The Crimson Kimono’s ‘Fearless’ Japanese American Representation at a Time of ‘ The Yellow Peril’
The Crimson Kimono (1959) directed by Samuel Fuller recently caught my attention during my browse of the Criterion Channel on their ‘Columbia Noir’ list. A still of James Shigeta suave-ly smoking in an undeniably typical masculine Hollywood male lead fashion surprised me as later I come to discover that it was a film made in the 50s, was an American production, and featured an interracial romance between a Japanese-American and a Caucasian woman? Surely there must be a catch somewhere I thought. After all, this was a time when the western industry would rather cast a Caucasian actor, slap a bucktooth into their mouth, apply tangerine-ish makeup, and have them wear tea shade glasses to portray an Asian character. Forget about being a romantic lead, it is still somewhat prevalent until this day for an Asian male character in a western film to be emasculated and are left to be the comic relief.
The Yellow Peril
The 1950s was also a time where ‘The Yellow Peril‘ was pretty much a construct that still permeates the United States. It refers to the racial prejudice and stereotypes of Asians—usually through depictions of exaggerated physical traits and behavior—which are thought to be existentially dangerous to the integrity of Western society. The Hollywood’s heyday saw a lot of this usage of ‘The Yellow Peril‘ with Caucasian actors in yellowface from Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and infamously John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (1956). Yellowface is often played for laughs to the general audience but it camouflages the yellow peril discourses that “nonwhite people are by nature physically and intellectually inferior, morally suspect, heathen, licentious, disease-ridden, feral, violent, uncivilized, infantile, and in need of guidance of white, Anglo-Saxon protestants (Marchetti, 1993).
On the discussion of the emasculation of male Asian characters in popular media, this is also a prevalent talking point in the yellow peril discourse. The sexual interaction between different races are heavily frowned upon but especially for males of the minority race. After all, the portrayal of lecherous, sexually attractive Asian women seducing white men is still a common fantasy even to this day (now commonly known by the extremely derogatory term ‘yellow fever’ or ‘Asian fetish’). In contrast, there is a perceived danger in the sexual relationship of Asian men and white women as it turns into an analogy of ‘the rape of white women’ that poses a threat to Western civilization (Hoppenstand as cited in Marchetti, 1993). Knowing this, it’s quite easy to imagine how groundbreaking and incredibly provoking The Crimson Kimono would be back then.
A quick google search online found me the poster to the film and I thought my suspicions were proven correct as the taglines are perhaps the 1950s equivalent of a clickbait—sensationalized and tasteless. Nevertheless, my curiosity for the film was still high so I eventually got around to watch it a few days ago. Fortunately, my suspicions were disproven in a lot of ways; the film in some ways was incredibly progressive and the depiction of Shigeta’s character as a sexualized male lead and a love interest is commendable. I thought some depictions of Japanese-Caucasian in America solidarity and harmony were admirable to some extent as well. However, you might have noticed I put the word ‘fearless’ in single quotation marks in the title and that’s because the Japanese-American representation in the film comes with a few caveats that may very well be glaring albeit fairly understandable for the period that the film was shot in. So I will first be dicussing what I believed are things that are exemplary and then move on to those caveats I mentioned.
Progressive Representation of Japanese-Americans
The Crimson Kimono opens with establishing shots of Los Angeles traffic and skyline; into a vibrant nightlife district wherein a burlesque club is shown. A stripper by the stage name of Sugar Torch can be seen performing her routine before being gunned down by a mysterious killer. So far it’s a classic set up of a murder mystery noir flick with one quickly discernible difference: the backdrop of the assassination and where the entire film takes place at is Little Tokyo. The Japanese-American diaspora is the central point de rencontre and there is a strong presence of the integration of traditional American institutions inside the town. The police station, which I imagine to be the film’s symbol of the American order and civility, is situated in the heart of L.A’s Little Tokyo as well.
Throughout the community signs of the Japanese-American integration to the larger American society are easily felt. There is a cultural festival happening in the background while the story is taking place and the Caucasian population is kindly invited to join and even partake in appreciating Japanese art and traditions. That part is also what’s interesting; Fuller heavily emphasizes the integration of Japanese-Americans rather than their assimilation to American society. The latter would imply the gradual elimination of traces of their ancestral past and traditions to become ‘true Americans’ whereas the film celebrates the fact that Japanese-American hailed from Japan with their distinct culture and encourage them to still keep them alive. This is shown in the martial art clubs, art exhibits, and temples shown throughout Little Tokyo.
But truly the stand out of the film is James Shigeta’s role as the hard-boiled L.A cop, out to solve crimes and whoop some asses. He is not only shown to be highly intelligent and adept at his job, but he is also presented as a suave, dependable male character. He is not timid nor does he talk with a stereotypical accent. Most of the Japanese characters in the film are shown to be perfectly capable of speaking American-standard English and even then, the film did not depict the Japanese-Americans in the film who had not spoken English fluently yet negatively. Shigeta’s character is also a very rare example (unfortunately until the present day as well) of the desirable Asian romantic male lead and his romantic interest is a Caucasian woman who rejected the romantic advances of Glenn Corbett’s character to choose the Japanese-American.
Det. Kojaku and Christine’s (Victoria Shaw) relationship was also not stiff or awkward. Det. Kojaku, while heavily conflicted to be in love with the romantic interest of his best friend and a woman from a different race at first, is shown to be fully capable of making his resolve in the end. In what I imagine to be quite historical at the time, Det. Kojaku and Christine enjoyed a long, close-up, passionate kiss as their hearts are finally tied together.
Now comes the caveats I mentioned before. Essentially, the caveat is that in the process of trying to be progressive (which was, again, commendable) the film largely ignores and sweeps aside some harsh truths in Japanese-American history and also inserted a weird, faux ‘reverse racism’ of Japanese-American against the Caucasian population.
I have barely discussed the actual murder mystery case the film dealt with and that’s because The Crimson Kimono practically only used the case as a narrative device for the main characters to meet and interact with one another while the real meat of the story is the love triangle and racial tensions between the characters. But regarding the case itself, the first clues to the assassination of the stripper Sugar Torch are the Japanese-style paintings she has in her dressing room and the fact that they were concept arts for an upcoming act she was going to perform where she will be dressed in a kimono and portray a Japanese woman in an undeniably sexual act. Here, the film could have taken the time to discuss the clear example of yellowface she was going to perform or the blatant appropriation of Japanese culture in her performance but the film never truly addressed this even until the killer was found.
The still above shows a scene where Det. Kojaku met one of the informants for the case in a memorial cemetery commemorating the Nisei Japanese soldiers who fought in World War II and the Korean war. Det. Kojaku is a Korean war veteran himself and with the military recruitment advertisements scattered throughout Little Tokyo, the film tries to justify foreign military campaigns and use it as a tool to build comradery and solidarity as if the film was telling its Caucasian viewers ‘hey! Japanese-Americans fought in our wars too’. However, nowhere in the film did they mention at all that naturalized Japanese-Americans and even second-generation Nisei Japanese were put into internment camps and had all their properties and belonging confiscated—the bustling Little Tokyo they portrayed probably had a much darker past than they were letting on.
Finally, the film tries to push this narrative that perhaps racism against Japanese-Americans are a thing of the past and that at the time, maybe it’s the Japanese-Americans themselves who were being prejudiced against the well-intentioned Caucasian population. After Det. Kojaku revealed his love for Christine, he was left devastated as he believed his best friend Det. Sgt. Charlie was upset not because he lost the girl he was interested in romantically, but because Charlie lost her to him, a Japanese-American who he perceived as the inferior romantic choice. But the film quickly retconned this to be all in Kojaku’s head and that it was his prejudice and negative preconception of the Caucasians that were the cause of his worries and not the systemic racism against Japanese-Americans. The film’s happy ending, while certainly pleasant to see, also brings into question whether the film was truly trying to be progressive or was it another case of ‘alright, racism is dead now, let’s move on’. But some of these caveats I believe are products of their time and I do still believe what Fuller tried to do was truly commendable and its lasting impacts on Asian American representation can surely be felt in the industry until this day.
Marchetti, G. (1994). Romance and The Yellow Peril: Race, sex, and discursive strategies in hollywood fiction. University of California Press.