US / 81 minutes / bw / Nacirema, Paramount Dir: Norman T. Herman Pr & Scr: Norman T. Herman, Marvin Segal Cine: William Margulies Cast: Michi Kobi, Richard Long, Lawrence Dobkin, Paul Dubov, Teru Shimada, Robert Okazaki, Carlyle Mitchell, Frank Kumagai, John Brinkley, Edo Mita, Lowell Brown, Don Keigo Takeuchi, Jerry Adler, Mazaji Yamamoto.
Sergeant Robert “Bob” Douglas (Long), a somewhat overzealous American MP, is nearing the end of his tour of duty in Tokyo and plans, on his return to the US, to take with him his fiancée, chanteuse Sumi Fujita (Kobi). One night he comes across a pair of Japanese teenagers and, stupidly, draws his gun. The next he knows is that, in his tussle with one of the kids, he has accidentally pulled the trigger and killed the other.
Bob (Richard Long) faces the hideous realization of what he’s done.
Sumi (Michi Kobi), singing at the Ginza Sukiyaki.
His kindly superior officer, Major J. Bradley (Dobkin), believes Bob’s explanation that the death was an accident and at first assumes the whole affair can be handled fairly quietly—not exactly swept under the carpet, but resolved with a court martial and a slap of the wrist. Of course, the US agreement with the Japanese states that US personnel suspected of crimes against the domestic population should be tried in the Japanese courts, but surely the locals won’t insist upon this, will they? As Bob says to Bradley, “I’ll take my chances with the army. They’ve always given me a fair shake.” It’s the kind of declaration that in noir proper serves as a signal that the protagonist’s nightmare is just beginning.
Of course, the Japanese do insist that Bob’s case be properly tried—as ambiguous US journalist Jesse W. Bronson (Dubov) has been trying to tell him all along they would—and soon the matter becomes a cause célèbre. Bradley is slow to realize the strength of the Japanese public’s passion on this, and so—more surprisingly, bearing in mind his engagement to Sumi and his obvious attempts to immerse himself in Japanese culture—is Bob. It’s after an especially crass cultural blunder—he goes to a memorial for the dead boy and attempts to press a wad of dough on the boy’s father—that he encounters first-hand one of the angry anti-American demonstrations that the case has inspired. Bob’s knocked to the ground by a hurled rock, and might likely have suffered far more grievously but for the intervention of Sumi and the priest who’d been leading the memorial service (Yamamoto).
The locals take to the streets.
When it becomes official that Bob must indeed be handed over to the Japanese justice system, he knocks out the MP sent to fetch him and goes on the run. Sumi stows him with her blind mentor, Sen-Sei (Shimada), who plays the Japanese musical instrument called the koto (in fact played by Kimio Eto), and has lengthy moral but never judgmental conversations with his guest. It’s Sen-Sei who eventually gets it through to Bob quite how badly he’s been behaving. Although it’s feasible that Bob could be smuggled out of the country and home to the US, sending for Sumi afterward, has Bob thought of the implications for her? She would have to give up her parents and everything else in her life in order to be with him in the US. And is Bob so sure that the color of her skin wouldn’t be an obstacle to their fitting into US society? The latter concern is less significant these days—at least in most parts of the US—now that interracial marriages and relationships are commonplace, but in 1959 there were still lynchings going on in the US South for the “crime” of what was quaintly called miscegenation. (UPDATE: Commenter Roger [see below] has an interesting amplification of this issue. UPDATE 2: Commenter Todd Mason [again see below] has a further valuable amplification.)
Bob (Richard Long) and Bradley (Lawrence Dobkin) confront each other at the temple.
In these discussions between Bob and Sen-Sei, perhaps this is the crucial exchange:
Bob (defending his knowledge of Japanese culture): “I’ve traveled all over Japan, been here for three years, spoken to all kinds of people.”
Sen-Sei: “Spoken? And how many of those people were able to express themselves in modern pidgin English? The barrier of language prevented them from saying one-tenth of what they were thinking. And so, like with many Americans, a true understanding never developed.”
Bob: “Sumi and I have learned how to understand each other.”
Sen-Sei: “You have learned how to love each other. But have you learned to understand?”
Tokyo After Dark is not a major work, but it’s by no means a bad one—and it’s certainly not boring or uninvolving. Perhaps what’s most creditable about it are its attempt to offer some understanding of Japanese culture and its honest portrayal of the mistakes outsiders were likely to make, however much they themselves believed otherwise, in their aspirations to assimilate and be assimilated by that culture. (Clearly Bob is here standing in for Americans/Westerners as a whole.)
Bob (Richard Long) heeds the advice of Sen-Sei (Teru Shimada).
I’m unqualified to judge if the movie succeeds in this portrayal of the cultural dissonance, but it does at least seem to be making an effort—like Bob himself thinks he is—to get into the mindset of the Japanese culture rather than, as so often in Hollywood movies of its era with this general setup, to show how wholesome gosh-darnit American-as-apple-pie mores are eventually recognized by the foreign culture as something to be welcomed. I’ve already mentioned the movie’s foremost single example of the outright folly of this attitude, the moment when Bob, with all the genuine good will in the world, offers the dead boy’s father, Mr. Kojima (Mita), a wad of cash as “money for [funeral] expenses” despite Sumi’s attempts to stop him. It’s a stupid and offensive move and is seen by Kojima as such, yet Bob remains bewildered by the rejection. He has to learn that the application of the mighty dollar to open, bleeding wounds is no therapy.
Journalist Bronson (Paul Duboy) plays an enigmatic role.
This was the last movie to be produced by the shortlived Nacirema Productions (Nacirema = “American” backwards), a company financed by Japanese–Americans; oddly, perhaps, it was the company’s sole movie to feature Japanese players. It was made for Allied Artists, but the latter sold it on to Paramount.
One aspect of the movie that’s refreshing is that the Japanese roles are played by actual Japanese people—indeed, it’s Michi Kobi rather than Richard Long who’s given top billing. (A few years earlier, the very roughly comparable Love is a Many-Splendored Thing  dir Henry King cast the All-American Jennifer Jones as a supposedly Eurasian doctor opposite William Holden as her American lover.) This multiracial casting serves to buttress Tokyo After Dark‘s contention that Japanese and US cultures are neither of them better or worse than the other: they’re sufficiently different from each other that value judgements of that sort are essentially meaningless. The fact that Long was an actor of no great screen presence is very useful in this context: he isn’t constantly stealing the limelight from his Japanese colleagues Kobi and Shimada, whose faces are less familiar and whose dialogue is inevitably a little more stilted.
A tender moment for Sumi (Michi Kobi) and Bob (Richard Long) — perhaps one of their last?
Long was an interesting and in very many ways admirable character. In late 1953 he became engaged to Suzan Ball, a second cousin of Lucille Ball who likewise did singing and dancing and acting. Just a few weeks later, because of tumors in her right leg, Ball had to have it amputated. Contrary to the way many men of his era might have behaved, Long stuck by his fiancée; they were married a few months after the amputation. Despite the operation, the cancer spread to her lungs and she died in August 1955, aged just 21. Long himself died young, at 47, from the last of a series of heart attacks brought on in large part through his smoking and drinking.
On Amazon.com: Tokyo After Dark