Noiring L.A.: The Crimson Kimono and Asian American Sexuality in the Age of the Cold War
"Crimson Kimono is really just a reversal of the old GI concept: 'Let's change our luck,'" Director Sam Fuller told interviewers. "That means let's go out and get some local talent, someone of a race or creed other than our own. The Japanese cop in Crimson Kimono is in a reverse position. He is involved with a white girl and wondering to himself, 'Does she want me for me or has she been dumped by some white guy and is trying to change her luck?'" 1 Certainly, in this way and in several others, Fuller's 1959 film took a very different approach from other film noir of the 1950s, and serves as useful text from which to consider changes to the genre and Southern California's racial dynamics.
In its early years just after WWII, film noir depicted the racial and sexual anxieties confronting urban America. "While law enforcement in Los Angeles and other American cities of the 1940s policed the city's racially mixed venues in their efforts to fortify the boundaries between whiteness and non-whiteness," notes cultural historian Eric Avila, "film noir sided with the law, implicating the city for its betrayal of a racialized vision of civic order." 2
Therefore, it should be no real surprise when noir of the 1950s took a "policier" turn, to use Avila's nomenclature, and the focus shifted to detectives and law enforcement figures charged with defending good citizens from urban crime, in essence serving as "the bulwark against criminal forces" infesting the nocturnal city. These new noirs [i.e. "T-Men" (1947) and "He Walked by Night" (1948)] shifted the audience's sympathies away from anti-heroes, like "Double Indemnity's" Walter Neff, toward righteous law officials and detectives -- the kind of people protecting us from Cold War dangers.
Living in Los Angeles during the 1950s meant one witnessed the rise of Chief William Parker, a no nonsense, good and evil type, focused not only on thwarting the dreams of urban felons, but also committed to rooting out communism in the burgeoning city. For Parker, communists infiltrated churches, schools, and government, a legion of subterfuge bent on undermining American society. These subversives, he argued, "furnished as much material to our screenwriters as they did to our enemy." 3 Such a stalwart figure in an era of capitalism vs. communism, right vs. wrong, the U.S. vs. the U.S.S.R, fit nicely into the new noir tropes, and promised to not only reestablish ideological boundaries, but also the lines of racial difference.
While discussions of race in many parts of the country occurred within the binary of black and white -- ignoring or flattening Asian and Latinos into an amalgam of non-white -- in the American West, Asians and Latinos had long added complexity to racial dynamics. Amid the new Cold War order, Asian Americans found themselves implicated in broader discussions of race and political ideology. American military campaigns in Asia during WWII, the postwar occupation of Japan, and the Korean War recast white Americans' idea of Asian Americans. Still, previous to these conflicts, American immigration policies had denied Asians not born in the U.S. the right to citizenship via naturalization, or in the case of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), or the Immigration Act of 1924, largely excluded Asians from even immigrating.
While some film noir suggested the threat of black Americans and integration, films like the Humphrey Bogart/Lauren Bacall vehicle "The Big Sleep" (1946) utilized Asian culture as a means to signify oddity, otherness, and criminality. In the film, Bogart's Philip Marlowe investigates pornographer Arthur Geiger (Theodore von Eltz). Identified by his "'Charlie Chan'" mustache, Geiger's Hollywood Hills abode awash in Chinese antiques leads Marlowe to comment, "There's something very queer about this one." Likewise, "T-Men" utilized Chinatown as a space of sinophobic deviance, where the counterfeiters at the heart of Treasury men's "Shanghai Paper Chase" produce their wares. One of the men in question, dubbed the "Schemer," habitually chews Chinese herbs; the blond hair paramour of the Vantucci crime ring wears silk kimonos and adorns her hair with tiger lilies. "Such Orientalized images of Los Angeles reinforced a broader perception of black cities that implicated other racial groups such as the Chinese," Avila argues.
By the 1950s however, the U.S. had occupied and rebuilt Japan, sent troops to Korea, and witnessed thousands of GIs stationed in Asia during WWII and after, come home with Asian wives. These developments forced changes in U.S. immigration policies that slowly opened the doors to Asian immigration, culminating in the Hart Celler Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Additionally, in the context of Cold War power politics, U.S. officials, and the larger public, believed that the nation needed to attract the support of Asia's peoples. Open racism toward Asians and Asian Americans, whether in the form of housing segregation or discriminatory immigration policies, undermined Cold War efforts.
Within this context of noir Orientalism and Cold War America, enter Sam Fuller's 1959 noir, "The Crimson Kimono." The story of two Korean War veterans, now partners in the LAPD homicide division -- Detective Sgt. Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett) and Japanese American Detective Joe Kojaku (James Shigeta) -- both embodies and pushes back against the kind of noir framing of the period, while also providing insight into the genre's interaction with Cold War tensions.
Born in 1912 to a pair of Eastern European Jewish immigrants in New York City, Fuller grew up absorbing the city's polyglot nature. A high school drop out, newspaper copy boy, and later tabloid writer, pulp fiction author, and WWII veteran, Fuller packed in a variety of experiences in his life. He made B-movies that challenged middle class sensibilities and pushed racial and sexual boundaries. He did "crazy" things, like casting Native Americans to play Native Americans. Facetiousness aside, parts of Fuller's "Shock Corridor" (1963) sound like a modern-day Dave Chappelle skit, as one of the film's primary characters, African-American student Trent (Hari Rhodes), collapses mentally while attending a newly integrated southern university, and comes to believe himself to be a KKK member. Clearly, Fuller liked to push buttons.
In the opening scene of "Crimson Kimono," amid nighttime L.A. traffic, an unknown assailant guns down burlesque dancer Sugar Torch (Gloria Pall). Naturally, the two detectives are called in to investigate the case. Kojaku and Bancroft share a long history as Korean War veterans from the same unit, and roommates in a swanky boarding hotel, replete with morning coffee service. At one point during the war, Kojaku even saved Bancroft's life with a pint of his own blood.
In the heat of the Cold War, few things signified loyalty to America and the right to citizenship more than military service. The exploits of black, Asian, and Latino Americans in WWII buoyed the civil rights efforts of each. African Americans returned from the war with a new vigor for integration and equal rights. For Mexican Americans, the G.I. Forum, formed in 1946, emerged in the post WWII decades as a critical force for equality. For Japanese Americans, the military service and bravery of many Nisei, who served while their own families languished in internment camps, reinforced the symbolism and importance of their contributions. In several scenes of "Crimson Kimono," posters advertising for military service can clearly be viewed in the background. In these ways, the movie highlights wartime sacrifices of the nation's Japanese Americans and, by extension, other minorities as well.
The movie focuses intently on the fusion of Japanese and American culture. In fact, the dancer Sugar Torch had been working on a new Asian-themed act, leading the detectives to believe that the culprit for her death had been somehow connected to her through this cultural exchange. Their investigation leads them to USC student and artist Christine Downs (Victoria Shaw), who provides the police with a sketch of the alleged assailant, an older man named "Hansel" (Neyle Morrow). Inevitably, Downs ends up in trouble as the villains attempt to knock her off, leading the two detectives to take her into their own home, undoubtedly one of the stranger LAPD decisions of past decades.
Predictably, Downs, a pleasant looking young white woman, attracts the attention of both men, though Bancroft asks her out first and openly moons for her. Kojaku too finds Downs fetching, but, out of duty or loyalty, suppresses his feelings, which eventually leads to tensions between the partners. Eventually, Downs falls for Kojaku. Rather than fall back on racist stereotypes, if anything, the movie privileges Japanese Americans as noble and brave. When Bancroft and Downs discuss Kojaku in an earlier scene, upon hearing of Kojaku's wartime exploits, Downs comments breathlessly, "Are all the Nisei heroic?"
Perhaps more questionable might be the film's posters that made such statements as "YES, this is a beautiful American girl in the arms of a Japanese boy!" and "What was his strange appeal for American girls?" Shallow and exploitative? Yes. Still while certainly essentialistic, many would agree, even if a cheap and crude play at interracial sexual titillation, an improvement on previous stereotypes.
Nor, as previous films had done to Chinatown, does the movie exoticize Little Tokyo, which Bancroft and Shigeta's police precinct borders. Bancroft invites Downs on a date for Nisei week and describes it more or less like a big party: "parades, bands, and gorgeous girls in kimonos" -- again not quite exempt from accusations of essentialism, but not the stuff of Edward Said's Orientalism either. During his investigation, Kojaku spends a good deal of time in Little Tokyo, interacting with its residents going about their daily tasks, notably George Yoshinaga (Bob Okazaki). We first encounter Yoshinaga visiting his son, a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient killed in action during the Korean War, at his grave in Boyle Heights' Evergreen Cemetery, and soon after at an annual Buddhist service honoring the young man's memory. When Kojaku turns to the elder Yoshinaga for love advice, the man first asks him to speak in English, and then advises him, simply eschewing any stereotypical Asian adages, or haiku-like answers. In other words, Fuller attempts to distinguish Little Tokyo, but not in any exoticized way; these are just normal Americans going about their business.
In a climactic scene, in which Bancroft and Kojaku face off in the annual Nisei Week-sponsored kendo fight between the local white and Japanese dojos, Kojaku loses his cool and pummels Bancroft, to the horror of both Japanese American and white observers. When Kojaku reveals his love for Downs afterwards, Bancroft, understandably hurt, becomes angry, and Kojaku interprets his reaction as racism, rather than a friend that felt betrayed. "You mean you want to marry her," the dazed Bancroft asks. "You wouldn't have said that if I were white," Kojaku retorts, "What burns you is that you lost her to me."
Kojaku's belief in Bancroft's racism is portrayed by Fuller as paranoia on the part of the Japanese American detective. When Kojaku demands Bancroft apologize, his partner responds, "I apologize when I'm wrong, not when you put words in my mouth." When discussing Bancroft's alleged prejudice and their own relationship with Downs, Kojaku asks that for all Bancroft and he had been through, "[i]f he feels like that then what can I expect from you?"
Kojaku also articulates concern about his wider identity. "I was born here. I'm American, but what am I," he asks plaintively. "Japanese, Japanese American, Nisei?" Later, Kojaku admits Bancroft's racism was all in his mind. Fuller's purpose in this construction, he later explained, was to point out that even though Kojaku had overcome racism, he failed to fully overcome his own prejudices. "He's the one with the bigoted ideas, not his partner. He's the one who suspects people of being racists while acting like one himself." 4
Of course, one might point out that, in this instance, Bancroft wasn't racist, but at the time Kojaku wouldn't have been crazy for wondering, especially since the intersection of racism, patriarchy and sexuality often led white men to commit acts of violence in the name of protecting "their women" from non-white suitors. Less than a decade prior, white homeowners in SoCal continued to articulate fears of interracial sexuality as a reason to resist housing integration by Asians and blacks. 5 Moreover, the two villains in the movie, the white Asian-culture expert Hansel and his partner, the Caucasian manufacturer of Asian wigs Roma Wilson (Jaclynne Greene), represent, one might argue, the dangers of interracial mixing. Though as it turns out, the murder had less to do with cultural exchange and more to do with psychological paranoia.
To his credit, Fuller never fully heals the friendship between Kojaku and Bancroft. "I hate those pat, anti-racist movies of the Fifties with those long suffering Joes who let a pal have the girl without a fight," Fuller noted in interviews. For all its progressive thinking on race and gender, the film remained bound to typical ideas about heterosexual relations and masculinity. "This was about two things: I am pissed because you took my girl, and although I may know about all the things that are good and noble about Japanese and their culture, why did she pick you over me, did I lose her straight up?" 6
With civil rights movements in full gear, and a burgeoning counterculture previewed by the Beatniks of the 1950s, "Crimson Kimono" represents an end point (1958's iconic and more famous "Touch of Evil" would be another) in classic film noir that ultimately led to the neo-noirs of the 1970s. The ambiguity assigned to rogues like Walter Neff had infiltrated even the lives of the LAPD and federal agencies. Racial difference in relationships, no longer prohibited, moved forward, even if haltingly and with apparent hang-ups.
"It was all in my mind," the killer at the heart of "Crimson Kimono" confesses to the police in the film's conclusion. Noir too seemed to be wrestling with its own impulses regarding race and sexuality, but unlike the killer, whose psychological turmoil occurred internally, these debates now unfolded undisguised in full public view.
1 Samuel Fuller, interview with Robert Porfirio and James Ursini in "Film Noir Reader 3: Interviews with Filmmakers of the Classic Noir Period," Eds. Robert Pofirio, Alain Silver, and James Ursini, (New York: Limelight Editions, 2002), pgs 44-46.
2 Eric Avila, "Pop Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles," (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004), pg 81.
3 Dennis Broe, "Genre Regression and the New Cold War: The Return of the Police Procedural," Journal of Cinema and Media, vol. 45, #2 (Fall 2004), pg 91.
4 Samuel Fuller, interview with Robert Porfirio and James Ursini in "Film Noir Reader 3: Interviews with Filmmakers of the Classic Noir Period," Eds. Robert Pofirio, Alain Silver, and James Ursini, (New York: Limelight Editions, 2002), pgs 44-46
5 Charlotte Brooks, "Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends: Asian Americans, Housing, and the Transformation of Urban California," (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009) pg. 204.
6 Samuel Fuller, interview with Robert Porfirio and JamesUrsini in "Film Noir Reader 3: Interviews with Filmmakers of the Classic Noir Period," Eds. Robert Pofirio, Alain Silver, and James Ursini, (New York: Limelight Editions, 2002), pgs 44-46