The Crimson Kimono - A film review

Literature Review, 2003

9 Pages, Grade: 1


During his career, the Hawaiian born Nisei actor James Shigeta was cast as everything but a Hawaiian born Japanese American. Among others, he played Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Tibetan characters. Depending on the time frame of a given film, i.e. if it was set around World War II or not, he played either a villain or a hero. One of the movies he portrayed a hero in was Samuel Fuller’s Crimson Kimono (1959). This movie could be characterized as an urban crime story and an interracial love triangle, but it is also one of the first multicultural films before the term “multiculturalism” was even coined. In Crimson Kimono, James Shigeta plays Detective Joe Kojaku, a police detective working for the L.A. homicide squad. His partner is a white American, Detective Sergeant Charlie Bancroft, played by Glenn Corbett. Joe and Charlie are both Korean War veterans. During the war, one of them saved the other’s life by donating blood, and since then, they have been friends. While working on a case – a stripper has been murdered – the detectives’ friendship is tested by a romantic triangle. First, Charlie gets involved with one of the main witnesses, a white female art student called Chris. But then, Joe, as well, falls in love with her. While Joe’s behavior changes to apathy in his friendship to Charlie, the situation turns into an identity crisis for him personally. Joe begins to interpret Charlie’s jealousy as racism and turns away from his friend. However, in the end, the friendship is restored with Charlie giving up Chris for his friend Joe, and the murder case is solved, too.

Crimson Kimono is one of the rare exceptional films where an Asian American man gets to play a romantic lead, getting involved with a white woman and actually getting away with it. Today, still, this is a rare exception for a film made by Hollywood. Over the years, ever since the early 1900s, there have only been few films portraying a relationship between Asian American men and white women. Examples are The Cheat (1915), Hiroshima, Mon Amour

(1950s), Bridge to the Sun (1961, also starring James Shigeta), and Disney’s Johny Tsunami (1990s).

Crimson Kimono is, in my opinion, a film that can be interpreted in many different ways. In fact, I believe that Samuel Fuller has included messages for both the white American part of the population and the Japanese American population. Most of all, he seems to want to tell white America about the need for racial tolerance. The fact that one of the friends has saved the other’s life by donating blood means that in the veins of both circulates the same blood, that they just differ in their outer appearance. Moreover, it is not always the white detective who leads. In Little Tōkyō it is rather Joe who takes the lead, speaking the language of the elderly and being used to the customs there. But Joe is not just a policeman, his identity is very complex like that of white America. He is a policeman, but he is also an artist. And even though one could believe that Joe, in falling in love with Chris, merely imitates his white friend, he doesn’t simply imitate, but he shows feelings like every human being. His identity crisis leads him to accusing Charlie, and partly Chris, of having racist attitudes against him. In reality, however, it is only Joe himself who imagines all this due to the long history of racism he and his ancestors had to endure in the United States. This makes very clear to white America how much racism is woven into the fabric of society: the psychological scars of it are so deep that the victims themselves accuse others of racism even if there isn’t any racism involved whatsoever.

Apart from these messages to be conveyed to the white audience, there are also issues aimed at the Japanese American audience. On the one hand, they see a Japanese American lead being an active contributor in a murder investigation. Moreover, this man, as one of the first on the movie screen, affirms Asian male sexuality in getting involved with a white woman. This constitutes, in a way, the end of anti-miscegenation on TV, just around the time it has been abolished in most parts of the United States, at least on the paper. The final scene, a kiss between Chris and Joe, is a very clear challenge to racial segregation and the emasculation of the Asian male in mass media. And finally, Japanese Americans (and other minorities) see that even if they do not correspond to stereotypes they will not die.

In the 1950s, media stereotypes of Asian Americans changed compared to the images shown during World War II. There occurred a switch from the love of the Chinese (s. Charlie Chan, Lost Horizon) to the love of the Japanese allies against the threat of communism. As a consequence of this positive attitude towards Japan, Japanese Americans, as well, were portrayed more favorably. What was happening there was the equation of Japanese and Japanese Americans, a racist equation to be found in today’s United States, still. As a consequence, Japanese Americans ceased to be seen as a threat, either sexually or economically. However, it was not only the Cold War which led to America’s change in attitude, it was also the fact that the country felt kind of forced to keep the promise of the war and to respond to victories of the early Civil Rights Movement (s. 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education, 1955 the Rosa Parks’ case). In order to fulfill the promise of Democracy, Issei were allowed to become naturalized citizens in 1952 (nevertheless, the quotas for immigration of the 1924 Quota Act remained intact) and the Alien Land Laws were repealed in 1956, ten years after they had been loosened already. In addition to that, however, I believe that the reason why the United States seemed to be fine with portraying some Asian group favorably was the fact that they were not involved in any major war in Asia or elsewhere at the time (s. also Flower Drum Song).

These changing media stereotypes are supplemented by a secondary set of stereotypes so much woven into the white US society’s psyche that no one is conscious of them anymore, that even those who are most concerned, those who are stereotyped, help maintain them. Stereotypes, in general, help establish and preserve the order between different elements of society (s. p. 65 ff. in reader). Joe, who has grown up with these stereotypes, challenges them and ceases to be the guardian of white supremacy. The stereotypes, or models for behavior which control the perception and expectations of people, however, are so much part of his psyche, that he immediately gets a bad conscience about breaking them. In other words, the Japanese, having attained some acceptance in white society, may be able to break rules set by the stereotypes. However, the same stereotypes they have managed to break induce a kind of regulatory mechanism which manifests itself in Joe’s identity crisis immediately following his breaking of the rules when falling for Chris. This, in turn, works towards the maintenance of white supremacy and shows just how powerful stereotypes are. The stereotypes Joe, and actually the whole Japanese American population, have grown up with make it more important to answer the question of who he is supposed to be (his socially constructed identity) than who he wants to be (his own identity as defined by himself). This is why he asks himself and Chris all these questions of who he is and why she wants to be with him. He seems to imply that she may only be searching for a “local (or exotic) lover” in order to get a little bit of a change into her love life. In short, Joe has a hard time overcoming his own racism, he is the only one who sees racism where there is none apart from his own. This racism is also evident when Joe tries to talk to a community elder about Chris, namely when the elder assumes right away that Joe has fallen for a Japanese American girl. However, even though he could be worried about the preservation of the community, he seems to see no problem when Joe announces that Chris is a white woman. Therefore, the Japanese American society can easily deal with one of their (male) members getting involved with a white woman, whereas the white American society, the society Joe seems to identify with more than his Japanese American community, seems to set a limit to the position Japanese Americans can obtain. They may be friends with white people but they may not touch white women. This is at least the impression I got from Joe’s and the community elder’s reaction to the fact that Joe fell in love with a white woman.

I guess that part of this willingness of white society to integrate Japanese Americans to a certain degree is due to the idea of the model minority. Around the time Crimson Kimono was produced, this idea of Japanese Americans as a minority that has made it began to develop due to the economic and academic successes of individuals. However, this model minority image is full of controversial issues. Most of all, in my opinion, it constrains Japanese Americans (and Asian Americans in general) in defining who they are and being seen as who they are (s. differences between ethnic groups). Earlier on, they had, in white American eyes, at least the option to chose between remaining perpetual aliens or imitation whites (s. Racist Love). Now, this first option seems to be taken away. Even though there are still limits as to how much Japanese Americans may imitate the white population, and even though they are still different from white Americans due to the history of racism they have had to endure (s. Joe’s reaction), the image of the model minority forces them to imitate white society, no matter how futile their attempts may be in the end.

This limitation of defining their own identity goes hand in hand with the fact that Asian Americans learn very early that they supposedly have a problem finding their identity (s. Racist Love). When Joe falls in love with Chris, he does something he is not supposed to do and realizes the limits of the identity imposed upon him by society. As a consequence, he overreacts and the identity crisis sets in. He questions everyone who is close to him. Rather than asking himself what he wants to be like he asks himself what he is supposed to be like. After having lived in the white world with Charlie as his friend for a long time, he suddenly reached his limits and falls into the old stereotype of the quiet and passive Asian American man. In other words, forced by the stereotypes woven into the social fabric of the United States, he first imitates white Americans, then reaches a point where it is impossible for him to continue, and he creates an identity by excluding himself from white society. Even though he says that it was not normal for him to keep his feelings “bottled up,” an insight he has gained by identifying with white America, he, as many Nikkei Americans, has finally bought into the stereotypes that have always been around. One may argue, that he also feels a sense of disloyalty regarding his friend Charlie who was in love with Chris first. This confirms the anti-miscegenation laws which, despite their official abolition, remain still in the heads of great parts of American society. To put all this very briefly, I think that Joe is caught in the idea of the either/or, the choice of being either an imitation white or a perpetual alien. Even though the second option seems to be taken from him with the advent of the model minority myth, he falls into the trap of excluding himself in the end. He does not see that there are other models to live by. He does not see the possibility of adopting a three-dimensional model of identity, such as it can be seen in the Issei elder’s behavior: as tradition requires, he goes to the temple and through the rituals to commemorate his dead son (= transplanted culture), but, in addition to that, he goes to the graveyard where his dead soldier son’s grave is located (= borrowed element & partly transformed way of commemoration). The gravestone there is much bigger than the small Buddhist name plate on the family altar would be (= transformed element).

While watching the film, there were several things that confused me, that I believe to be questionable. First of all, even though there is a Japanese American main character, he is the only Japanese American who seems to be of importance. Moreover, his partner holds the title of Detective Sergeant, whereas Joe is only a detective. This may be an indicator of the glass ceiling many Asian American still complain today. In addition to that, the boundaries between Asian Americans and white Americans during the 1950s can be seen very clearly in so far as the Kendo club of the Japanese Americans is separate from that of the white American team. To some people it may seem that Joe is waiting for Charlie’s permission to be with Chris, and that he becomes unhappy as soon as it seems that he has lost his white friend. However, I believe that this would be no different were the two men of the same race. I think that friendship and the fear of losing a friend is more important here than race. What I found kind of odd was that the crime story seemed to be a secondary plot to the primary one of the love triangle. However, one could argue that both plots are parallel. The killing was committed out of love, because the woman guilty of the murder committed the crime because she had put ideas in the stripper’s head, because she thought the stripper had an affair with her boyfriend. And Joe, in turn, is equally guilty, guilty of putting ideas of racism in other people’s heads. With this both “cases” are solved in the end. From a personal point of view, I thought it was kind of disgusting how Chris behaved, i.e. that she first pretended to be in love with Charlie, just to turn to Joe a minute later. I also didn’t like the way Mac was portrayed, as a constantly drunken female artist. Finally, there was one thing that startled me a little, namely that Samuel Fuller, a white producer, despite his obvious promotion of racial equality, seems to love oriental exotica. This is especially visible in the portrayal of the Japanese New Year’s celebration.

Altogether I think that Crimson Kimono is a very good film, useful and enjoyable at the same time. It shows very clearly how fixed images change over time as a result of big international forces and events (in comparison to films where Japanese Americans are portrayed as villains), but it shows also that parts of the old order still persist. This gives an outlook of the future as to racial stereotypes. Even though they may seem to disappear, it will take a long time until people from all ethnicities in the United States will be equal. Despite the things I consider questionable in the film, however, I think Fuller did a great job in making people aware of how deep stereotypes are implanted in the American psyche. He made the right choice in showing the effects of racism in a Japanese American man rather than in a white person. By not saying what he wants to convey directly but making people try to understand Joe’s reaction his message is a lot stronger.


Excerpt out of 9 pages


The Crimson Kimono - A film review
San Francisco State University  (Ethnic Studies)
AAS 693 Asian Americans and the Mass Media
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ISBN (eBook)
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439 KB
Crimson, Kimono
Quote paper
B.A. Stephanie Wössner (Author), 2003, The Crimson Kimono - A film review, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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