Guest Blog Post: Monique Tackles Sayonara and The Teahouse of the August Moon

13.4.12 ShaSha LaPerf 2 Comments

Yo everyone! Ugh, I've been crazy busy again. :( But I'm working on some new blog post, which hopefully I'll get around to posting tomorrow on Sunday. In the meantime, I've got a guest blog post from Monique, who blogs about race and culture in the entertainment world. Monique has reviewed to old school films about Japanese-American relations. I haven't gotten a chance to see these films yet. LOL then again Kung Fu Panda 2 has been sitting in the unopened Netflix envelope for at least a month now (why the hell am I paying $17 for this). Anyway, on to the reviews:

Originally, I was going to review these two movies separately. However I thought it might be better to review them together because they have many of the same problems as well as many of the same positives (and the same actor). Let's get into Sayonara first.

Sayonara now available in the Moniqueblog Amazon Store! 
Synopsis (TCM): American soldiers in post-war Japan defy convention when they fall in love with local women. My thoughts: This movie is one of my favorite movies, not only because Marlon Brando is one of my favorite actors, but because there's just so many layers to this film, some of which I'm sure the director didn't intend to put in. I think the best way to break this down is to talk about the positives first and the negatives second.

Positives: *Marlon Brando--To me, Marlon Brando is way at the top of the Best Actor in Hollywood list. Granted, the film I'm going to talk about below, The Teahouse of the August Moon, is a big misstep, but minus that film, his catalog of films is highly impressive. Even better is that he was a very socially-conscious person--the lapse in judgement about Teahouse notwithstanding, but more on that later. Example of his consciousness with Sayonara (according to TCM):
Brando also, according to the Hollywood Citizen-News article, requested that a Japanese actress fill the lead role. In the article, Goetz reported that they had difficulty finding a Japanese actress who could master the English language in time for the production and that they were "seriously thinking of [casting] Audrey Hepburn or Jennifer Jones." In a March 1957 Variety article Logan said that Hepburn read the script several times, but refused the role because she was "terrified of...acting and thinking like an Oriental." Miiko Taka, who was cast, was a Los Angeles-born Nisei and, at that time a non-professional and, according to Logan, "the biggest chance we took."
How irritating is it that casting a Japanese-American woman in a film based in Japan was "the biggest chance we took"? But thanks to Brando, we have her in the film.

*Miiko Taka and Miyoshi Umeki--I touched on Taka being in the film already, but I was so glad that she and Miyoshi Umeki were the lead and supporting actresses of the film and not white actresses. They really helped ground the film and make the story feel more authentic as well as helping pave the way for Asian actresses in the late '50s. Also, Umeki became the first Asian performer to win an Academy Award (hers was for Best Supporting Actress).

*The love stories--Sayonara has love stories that I actually don't mind seeing. They have a lot of heft to them, I think. I was going to say that the relationship between Red Buttons' character Joe and Umeki's character Katsumi was the strongest relationship, but I think both their story and the story between Brando's Major Gruver and Taka's Hana-Ogi were about equal.

*The locale--There a lot of beautiful shots of Kobe, Hyogo, Japan in this film, and it increased my desire to travel abroad to visit. The beauty of Kobe also puts the love stories--love forbidden due to underlying national tensions, discrimination and racism--into even better focus.  

*The play on gender and sexuality--the most intriguing part about this film is the intense subplot of gender, sexuality, and love. Gruver falls in love with Hana-Ogi, who is the star of a Takarazuka-style company. She specializes in playing male characters (a.k.a. an otokoyaku), and its during one of her performances that Gruver falls in love with her. Alternatively, Eileen Webster (played by Patricia Owens) falls in love with Nakamura (Ricardo Montalban) during his Kabuki performance, in which he playing a female character (he's a onnagata or oyama, a type of Kabuki actor that specializes in female performances). Joshua Logan is the director, and apparently, he added a lot of gay subtext not just to Sayonara, but also to other films and stage productions such as All-American, Picnic and more. Even more interesting is that Brando himself has said he's bisexual, and said in a 1976 interview, “Homosexuality is so much in fashion it no longer makes news. Like a large number of men, I, too, have had homosexual experiences and I am not ashamed. I have never paid much attention to what people think about me.” You can read more about the Takarazuka Revue here.

Negatives: *Ricardo Montalbán as Nakamura--While Montalbán is another one of my favorite actors, I don't get why he had to play Nakamura. Perhaps the stereotype that "Asian men aren't sexy" was in play, especially since Montalbán had already been typecast as a "tall, dark and handsome" type. Being a Mexican actor, he already had a lot of ish to deal with when it came to proper representations of Mexicans in Hollywood films, so it's highly ironic that him being in the role of an Asian man would do the same thing he probably experienced to Asians in film. Also, AsianWeek has a comprehensive list of yellowface in Hollywood, which includes Montalbán's portrayal of Nakamura. In their blurb about the film, they highlight that while Montalban is well aware of what kind of role he has and is trying to make sure he does right by it, there's still a lot of flaws to Nakamura:
As a Latino actor with a social conscience, Montalban does his best to make his character three-dimensional, but there’s only so much any actor can do with a supporting role that’s wallowing in stereotypes. Following in Hollywood’s long tradition of feminizing Asian men, Nakamura is a Kabuki actor who specializes in playing female roles, acting as a counterpart to the alpha Caucasian males played by stars Marlon Brando and Red Buttons. The film is not without its merits, though, best represented by the late Miyoshi Umeki’s Oscar-winning performance as a doomed Japanese war bride.
Interesting Thing: *The stereotype of the submissive Asian female?--Now, I'm not saying this movie is intentionally doing it. To some people, it's not doing it at all. I myself am not fully on board with this argument either, however I just thought I'd point out that some could possibly make the argument that the film, while not intentionally trying to show a stereotype of Asian females, might have helped perpetuate the idea in Hollywood. However, we have to keep in mind that this film is trying to portray Japanese culture in a three-dimensional way, so the onus of any racial/cultural stereotypes is on the person viewing the film. Basically, the culture of Japan--specifically how the Japanese expect a proper woman to act--has been misconstrued by Westerners to mean that they're basically submissive slaves to men. However, if you're set to make first argument about submissive stereotypes, you're welcome to contact me to write a guest post about it. Overall, I really like the film. Even with its flaws, there's a lot right in my book.

Now onto The Teahouse of the August Moon.

The Teahouse of the August Moon now available in the Moniqueblog Amazon Store! 

Synopsis (TCM): An Okinawan translator introduces U.S. occupation forces to the joys of local life. My thoughts: Now, overall, this film is all right. It's merely okay. The biggest problem I have with this film , which is a satire on America's occupation in Japan, is that it tears me apart inside because Brando's in yellowface. So let's get into it, shall we:

Negatives: *Marlon Brando as Sakini--Similar to the Montalbán/Nakamura situation, Brando is intent on making a 3D character out of Sakini, however, making this film was, in retrospect, not a good decision. According to TCM's Lang Thompson:
The role of Sakini had been played by David Wayne on Broadway, but since he had little track record in movies, the part went to Marlon Brando who had loved the play so much he saw it three times. Brando intended to use some of his salary to finance a United Nations film program in Asia. True to his reputation, he worked on making his role as authentic as possible, studying the motions and spoken accents of real Okinawans though he had to adapt the language slightly to be more intelligible to American audiences.
Also, according to TCM:
Contemporary sources noted Brando's intense preparation for the role of Sakini, which included spending a daily regime of two hours in makeup and several hours studying Japanese. Many contemporary reviews praised the performance of Brando, who was playing against type in the comic role. The Hollywood Reporter review stated, "Brando gives one of the most skillful impersonations in recent memory," and the BHC review called his Sakini "one of the greatest performances ever seen in the long history of the screen." Other reviewers, however, noted that he was physically larger than the slight Okinawan character seen on stage, and modern critics criticized his performance, as did Brando himself in his autobiography, in which he points to his feuds with Glenn Ford as creating an atmosphere of grandstanding.
AsianWeek gave the review most people might be thinking about Brando taking on that role:
At the premiere of the 1958 Jerry Lewis film The Geisha Boy, Brando allegedly chastised Lewis for showing up dressed as an “Oriental,” complete with rickshaw in tow. But Brando had no qualms about appearing in this film about the American attempt to “civilize” post-World War II Okinawa. Brando may have been our greatest film actor, but even that wasn’t enough to elevate his performance as an Okinawan to anything beyond weird curiosity.
I wish that Brando hadn't done this role, because some people now think of him as a hypocrite. He stood up for the rights of minorities, yet took on this role. I believe I heard Robert Osbourne say on TCM that Brando took this role, as he did with many of his more controversial roles, in order to prove a point. I think in this case, he was trying to prove that the Japanese people could be portrayed in a less hysterical manner than they've been portrayed in the past. However, the better thing for Brando to do would have been to avoid this role altogether and champion an Asian actor (a HOT Asian actor) to have the role, much like how he did when he wanted an Asian actress to play opposite him in Sayonara. This film was only a year before Sayonara, so maybe a year made a difference in thinking, I don't know. But anyway, enough deciphering that, since what's on celluloid is what people are judging. The short answer is that the role was not a Marlon Brando role.

 *A cut-off ending--I wish that if we're going to spend so much time on the beginning and the middle of the film there would be a longer ending. The ending is just so abrupt, as if they were close to running out of film or someone just got tired of writing the screenplay or something. Some scene should have been there, because a few of the characters who are opposed to the teahouse make too quick of turnarounds.  

Interesting thing:
* Lotus Blossom--Machiko Kyô plays Lotus Blossom, a geisha who becomes extremely attached to Glenn Ford's Capt. Fisby. The film does have a scene which explains that Lotus Blossom is not what Purdy thinks--a prostitute. The scene does explain that she is an entertainer, not an oiran, who also wear white makeup like the geisha. Also, see the above concerning Sayonara for anything about female images in Hollywood.  

Positive:
A love for showing the "true" Japan--Despite the craziness in this film, there is a true want to show the true culture of Okinawa in this film. The heart of the film is innocent, which kinda begs you to stay with the film, even when it wanes and even with Brando in yellowface. Overall, you can watch this film for what it adds to the "Asian images on film" discussion, but it's just an all right film.

2 comments:

  1. SAYONARA is my favorite movie too. I also think your analysis of the movie was Perfect.
    The Entire Cast and Crew were superb.
    I thought Joshua Logan's Direction and Ira Berlin's Soundtrack (words and music) ...Genius!

    *Footnote - Miiko Taka gave a Cameo Appearance in 'The Tea House of the August Moon."



    Anonymous aka Jeffreyvv@prairie.ca

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