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July 11, 2017

Japanese War Bride

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King Vidor - 1952
Nostalgia Family DVD

While I was a student at New York University, I also had the opportunity to be a student volunteer at the Film Study Center of the Museum of Modern Art. One of the perks was having free museum membership which allowed me to see films at the museum. In the Fall of 1972, there was a retrospective devoted to King Vidor. I didn't see everything, with school and other films occasionally taking priority. And then there was the word that one film that could have been included was specifically not be shown. I never found out his reasons, but Donald Richie made the request that Japanese War Bride not be part of what would have been the most complete retrospective of King Vidor's films. For those who might not be familiar with him, Richie is the one credited for his books that introduced Japanese film to English speaking cineastes. And credit is deserving, although it took me years to discover several worthy filmmakers that he chose either to disparage or completely ignore. As far as Japanese War Bride goes, it never appeared at any New York City revival house, nor appeared on any late night television broadcast. I finally shelled out a few dollars to get a somewhat passable DVD, a couple degrees better than what's often available for films that have fallen into public domain.

The title is misleading in that the film is about the Japanese wife of a an American soldier who was fighting in Korea. Tae and Jim meet in the hospital where Tae is a nurse, and Jim is recovering from his unspecified wounds. The two marry, and move to Salinas, California, where Jim's family has a farm. The drama comes from the varying degrees of acceptance of Tae to the family and the community, with Jim's sister-in-law the cause of much of the trouble.

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While Donald Richie would undoubtedly be more sensitive to how Japan and the Japanese would be presented, I still could not be certain what caused his objections. Jim is shown to have some cultural awareness by knowing to remove his shoes before entering the home of Tae's grandfather. The grandfather threatening to kill a couple of monkeys, claiming they are part of a religious ritual, deliberately plays on the assumed cultural ignorance of Jim and by extension, a western audience. Considering how badly Asians have been presented in Hollywood films, Japanese War Bride mostly works to demolish stereotypes. If anyone looks bad, it's the white people, especially the always foolish Woody, played by a character actor with the unfortunate name of George Wallace, and Fran, Jim's sister-in-law, played by eternal bad girl Marie Windsor.

In his book on Vidor, Raymond Durgnat explains that Vidor took up Japanese War Bride when another planned project, also with a rural setting fell through. Even setting aside the racial elements to the story, Japanese War Bride can be seen as comfortably fitting in with other Vidor films, beginning with Beyond the Forest (1949) and Lightning Strikes Twice (1951), and ending with Ruby Gentry (1952). All four films take place in rural or country settings, and revolve around women who act as a disrupting force within a small community.

I have no idea if Japanese War Bride even played in southern theaters. Laws barring interracial marriages were in place in some states prior to Loving vs. Virginia. The rules imposed by the Motion Picture Production code regarding miscegenation specified relations between black and white actors, although it was also the reasoning behind having white actors in yellow face. Don Taylor and Shirley Yamaguchi not only kiss twice, but are seen doing so very clearly in close up which probably caused a stir for some people at the time. On the other hand, the characters are very indirect when discussing World War II, the internment camps, and racial laws that were directed to Japanse-Americans.

Durgnat has described Japanese War Bride as impersonal compared to other films directed by Vidor. And this may not stand as one of King Vidor's better films, but I'm glad I saw it, if for one near perfect shot. Following a family argument for which she feels responsible, Tae takes a walk away from the farm to a relatively open field. Jim catches up with her. To the left of the screen is a single tree that is shaped like a giant bonsai tree. It's as if the all the ideas about different cultures were encapsulated in a single image.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 11, 2017 07:24 AM