August 16, 2007

Teahouse of the August Moon

I first saw many of my recent Japan-themed movie recommendations on television or VHS, and watching them again on DVD is a surprising reminder of just how bad those old analog-video transfers were. The brilliant, colorful DVD version of The Teahouse of the August Moon is at times the equivalent of a National Geographic expedition.

Unlike so many recent Japan-themed Hollywood movies, Teahouse was filmed in Japan, on the outskirts of Nara. The story aside, the camera takes us in a time machine back to the rural Japan of the mid-1950s. It'd be fascinating to return to the places where the location sets were built and see what has become of them since.

Needless to say, everybody in the movie who speaks Japanese actually speaks Japanese! Weird that that should be so unusual. Even Marlon Brando, cast as the translator and busybody Sakini. My respect for the actor has definitely grown.

Whenever a Caucasian is cast in an Asian role (Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's comes to mind), you prepare yourself to cringe. And cringe some more when they try to speak the language or fake an accent.

Brando's English accent isn't a slop of embarrassing pidgin fakery (Rooney again), but a close approximation of the real thing. He sounds a lot like Cool Japan host Shoji Kokami (who's got a pretty strong accent) when he does the show intro in English. And for an American who had never studied the language before, Brando's Japanese is amazing.

In the short "making-of" segment accompanying the movie, we're told that Brando "studied for two months with a translator and a tape recorder." That is, rather than badly reading romaji off a page, he memorized the lines aurally. And does it show.

To be sure, the script is written to minimize the amount of Japanese he has to speak, and he does flub a line here and there. But I otherwise found his Japanese as fluid and comprehensible as the rest of the native-speaking cast. Brando speaks more Japanese--and speaks it better--than any other Hollywood actor in any other Hollwood production I can think of.

(The one exception is Steven Seagal. But Seagal has lived in Japan for several years, so he doesn't count.)

Other delights in Teahouse include Harry Morgan, Colonel Potter in MASH, who fills the Radar O'Reilly role so thoroughly you might think that's where Gary Burghoff got his inspiration. Eddie Albert going on about organic farming, circa 1956, sounds like a spokesman for Whole Foods, circa 2006.

And if you suffered through that awful, overproduced dance number in Memoirs of a Geisha, Teahouse provides the perfect antidote. Machiko Kyou, who starred opposite Toshiro Mifune in Akira Kurosawa's classic Rashomon, plays the geisha Lotus Blossom. And though her role is broadly comedic, the dance she performs at the end manages to be both playful and dignified.

In other words: a heckuva lot closer to the real thing.

The other joy of the film is how well it delivers its message. The telling moment for me comes when Captain Fisby (Glenn Ford) tries to figure out what to do with Lotus Blossom. The presence of this well-educated, well-mannered and (relatively) wealthy geisha in a dirt-poor farming village is disruptive, to say the least.

Learning that he can't unload her on anybody else, Fisby finally tells the local Lady's Auxiliary (who complained about her in the first place) that, in so many words, they can rest assured that he'll knock her down a few notches so she looks and acts no differently than the rest of them.

"No, no!" they protest. They don't want him to lower her to their level. They want him to raise themselves up to her level. Cut to the next scene of Lotus Blossom teaching a class in dancing and deportment to the women of the village. That's the difference between the "equality" of the lowest common denominator and the true equality of opportunity available to all.

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