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Fall Sneaks

Through Western eyes

ln U.S. films, the Japanese have moved from geisha to yakuza to simply foreign in a winding love-hate affair.

September 07, 2003|Scarlet Cheng | Special to the Times

Tokyo's Ginza rushes past the windows of a car in flashes of neon, both fascinating and befuddling the giddy foreigners taking it in. As Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation" (opening Friday) affectionately observes the megalopolis and its inhabitants through the eyes of two disoriented Americans, it becomes the latest in long list of post-war films that have registered our shifting feelings about Japan and the Japanese.

Refined, exotic, erotic, evil -- every era has its take.

The American Occupation and the reconstruction of Japan brought with them a call for a certain openness and benevolence, embodied by the classic Joshua Logan film "Sayonara" (1957), starring Marlon Brando and based on James Michener's bestseller. This landmark melodrama encouraged tolerance for interracial marriage and relationships -- and even seemed to promote them, at least for white men and Japanese women, showing the former as ardent suitors and the latter as desirable brides. Various other films of the '50s, including "The Teahouse of the August Moon," "The Barbarian and the Geisha" and "Geisha Boy," also called for interracial understanding.

"Geisha" appeared in many American film titles, and geishas in numerous films from the 1950s through the early 1960s. The geisha/Japanese woman and her delicate, seductive arts seemed to epitomize what we were supposed to appreciate and love about our protectorate across the ocean.

But as Japan rose to become an economic superpower, overtaking Americans in areas like electronics and automobiles, the romance quickly cooled. While we had a grudging respect for their accomplishments, we began to demonize Japanese teamwork as group-think and maniacal devotion to collective goals.

Perhaps it's no accident that English-language films about ninjas and yakuzas (Japanese gangsters) were proliferating in the '80s and '90s -- with such novel titles as "Enter the Ninja" and "American Yakuza."

However, American attitudes were rarely purely pro or anti. Even films that ostensibly meant well fell into attitudes of condescension, especially when it came to Japanese women, who were cast as desirable exotics. In the post-war era, American men clearly enjoyed the stereotypical depiction of them as subservient to men, smiling and silent as they catered to their partners' every whim.

"Sayonara," while calling for tolerance, also views the Japanese woman (so quiet, so subservient) as clearly superior to her American counterpart (so demanding, so loud). The Brando character, Maj. Lloyd, on R & R in Japan, doesn't start out with this appreciation. As the movie opens, he's trying to persuade another soldier to give up his Japanese girlfriend -- by showing him a picture of his own fiancee.

"I believe maybe you've forgotten what an American girl looks like," Brando says. "This girl I'm going to show to you is first of all an American girl -- a girl with fine character, a girl with good background, good education, good family, good blood."

Soon afterward, though, the good major breaks off his long-standing engagement -- to take up with a Japanese stage actress. He has fallen in love with Hana-Ogi-san after watching her perform in the theater. Of course, the object of his affection is no mere chorine, but in fact, the star of the show, adored by thousands of fans -- a fitting partner for an America hero.

In "Geisha Boy" even a goof like Jerry Lewis, playing an American magician performing for the troops in Asia, falls for a Japanese woman, while the American woman (Suzanne Pleshette in a thankless role) is left on the sidelines, wondering what in the world Japanese women have got that American women don't.

Hilariously enough, the "American men prefer geishas" attitude is transferred to the 19th century in 1958's "The Barbarian and the Geisha," in which John Wayne, playing a diplomat to Japan, keeps a geisha at his residence (sans hanky-panky, of course) and, yes, falls in love with her.

What these Asian women have got is a starring role in the male fantasy that women were put on Earth to serve and please them -- so there's no contest when they're placed in the same arena with the independent, assertive American woman. This message was especially popular in Hollywood in the 1950s, that period of postwar macho revival, when the boys had come home from battle and wished to claim their due at the workplace and at home.

Feminism and economics slowly changed the picture over the decades. Enter the ninja/yakuza.

In many ways, Ridley Scott's "Black Rain" (1989) is a classic study in wary Japanese American relationships. A generation-plus after "Sayonara," the exoticization of Japan falls on the male. When the nefarious yakuza he was escorting back to Japan escapes in Tokyo, tough New York cop Nick (Michael Douglas) decides to hang around to find him, especially after the yakuza kills his partner.

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