Thursday, July 23, 2015

Review - The Barbarian and the Geisha

July 23, 2015

Barbarian and the Geisha, The – US, 1956

Everyone remembers the firsts – the first person to sail around the world, the first person to break the sound barrier, the first person to set foot on the moon. Their names are etched in the history books or carved onto plaques. But what about the people who came after them? Their exploits are no less impressive, and in some cases, their tasks were much harder. They had to carry on a legacy or ensure that what was gained was not so quickly lost. Prior to watching John Huston’s beautifully-filmed The Barbarian and the Geisha, I was aware of Commodore Matthew C. Perry, who is credited with helping to end Japan’s 200-year period of isolation, yet if you’d asked me who Townsend Harris was, I would not have been able to tell you. 

Townsend Harris was a 19th century New York City merchant who was sent to Japan as its first Consul General in 1856, two years after Commodore Perry’s arrival. For the Japanese, Harris’s arrival was not an occasion for pomp and circumstance, for they had not forgotten just how Japan had been opened up – through gunship diplomacy. Therefore, for the next eighteen months, Harris’s efforts to gain an audience with the Shogun in Edo, present-day Tokyo, were thwarted time and again. The hope seems to have been that he would just concede defeat, pack up, and leave. Fortunately, history turned out differently.

This chapter of Harris’s life is the central focus of Huston’s film, and it tells it rather well. Helping it greatly is the fact that the film was actually shot in Japan, just 13 years after the end of the Second World War, which gives the film a visual authenticity that a film shot on a Hollywood lot or in an American countryside would not. The film also goes out of its way to avoid the caricatures and stereotypes that so many other movies have relied on to create laughs or villains over the years.

The film is anchored steadily by the legendary John Wayne, and casting him in the role of Harris was a bit of a masterstroke. First, it practically guaranteed that the film would find an audience; more importantly, Wayne played steadfast determination perhaps better than anyone else in Hollywood at the time, with the possible exception of Henry Fonda and Cary Grant, and it is that quality that Harris must have relied upon in the eighteen months he had to wait to complete his mission. Perhaps more impressive is Wayne’s ability to convey Harris’s vulnerability to the audience. Here is a man thousands of miles from home, and if something were to go wrong, it would be quite a while before anyone back home discovered it. There are moments in the film when we see in Wayne an awareness that the strength he has to complete his job could be the very thing that gets him killed.

As with other films associated with Huston and Wayne, The Barbarian and the Geisha is filled with its share of memorable moments. Chief among them are a scene in which Harris stands in front of a cannon just before it is set to fire upon an approaching ship and another in which Harris goes around setting village houses alight in order to rid the area of cholera, a disease which, in the film, he inadvertently causes to enter Japan. Later in the film, we marvel at the sight of a procession marching from Shimoda to Edo, the purpose of which is to give Harris face and to create the impression that he, as well as the country he represents, is worthy of acceptance. Late in the film, there is also a stirring speech, powerfully delivered by Wayne, that addresses both 19th-century and post-World War II Japan. In it, Wayne extends the hand of friendship to Japan and asks it to accept outsiders and take its rightful position in the world. It would have been just as powerful a message in Harris’s time as it was in 1956. (Apparently, cholera did indeed strike Edo from 1858 – 1860, resulting in an estimated 200,000 deaths. However, there is no mention on Harris’s Wikipedia page of his having played a part in its origin or eradication.)

Two other characters are worth mentioning. The first is the governor of Shimura, Tamura, excellently played by So Yamamura. Tamura perfectly captures the split in thinking that must have been prevalent in Japan at that time. He is wary of western influence and prefers to keep things they way that are, yet he also seems to recognize – with dread, I might add – the signs of unstoppable change. Yamamura plays this character as a man with dignity, a good man who just happens to find himself on the wrong side of history. His conversations with Wayne are fascinating. Also of note is Harris’s interpreter, Henry Heusken (Sam Jaffe). It is his job not only to interpret what people say but also why they say it, and Jaffe plays the role with great steadiness. Also, his Japanese isn’t half bad either.

I have neglected thus far to mention the geisha, and for good reason. In the film, the geisha is named Okichi (Eiko Ando), and it is this character that narrates the film. It is also through her that we see the change that is possible if only people are willing to give Harris a chance. Ando does all of this very well, and it is hard for me to believe that this is the only movie she ever made. However, the film’s biggest flaw is its suggestions of a romance between Okichi and Harris. Wayne and Ando are hardly even allowed to touch each other, and as such they have very little screen chemistry. Part of the reason for this can likely be traced to the Hayes Code, which forbid physical contact between onscreen interracial couples, and so instead of holding hands, hugging, or giving in to their attraction, they just stand there, while Wayne delivers corny lines implying a connection and a love that the audience will likely not see any evidence of.

There is another reason why this part of the film might not be as moving as it should be – there is actually little evidence to support it. According to Wikipedia, Okichi was likely only Harris’s housekeeper for three days. It is therefore doubtful that she ever put her life on the line for Harris, but when given two competing narratives, one dull and uninspiring and the other romantic and moving, which would you rather run with? To Hollywood, it’s a no-brainer, and to be fair, Okichi is a very interesting character and pivotal to the film’s exciting finale. However, I would say her inclusion in the film has much more to do with the influence of Puccini than anything that ever happened in real life. (on DVD)

3 and a half stars

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