Hollywood Japan File

8 June 2006
picture: Hollywood Japan File


Hollywood can't get enough of Japan. In the past three years we've seen Lost in Translation, Kill Bill, The Grudge, The Last Samurai and Memoirs of a Geisha (not to mention Into The Sun, a Steven Seagal yakuza flick that went straight to video). The Japan fixation continues with a bunch of upcoming releases including The Grudge 2, Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift, Tokyo Suckerpunch (starring Tobey Maguire), Tokyo Boogie, Sakura: Blue Eyed Samurai, Drawing Restraint 9 (starring Björk), Return of The Ninja (Sho Kosugi is back!) and The Visitor, an obon horror film starring Calico Cooper, who has a rock star pop named Alice. Further down the road is Get 'Em Wet (written by Punk'd operative Dax Shepard) about two hot tub salesmen who travel to Japan to break into the local market.

Whenever a high profile film such as Memoirs of a Geisha is released, glossy news magazines run articles on how Hollywood is "turning Japanese." The authors always include familiar titles such as Sayonara, Black Rain, Bad News Bears Go To Japan, The Yakuza, Rising Sun and My Geisha (you know, the one where Shirley MacLaine dresses up like a geisha to fool her husband). Years ago I tried to write a similar article until I realized that there have been over a hundred of these movies since the end of WWII. I've tried to collect them all, everything from forgotten student films to Bollywood classics. Here are some of the most unusual and obscure films I've found along the way. My personal favorite is House of Bamboo, the 1955 noir directed by Samuel Fuller, which was finally released on DVD last year.

Oriental Evil

George P. Breakston and C. Ray Stahl
Byron Michie, Martha Hyer

George P. Breakston was a child actor who appeared in movies such as Great Expectations and later turned his hand to directing low-budget movies. He is probably best remembered for his 1960 cult film The Manster. Breakston and his partner, C. Ray Stahl, must have seen the potential of making low-budget films in Japan during the U.S. Occupation. Filming in post-war Japan meant that there was no need to build expensive sets. The exotic locale would make even the thinnest of B-movie plots seem intriguing. Breakston hashed out three films in rapid succession: Oriental Evil, Geisha Girl and Tokyo File 212 (According to Tokyo File 212 composer Albert Glasser, Breakston's wife Irene was born and raised in Japan. Her father, a wealthy businessman, wired Breakston $100,000 to make a movie in Tokyo so he could see his first granddaughter.)

Oriental Evil introduces Unmei, the ghost of fate that appears only to truly evil men. A gaunt Japanese actor with bulging eyes plays Unmei and the primitive special effects must have seemed creepy to audiences in the early 1950s. The Beggar of Fate, a raggedy old man who goes around picking up discarded cigarettes, aids Unmei. If he fails to pick up a cigarette, it means that the person who smoked it is marked for a violent death.

We then meet the main character, Roger Mansfield (Byron Michie), a smarmy chain-smoking British expat who comes across as the biggest prick ever to set foot in Japan. He treats his pregnant Japanese wife as little more than servant and later kicks her in the stomach after a three-day drinking binge. Martha Hyer plays Cheryl Banning, a young woman who has traveled to Tokyo in order to clear the name of her brother, who was framed and murdered by a man named Thomas Putman. Mansfield tells Cheryl that she is in great danger and convinces her that he is the one person that can help her find Thomas Putman. Building on a series of lies, uses his oily charm and dry wit to seduce her.

Thomas Putnam is no Kaiser Soze and it doesn't take a genius to figure out his identity. Most of the suspense in Oriental Evil comes in waiting for Mansfield to meet his fate, which he does quite literally. Mansfield sees Unmei for the first time in a crowded bar and invites the ghost to sit down and have a drink. In the unlikely event that Hollywood ever decides to remake Oriental Evil, the role would probably be given to someone like Jeremy Irons or Alan Rickman, but even those fine actors would not be able to pull it off as well the mysterious Byron Michie, a six foot eight Australian who also had a small role in Tokyo File 212.

Tokyo File 212

Dorell & Stuart McGowan
Robert Peyton, Florence Marley, Katsuhiko Haida

Tokyo, Japan, 1951. The last outpost of democracy in the Far East. The Korean War rages a stone's throw across the sea and occupied Japan faces the biggest threat since World War II ended and the Cold War began. Reds. Pinkos. Marxists. Maoists. That's right, communists, and only one man can stop them: Jim Carter (Robert Peyton), an intelligence officer sent by the U.S. government to battle the Red Menace.

Carter arrives in Tokyo posing as a journalist in order to "bust things up wide open" and find "the number one comrade in Japan." The man he is looking for just happens to be his old college roommate from the States, Taro Matsuto (Katsuhiko Haida). Carter arrives in his hotel one day to find a woman named Steffi Novak (Florence Marley) sleeping in his bed. She explains that she's a stateless person (implied to be White Russian) who makes her living doing odd jobs and translation for foreigners staying in Tokyo. She comes on strong and the dialog is thick with innuendo. Carter is tempted but he's not so sure that he can trust Steffi and her sexy foreign accent. Robert Peyton is a dull actor, but he mastered the art of giving a quizzical look by raising his left eyebrow. Carter asks Steffi to help him find Taro and she takes him on tour of popular nightspots in Tokyo. Cinematographer Herman Schopp beautifully photographs the streets and back alleys of Tokyo, and you can feel the sin and excitement in the air.

They end up at the "most rat hole in Tokyo", a sleazy den of iniquity that is off limits to allied personnel. The grimy basement bar is filled with people from the lower echelons of Japanese society: tattooed yakuza, fallen geisha, sweaty day laborers and a drunken sumo wrestler with a crude face painted on his body--someone's idea of a cheap laugh. Everyone is singing and dancing and the alcohol is flowing freely. There's even a scantily clad woman doing a hula dance on top of a table. (Tom Waits would have loved this place.) The moment Steffi and Carter enter the premises everything comes to an abrupt halt, like a needle being yanked off a record, and the music literally stops. Their dirty world has been invaded by clean-cut 1950s morality and they want nothing to do with it.

Carter finds Taro living on the premises and later discovers why he became a subversive. Taro was trained to be a kamikaze pilot. There's a hilarious flashback scene straight out of a wartime propaganda film. Taro is shown at kamikaze training school learning the proper way to crash an airplane into a destroyer. Two students are even called to the front of the class to give a demonstration using a model airplane! We learn why Taro cracked: "When an ordinary student graduates they get a diploma. When a kamikaze pilot graduates, he is given funereal rites." Carter discovers that the crime syndicate is planning to sabotage U.S. troops in Korea and use a labor strike to throw Japan into a state of disarray. There's also a timely subplot involving a character whose sister has been abducted by North Koreans.

Producer George Breakston had to pull a few strings to get permission to make this movie; the Civil Education Section of the Occupation government tightly regulated the entire Japanese film industry at the time. The end credits state: "Tokyo File 212 was made with the approval of The United States Department of Defense, The United States Army Far East Command, The Japanese Government and The Tokyo Metropolitan Police." Several U.S. military personnel, including a high ranking official in GHQ, appear in the film. It's also no coincidence that Tokyo File 212 was released the same year that the House Un-American Activities Committee was grilling suspected communists in Hollywood.

Violated Paradise

Marion Gering
Kazuko Mine

picture: scene from 'Violated Paradise'Marion Gering got his start in Hollywood directing star vehicles in the 1930s with marquee names such as Carole Lombard, Tallulah Bankhead and Charles Laughton, including the 1932 version of Madame Butterfly with Sylvia Sydney and Cary Grant. Gering could not match the success of his early films and later had to take work overseas towards the end of his career. One of the films he made during this period was Violated Paradise, an Italian co-production filmed entirely in Japan that has joined the ranks as one of the greatest mondo films of all time.

The film opens in Hokkaido. Tamako (Kazuko Mine) is an innocent maiden living in a remote Ainu village who is very proud that she was "brought up more like a Japanese than an Ainu." She thinks that the ancient ways of her village are primitive and sets out to leave for Tokyo. She stops at Ama Village, home of the Awabi diving girls, and has a short-lived romance with a handsome fisherman whom she calls a "man god" before leaving for the big city. Most of Violated Paradise was shot like a documentary: Kazuko Mine was the only professional actress in the film and she didn't really have to do much more than interact with the people in her surroundings since she didn't have a single line of dialogue. The filmmakers later dubbed in cheesy English narration by someone named Paulette Girard, who tried to mimic a Japanese woman with laughable results.

The whole tone of the film changes from a G rated Disney fable to an R rated exploitation flick once Tamako arrives in Tokyo. An unseen male narrator named Thomas L. Rowe goes into a very bad Raymond Chandler-meets-Dragnet impersonation that is wickedly entertaining: "Tokyo, crossroads of the east, city of 39 races, 30 styles of cookery, and 56 ways of making love, of 82 basic odors and 80,000 stinks, of 12 kinds of dirt and 34 vices. One of the most fascinating places in the world, Tokyo. Always new and always old, where the paradise that is Japan can and does get violated." Where did they get those statistics? Has the number of stinks and odors changed in the last 40 years? Man, I'd hate to be the one to have to verify that information.

Thomas L. Rowe goes on to say, "In Japan, men divide their women into categories. One: respectable women - delicate, docile, exquisitely tender creatures. Two: those of the profession... Tokyo has at least 80,000 hostesses and geisha. You'll find them between the sewers and the flowers. And very few of them are flowers. The rest are wherever they can drop their mats. Here the real geisha is reduced to a shadow of herself, retaining but one thing in common with a geisha of the arts: the art of lovemaking" This guy is severely pissed off and disgusted by all the vice going on in Tokyo, but it sounds like he's secretly been to every one of the places he rails against.

The narrator finally shuts up and we're back to the story of Tamako. Seems like our heroine has gotten herself in a bit of trouble. She was so eager to rid herself of the "ancient Ainu ways" that she took a job as an apprentice geisha thinking that pouring sake for drunk salarymen would make her more "Japanese". Well, Miss High and Mighty apparently didn't realize she is only an ersatz geisha, one who is expected to perform special services for preferred customers, and playing the samisen ain't one of them. Will Tamako remain a "flower" or will she end up in the "sewer" of filth and vice? The filmmakers didn't seem to care, just as long as it gave them an excuse to show more scenes of topless Awabi diving girls and mixed bathing at an onsen in Atami.

We'll probably never know whether Violated Paradise was originally intended to be made as a serious documentary or not. It includes priceless footage of Ainu customs and ceremonies, which were unseen by most people outside of Japan at the time.

Trivia: Violated Paradise is based on Meeting With Japan by Fosco Mariani, a long out-of-print book published in 1959.

The Silent Stranger (Lo Straniero di Silenzio)

Luigi Vanzi
Tony Anthony, Lloyd Battista

Tony Anthony was a struggling American actor who went over to Italy and starred in a series of Spaghetti Westerns that featured a character called "The Stranger", basically a poor man's version of Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name. This particular one takes place in the 19th century, just after the Civil War. The Stranger has a run-in with bandits who are attempting to rob a young Japanese man of an important scroll. The Stranger manages to kill the bandits, but the young Japanese man is shot. He tells The Stranger that the owner of the scroll will pay him $20,000 for its return. The Stranger and his trusty horse board a ship for Japan. He gets off the boat to find that things in feudal Japan are not much different than in the Wild West. Two corrupt warlords have been vying for control of the village and both parties claim that the scroll is rightfully theirs. The Stranger realizes that the only way to save his hide is to play both sides against each other.

Sound familiar? Yes, this is yet another remake of Yojimbo, but with an interesting cross-cultural twist of having a gunfighter battle samurai in Japan. Despite its meager budget, Silent Stranger is a lot more fun to watch than overblown gunk like Last Samurai. It's a shame that the only way to see this is on a ninth generation bootleg. Somebody needs to put out an official DVD release soon.

Karate, The Hand of Death

Joel Holt
Joel Holt, Frank Blaine

picture: scene from 'Karate, The Hand of Death'Karate, The Hand of Death was made with the full cooperation and support of the Japan Karate Association. Karate was not very popular outside of Japan at the time and they probably figured a Hollywood film would do wonders in introducing the martial arts. Boy, were they wrong!

For some reason producer/director Joel Holt (The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield), who had never acted in films before, decided that he was going to be the star of his movie. Holt tried to ape tough guy actors Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum, but his stooped posture and receding hairline made him look like Ed Sullivan attempting to do a Sam Spade imitation.

Holt, um, stars as Matt Carver, an American karate expert who was raised in Japan and fled the country at the outbreak of World War II. Carver returns to Tokyo for the first time in 18 years after receiving a photo of Toshiko, the woman he loved and who supposedly perished during the war. Toshiko is the daughter of a highly respected karate teacher who trained Carver and treated him like a son after his parents died in a Japanese prison.

Carver comes into possession of a rare coin that puts his life in danger. An Englishman named Ivan Mayberry (Frank Blaine, who steals the movie), a 6' 8" 230 pound tub of lard, shows up at Carver's hotel in pursuit of the coin. Mayberry was the confidential secretary and companion of the coin's previous owner, Otto Blucher, a former Nazi official who was murdered and robbed in Tokyo. Mayberry is an affable buffoon and Carver warms up to him, hoping to find more about the origins of the mysterious coin.

Joel Holt had absolutely no skills in karate and was pretty bad at faking it. All he could do was muster a few pathetic chops and grunts. The fight scenes are hilarious. Carver kills a Nazi (who bears a very strong resemblance to Dr. Evil) by throwing a batch of straw (!) at a speeding car. During a confrontation with two thugs he simply faints. Is there any wonder why this movie didn't start a martial arts craze?

Karate, Hand of Death has some great footage of Tokyo in the early 60s, including a nightclub scene with a voluptuous stripper and a back alley chase that ends up in a sleazy Turkish bath house. It also has an incredible jazzy score, performed by Minoru Miki who also scored Nagisa Oshima's erotic classic In the Realm of the Senses.

The Double Garden

The Devil's Garden
Revenge of Doctor X
Ed Wood's Venus Flytrap
Kenneth G. Crane
James Craig, James Yagi

picture: scene from 'The Double Garden'Here's a nice little rarity... a movie that was written by Ed Wood and filmed in Japan. Ed Wood wrote a script in the 1950s about a man-eating plant called Venus Flytrap, which he never got around to making. Somehow the script ended up at Toei Studios, where it was directed by Kenneth G. Crane, who specialized in Japanese-American co-productions such as The Manster.

The film is shrouded in mystery. There are no credits and nobody is sure of the actual title. Officially, it is listed as The Double Garden, which may have been mistranslated into The Devil's Garden (or likely vice versa). The movie was shelved for many years until being released on video by a dodgy company that retitled it Revenge of Doctor X and repackaged it using artwork and credits from an unrelated Filipino zombie film called Mad Doctor of Blood Island. Whew!

The Double Garden stars James Craig, an aging Clark Gable look-alike who made a name for himself in Westerns. Craig plays Dr. Bragan, a stressed-out NASA scientist who cannot control his volatile temper. Craig really hams it up, ranting and raving at anyone who dares to cross his path. A colleague named Dr. Nakamura (James Yagi) suggests that Dr. Bragan take a much-needed vacation to Japan. Bragan is intrigued. He studied to become a botanist in collage and always wanted to visit Japan to study plant life but "THEN THE WAR CAME ALONG AND IT ALL BECAME ABOUT MATH MATH MATH"

Bragan brings a venus flytrap plant to Japan in order to prove his whacked out theory that human beings are descended from plants. Upon arriving in Tokyo, Bragan meets Noriko (actress unknown), the beautiful cousin of Dr. Nakamura, who offers to work as his assistant at her father's abandoned resort hotel, which is located next to a volcano. Bragan's scenes with Noriko are hilarious. One minute he is absolutely charming and the next minute he is ranting and raving like a mad lunatic.

The Japanese soil causes the venus flytrap to grow rapidly and Bragan plans to graft it to a giant carnivorous underwater plant found only found in the Japan Sea. A bevy of topless diving girls are hired to bring up the plant from the bottom of the ocean but Bragan doesn't seem to notice the gratuitous nudity. His mind is only on one thing, his Frankenstein-like experiment that will create a new life form: half-man, half-plant. The experiment that follows contains some of Woods best (or worst) dialogue ever: "Your mother was the earth," he shouts at his creation. "The rain is your blood, the lightning is your power!"

The plant-creature turns out to be a man in a rubber flower costume standing in a big flowerpot, a sight that can only be appreciated by people on very powerful hallucinogenic drugs. The "Planster" has to be fed small animals to satisfy its thirst for blood, but the creature gradually develops a taste for human flesh. Only the mind of Ed Wood could come with such a travesty, but it's nice to know that his bizarre genius found its way to the shores of Japan.


Alex March
Zero Mostel, Keiko Kishi, Gawn Grainger

Mastermind, an obscure made-for-TV movie originally filmed in 1969, is a parody of Mr. Moto/Charlie Chan movies, which featured "oriental" detectives played by Caucasian actors in yellowface. While they are considered racist and offensive today, they were very popular with audiences in the 1930s and 40s. Zero Mostel plays Chief Inspector Hoku Ichihara of the Kyoto Police Department. Inspector Ichihara's crime solving skills has given him great notoriety and his opinions are often sought out by world leaders. Inspector Ichihara has a loyal assistant, an Englishman named Nigel Crouchback (played by Irish actor Gawn Grainger) who seems to have a great deal of authority and responsibility even though he cannot speak a word of Japanese.

Inspector Ichihara may have a brilliant mind, but he certainly has his share of quirks and hang-ups. He often fantasises about being a great samurai warrior who is able to fight off 50 men at once. Inspector Ichihara has also been infatuated with a women named Nikki Kono (Keiko Kishi) for many years, but she refuses to marry him. She's a modern woman who owns a trendy nightclub called The Black Dragon, and dresses in the latest fashions imported from Swinging London. It's the late 1960s and she's not going to throw away her fabulous lifestyle to marry an overweight detective who expects his wife to walk three steps behind him at all times.

Inspector Ichihara investigates the murder of six guards at a toy factory by thieves who were trying to steal an android named Schatzi, a technological wonder worth millions that was invented by a German scientist named Professor Klaus, a former Nazi who is being pursued by two Israeli agents. Inspector Ichikawa is shocked to learn that Nikki may have gotten involved with a Swiss businessman who wants Schatzi for himself. Then there's a mysterious American agent named Link, who wants to use the technology to bolster the U.S. military. The plot really doesn't matter because Mastermind is a total farce, similar to many of Mel Brooks' movies (although the jokes are not nearly as funny).

Mastermind may have been a low budget TV movie but the loopy soundtrack and unusual special effects, which make excellent use of stop motion techniques, gives it a strange and surreal feel. The Schatzi character was especially creepy. At first I thought it was a real doll or a ventriloquist dummy, but the android was played by Felix Villa--a 3'11" actor who played Cousin It on The Addams Family and appeared in dozens of films including Return of The Jedi and Batman Returns. Hearing him sing was one of the strangest things I have ever seen on film; it freaked me out. The soundtrack by Fred Marlin is fantastic and aspiring DJs in search of interesting source music should track it down.

Domo Arigato

Arch Oboler
Jason Ledger, Bonnie Sher

picture: scene from 'Domo Arigato'Domo Arigato is a 3-D movie filmed on location in Japan in the early 1970s that did not resurface for close to 20 years. The movie was directed by Arch Oboler, a Chicago native who got his start in radio in the 1930s where he became known as an early pioneer of sound effects. Oboler moved on to motion pictures and directed the first 3-D feature film, Bwana Devil, which was a hit when released in 1952 and is now (barely) remembered for being a lousy movie with excellent special effects. His next couple of films bombed and Oboler packed up his equipment and headed to the Japan hoping that audiences had a yen for seeing the Land of The Rising Sun in glorious 3-D, a process he called Space Vision.

The movie's scant plot revolves around two Americans who meet while traveling through Japan: Tara (Bonnie Sher), a 19-year-old college student from Kansas who wants to see as much of the beauty of Japan as she possibly can (for reasons revealed at the end), and Doug (Jason Ledger), a bitter ex-GI on his way home from a tour in Vietnam who has no interest in taking in the historical sites of Japan ("This whole George Washington slept here bit ain't for me!") Doug resembles a young David Hasselhoff and spends most of the time hitting on Tara with corny lines ("Does that turn you on?" he asks while watching a potter mold clay) and pestering her about her passion for sightseeing ("You really have an orgasm about scenery!").

The acting is horribly wooden, especially Bonnie Sher, who seems to have gotten the role because she just happens to have the same last name as the executive producer. Coincidence? I think not. It is fun, however, to watch Doug's ugly American behavior go from bad to worse. In one scene he causes a meltdown inside a temple and breaks a 300-year-old bow and arrow from the Edo period in front of a mortified priest. He also ends up in a bath with a young Japanese woman whom he picks up at a nightclub in Ginza that features nude dancing (in 3-D no less!) Depending on your tastes, Domo Arigato is either the 1970s predecessor to Lost in Translation or a painful way to spend 90 minutes wearing those annoying 3-D glasses.

Love in Tokyo

Pramod Chakrovorty
Joy Mukherji, Asha Parekh

This Bollywood classic was shot on location in Japan shortly after the 1964 Olympics. The story starts off in India where Ashok (Joy Mukherji) is being pressured to marry a woman he doesn't love. His elderly mother asks him to travel to Tokyo to pick up his eight-year-old nephew, a recently orphaned boy named Chikoo whom Ashok has never met because his family disowned his older brother after he married a Japanese woman.

Ashok arrives in Tokyo only to discover that Chikoo has no intention of going to India, a country he has never seen before. Ashok hopes to win his nephew over by taking him on an expensive shopping trip, but the boy escapes when his attention is diverted by a beautiful woman named Asha (Asha Parekh), whom he sees performing a traditional Indian dance on television. Asha was also orphaned as a child and raised by her uncle in the Indian community of Tokyo. Asha's uncle wants her to marry a man she despises, a boorish, chain-smoking airline pilot named Pran. Asha runs away after she discovers that the two men have cooked up a fiendish plot to get their hands on her sizable inheritance.

Chikoo and Asha both end up in the same hiding place and form an alliance against their uncles. Asha protects the boy by posing as a bearded Sikh until she realizes that she has fallen in love with Ashok. She later pretends to be Chikoo's Japanese aunt in order to win Ashok's heart without being discovered. The movie has a subplot involving a friend of Ashok's named Mahesh (popular comedian Mehmood) who comes to Tokyo to marry a woman from a higher class. There's a hilarious scene where Mehmood fools his potential father-in-law by posing as an "international geisha" who just happens to speak Hindi fluently.

The film contains two of the most beloved songs from Indian cinema: "Love in Tokyo" by Rafi Mohamed and "Sayonara" by Lata Mangeshkar. The latter is the reason that Japanese tourists in India are often greeted with a cheery "sayonara sayonara".

Bombay to Nagoya (Aye Meri Bekhudi)

Chanchal Kumar
Anil Bakshi, Priyanka, Prem Chopra

Vijay (Anil Bakshi) is a tough cop in Bombay who foils a major drug deal between Indian gangsters and the Japanese yakuza. The leader of the gang, Danny (Prem Chopra), retaliates by ordering a hit on the policeman. Vijay narrowly escapes but both his parents are killed in an explosion. Vijay follows Danny to Nagoya in order to exact his revenge. He is pursued by thugs on motorcycles and there is a bloody swordfight in which scores of yakuza die.

Amazingly, the plot and several scenes are very similar to Kill Bill (Kill Danny?), but it is unlikely that Quentin Tarantino ever saw this obscure movie. The stunningly beautiful Priyanka plays Vijay's love interest and some of the song and dance numbers pay tribute to Love in Tokyo. The film was produced by long-term Nagoya resident Lalit Bakshi, owner of the popular Indoya restaurant, and took over eight years to complete. Only a handful of foreign films have been made in Nagoya (Mr. Baseball being the only major one) and this movie serves as a love letter to a city that doesn't seem to get enough respect. Bombay to Nagoya is highly regarded by Japanese fans of Bollywood movies and many have made a pilgrimage to Nagoya to seek out locations used in the film. Masala in Hokkaido, a Japanese website devoted to Indian films, has extensive information about "Bongo", as it is lovingly called.