Tomorrow marks what would have been the 88th birthday of a Hawaiian-born entertainment icon of Japanese ancestry, who studied drama at New York University, cultivated a burgeoning singing career in Japan and Australia, and had the startling good fortune to break into the movies as a tough but tender leading man under the guiding hand of the formidable director Samuel Fuller. With striking good looks, a thoughtful demeanor and a soothing voice, James Shigeta (1929-2014) made his movie debut as one of the three points of a romantic triangle in Fuller’s bravura, culture-clashing Los Angeles noir crime thriller The Crimson Kimono (1959), lensed by the great Sam Leavitt (fresh from his Academy Award®-winning stint on The Defiant Ones and his soon-to-be Oscar®-nominated work on Anatomy of a Murder) across many city locations, including a bustling Little Tokyo during a Nisei Festival celebration. Shigeta and Glenn Corbett (also co-starring in his first movie) play LAPD detectives and Korean War veteran buddies Joe Kojaku and Charlie Bancroft, assigned to investigate the slaying of a burlesque dancer named Sugar Torch, gunned down in the street by a mysterious, missing assailant. As the partners follow divergent paths to interview witnesses, including an eccentric bohemian artist (Anna Lee) and a combative, burly bruiser at a local pool hall (martial artist George Okamura, whom Fuller recruited as the film’s uncredited stunt coordinator), they start focus upon the beautiful woman who painted a portrait of Sugar Torch in a crimson kimono found near the crime scene. Fuller cast Columbia contract player Victoria Shaw (co-star of the Twilight Time titles The Eddy Duchin Story (1956) and Edge of Eternity (1959)) as Christine Downs, who subsequently becomes the killer’s target and an object of romantic attraction to both cops. In his autobiography A Third Face, Fuller wrote that he “wanted a normal-looking yet classy actress to play the role of the white artist who falls for the Nisei. Victoria Shaw as poised and steady at all times, with Romy Schneider-like beauty. She was a far cry from the flaming-hot blondes who were so popular back then.” And the matter-of-fact depiction of the Shigeta character’s as an everyday Asian American proficient at his job and open to romance was also a far cry from the cinematic norm.
As Lisa Dombrowski writes in her detailed 2008 study The Films of Samuel Fuller: If You Die, I’ll Kill You: “Charlie is revealed to be a rough-edged ladies’ man, Joe more arty and professional minded. Christine is the force that divides the two men and causes them to question their loyalties, but she poses a different problem for each: she makes Charlie jealous, but Joe fearful: is the displeasure he sees on Charlie’s face the sign of suppressed racism? Joe’s fear is understandable, but unsupported; the film’s Caucasian characters…are all immersed in Japanese culture and never view Joe as a man set apart. Even Christine’s attraction for Joe has nothing to do with ‘difference;’ rather, she considers him to share her artistic, intellectual side. This is the twist to the story: not only is the romantic triangle solved with the Nisei getting the Caucasian girl, but in the end, no one bats an eye. Fuller’s refusal to play the ‘a colored man is dating my daughter!’ card is incredibly bold for 1959 and refreshing even today.” The film doesn’t stint on the Fuller trademarks of sudden, blunt-force action but its creator balances it with quieter moments that generate their own intensity. Blake Lucas’s essay in Film Noir: The Encyclopedia observes: “The violence in the film, notably Charlie and Joe’s fight with a huge Korean and the chase down Little Tokyo’s streets amid the masked figures of the Japanese festival, reflects on the film’s themes of celebratory racial unity countered by Joe’s ambivalence toward his culture. Some sequences, such as Joe playing the piano for Christine, are directed in an unobtrusive manner while at other times, as during the Kendo match [between Charlie and Joe], Fuller appropriately accelerates the pace of his cutting. His close-ups maintain their expressiveness, particularly in the striking moment of Joe’s changing look as he holds Roma and listens to her dying words. The final shot of Joe and Christine in a feverish kiss is erotically charged.” For another fascinating take on The Crimson Kimono, try Ryan Reft’s 2013 KCET.com exploration here: https://www.kcet.org/history-society/noiring-la-the-crimson-kimono-and-asian-american-sexuality-in-the-age-of-the-cold. With this modesty budgeted romantic action thriller, the movie and TV career of the future star of Walk like a Dragon, Bridge to the Sun, Flower Drum Song and the sold-out TT title Lost Horizon (1973) got off to a roaring, running start. Shigeta won a Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Newcomer five months later and, as shot out of the career-launching cannon by the straight-shooting Fuller, never looked back. The Crimson Kimono hard-charges onto TT hi-def Blu-ray July 18. Preorders open July 5.