka and James Shigeta would come to St. Marys Episcopal Church. The atmosphere would be charged. Staid Nisei women were giggly and secretly swooning over Shigeta, and Nisei men were trying to act nonchalant and not stare at the beautiful Miiko Taka. They were our acting royalty.
Miiko Taka was starring as Marlon Brando’s love interest in “Sayonara” and James Shigeta was breaking new ground for Asian American actors as the romantic lead in “The Crimson Kimono.” Eye candy.
“Crimson Kimono” is a ’50s noir detective story set in Little Tokyo. The film is groundbreaking. It features an interracial love triangle, the first involving an Asian male romantic lead and a white woman. And Shigeta’s character gets the woman (who wouldn’t choose him?). He’s hip, handsome and doesn’t speak with a fake “Oriental” accent.
A key “character” in the film is 1950s Little Tokyo. The film is chock full of your family’s favorite places in Lil Tokyo. After seeing the film, you’ll wind up sitting around reminiscing. And did I mention film noir? It’s one of Quentin Tarantino’s B-movie favorites. A free screening of “Crimson Kimono” will take place this weekend.
You can’t talk about “Crimson Kimono” without talking about James Shigeta. He was for a time the biggest Asian U.S. star this country had known. A real heartthrob. Our first romantic leading man to cross racial lines. Today when we think of James Shigeta, we usually think of his roles in “Crimson Kimono” (1959), “Flower Drum Song” (1961), “Die Hard” (1988), and “Mulan” (1998).
So I was intrigued to find he was multi-talented – standards singer, Broadway musical theater, nightclub performer, recording artist, as well as actor. I was fascinated by the circuitous road his career took. And how emblematic it was of those times.
Singing. He started off as a singer, winning first place in Ted Mack’s popular television talent show. His agent at the time gave him the stage name of “Guy Brion” to pass him off as a “cultured European.”
After enlisting in the Marines during the Korean War, he wound up in Japan, where Toho Studios groomed him as a musical star under his real name. He became known as “The Frank Sinatra of Japan,” winning success in radio, television, stage, supper clubs, movies, and recordings.
In 1958 the Nichigeki Theatre in Tokyo exported their extravaganza “Cherry Blossom Show” to Australia with Shigeta as the male lead. The show was a great success and won lasting fame for Shigeta in Australia.
With these successes behind him, Shigeta returned to the U.S. to sing on “The Dinah Shore Show,” and in 1959 Shirley MacLaine picked him to star in “Holiday in Japan” at the New Frontier Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Still, he wanted to act.
Movies. “The Crimson Kimono” was a Shigeta’s acting debut in the U.S. in 1959. A year later, he won the Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Newcomer – Male.
That year, Paramount Pictures and James Clavell cast Shigeta in “Walk Like a Dragon” as Cheng Lu, a young Chinese man in the American Old West who resents that Chinese must be subservient to white people. When filming began, Shigeta was still starring in “Holiday in Japan” in Las Vegas. An arrangement was made to transport him after his last show to the Paramount studio by ambulance to make sure he arrived on time. His co-stars were Nobu McCarthy and Jack Lord.
For James Shigeta,1961 was a peak year. He co-starred in “Cry for Happy” with Glenn Ford, Donald O’Connor, Miiko Taka and Miyoshi Umeki in a tale about U.S. Navy photographers in Japan during the Korean War era.
Later that year, Shigeta starred in “Flower Drum Song” with Nancy Kwan and Miyoshi Umeki playing the love interests. It won an Academy Award nomination.
Shigeta continued to push boundaries. That same year he was cast as World War II Japanese diplomat Hidenari Terasaki opposite Carroll Baker in “Bridge to the Sun,” a true story of a racially mixed marriage.
After starring in “Paradise, Hawaiian Style” with Elvis Presley, he began to work more in television.
But he continued in film, including a 1976 portrayal of famous Japanese admiral Chūichi Nagumo in “Midway”; and corporate executive Joseph Yoshinobu Takagi in the 1988 action film “Die Hard” with Bruce Willis.
The highs and lows of James Shigeta’s career seem emblematic of this country’s changing interest in films with Asian themes. Last July 28, 2014 we lost James Shigeta, who was 85; but his quiet integrity in breaking color barriers and stereotypes to play strong, romantic, no-fake-accent leading roles will remain with us.
The screening of “The Crimson Kimono” will be hosted by the Little Tokyo Historical Society on Sunday, May 15, at 2 p.m. at the Japanese American National Museum’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum on First and Central in Little Tokyo. In keeping with the character of the film, a presentation on “The State of Little Tokyo Today” will follow. Online reservations are no longer available; rush line only — please arrive early.
You can also stop by the Support Rafu Shimpo table to subscribe and chat with their staff.
Worst Nightmare Department: OMG, it happened! Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee for president. I was kinda looking forward to a brokered Republican convention…
But instead, Ted Cruz dropped out, shortly followed by John Kasich. An anticlimactic ending for the California Republican delegates who were looking forward to finally becoming a factor in the primary schedule.
But here’s the nightmare. Did you know that when someone becomes the nominee for a major party, they start getting classified briefings on crucial intelligence issues from the CIA? This means America must now give Donald Trump secrets about U.S. and overseas operations.
As Trevor Noah agonized, “This is the same man who gave out Lindsay Graham’s private phone number because he thought it was funny… and it was. But there’s a big difference between Lindsay Graham’s phone number and the location of SEAL Team 6.”
I hope we wake up soon.
Miya Iwataki has been an advocate for communities of color for many years, from the JACS Asian Involvement Office in Little Tokyo in the ’70s, through the JA redress/reparations struggle with NCRR while working for Congressman Mervyn Dymally, to statewide health rights advocacy. She also worked in public media at KCET-TV, then KPFK Pacifica Radio as host for the weekly radio program “East Wind.” She can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.