Nowhere are Fuller’s strengths and weaknesses more evident than in The Crimson Kimono. The film’s main characters are two LAPD detectives, Joe, a Japanese-American and Charles, an Anglo. From a twenty-first century perspective, it may be hard to understand how provocative this was in the fifties. The Crimson Kimono was released less than fifteen years years after WWII, when Japanese-Americans had been rounded up and sent to prison camps, ostensibly because the US government felt they might be a threat to national security. For most filmmakers of the time, it would have been daring enough to introduce a Nisei cop in a crime thriller. But the central conflict in the story actually comes out of the fact that Joe gets involved in a relationship with a white woman. How this film got released by a major studio back in nineteen fifty nine is beyond me.
The turning point for Joe is when he falls in love with Chris. She loves him as well, but he suddenly becomes aware for the first time that as a Japanese man he is seen as an outsider. In reality this is completely absurd. It’s hard enough to believe that any Japanese-American could come of age in mid-century America without having encountered racism, but the idea that Joe would fit right in with the LAPD at that time is laughable. Still, Fuller deserves credit for even talking about this kind of alienation in the fifties. Whether or not we accept the specifics of Joe’s story, the director was trying to make the point that in this “land of opportunity”, there were many people who felt excluded.
Fuller opens the film, as he often did, with a wallop. The opening shots bring us to a burlesque theatre in downtown LA. We see Sugar Torch dancing onstage as the band in the pit belts out a raucous tune. Moments later she’s lying dead on the crowded street outside. Much of the film was shot on location, and we get a good look at Los Angeles in the fifties. But even more important, the film is an amazing document of the Japanese-American community during that era.
Fuller’s camera follows the detectives as they roam through the streets of Little Tokyo. We see Japanese women working in a wig shop. Cooks in a kitchen making rice cakes. A couple of nuns standing in front of the Maryknoll School. To my mind the most remarkable scene shows Joe looking for an older Japanese man who may have information about a witness. He finds Mr. Yoshinaga at the Evergreen Cemetery, where the man is visiting the grave of his son, killed in WWII. Few Americans were aware then (and fewer now) that Japanese-Americans fought with the Allies in Europe. To make sure no one misses the point, Fuller lingers over monuments dedicated to these men. Joe asks Mr. Yoshinaga for help, and the man agrees, but says he must first attend a memorial service for his son. We follow him into a Buddhist temple to witness the ceremony, watching as the priest strikes a gong, taps a wood block, recites a prayer. This scene does nothing to advance the plot, but it opens a window on a world that most Americans have never seen. A world that’s right in our own backyard.
Whatever his faults as a filmmaker, Fuller challenged himself and he challenged his audience. It’s not just that he didn’t support the status quo. He was infuriated by the complacency with which most Americans accepted the bland reassurance that Hollywood dished out during the studio era (and still dishes out today). He tried to show us America in all its diversity, all its contrasts, all its complexity.
Really, he was trying to get us to take a long, hard look at ourselves.