In the back pages of the Los Angeles Times, I just came across a funeral notice for James Shigeta, who probably qualifies as the first Asian-American heartthrob for his roles in two 1961 films, a World War II tearjerker, Bridge to the Sun, and a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Flower Drum Song. He passed away on July 28 at the age of 85 after a long, full career that includes a voice role in Mulan and a dramatic death scene in the original Die Hard. The brief item in the Times contains evidence of a large, loving Japanese-Hawaiian family. I’m sure they will respect his wishes by paying their last respects in aloha attire. And they’ll probably heed the instructions “No okoden.”
I speak Japanese (yes, really!), but this was a new term for me. I found out it refers to the old Japanese custom of mourners bringing cash gifts, enclosed in special paper wrappers, as a form of condolence offering. I always enjoy learning something new, and I also appreciated the chance to think of James Shigeta in a truly Japanese context. He was by birth a third-generation American, one who started out knowing little about the country of his ancestors. Having won first place on Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour, he tried to make it as a singer. But even a “European” stage name—Guy Brion—didn’t help him get American bookings. That’s why, after a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps, he went to Japan, learned the language, and became a major musical star. Then Hollywood came calling. His first screen role was as one-third of a romantic triangle in Sam Fuller’s off-beat1959 noir, The Crimson Kimono. For a change, here was an Asian character who spoke standard English and was played by someone of the correct ethnicity. The original ads for this flick play up its shock value. Above a sketch of an embracing couple, we read: “Yes, this is a beautiful American girl in the arms of a Japanese boy!”
After World War II, the moviegoing public seemed newly intrigued by stories about the intermingling of Americans and Asians. I remember the hubbub over Sayonara (1957), a romantic melodrama in which Marlon Brando as a Southern-born Air Force major stationed in Japan, falls hard for the beautiful Miiko Taka. Also in Sayonara, Red Buttons and Miyoshi Umeki won Oscars for playing doomed lovers. Both women’s roles were cast with actual Japanese actresses. But a Japanese male character in the film, Nakamura, is played by none other than Ricardo Montalban.
Prior to Shigeta, most major male Asian roles were undertaken by Caucasians wearing funny makeup. Here are a few that really stand out for me, and not in a good way: Warner Oland, born in Sweden, starring in a long string of Charlie Chan movies. Marlon Brando, playing at being Okinawan, in Teahouse of the August Moon (1956). The protean but very un-Asian Alec Guinness wooing Rosalind Russell in A Majority of One. (In this warm-hearted but ludicrous 1961 comedy, he’s supposed to be Japanese and she’s supposed to be Jewish—oi vey!) Worst of all, a grotesquely buck-toothed Mickey Rooney as a cranky Japanese neighbor in the same year’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. (Publicists circulated a bogus announcement that the role had gone to a brilliant Japanese comic, Ohayo Arigatou, making his American debut.)
Today things are better. The talented Japan-born Ken Watanabe earned an Oscar nom for 2003’s The Last Samurai. But Asian-American leading men still gripe that their opportunities are limited. Yes, they want to play more than ninjas, superheroes, and sushi chefs.