Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Barbarian and the Geisha

The Fox Movie Channel showed The Barbarian and the Geisha again this morning. I thought it was going to be getting another airing later in April, but it doesn't look like it. Thankfully, it's been released to DVD and Blu-Ray before, at least according to Amazon, so you can still watch it even if FMC won't be showing it again soon.

John Wayne stars as Townsend Harris, an American diplomat who was sent by Franklin Pierce to conclude a peace treaty with Japan in 1856. The Americans wanted to be able to use Japanese ports for resupplying their ships, as trade was increasingly becoming a global thing. The Japanese, for their part, knew of the Western colonial interests in China and didn't want this to happen to them. They had closed themselves off from the rest of the world in the early 1600s, with the exception of a small Dutch enclave in Nagasaki, and feared what opening themselves up to the West would do. Indeed, it took Commodore Matthew Perry with his ships to open up Japan at gunpoint in 1853.

The parts of the movie that concern Harris' diplomacy with Japan are apparently fairly accurate. Harris showed up off the coast of Japan at the village of Shimoda, a hundred miles or so from Edo (the then name for Tokyo), which according to the agreement Perry had reached with the shogun, was to be where the US Consul would be stationed until a full treaty could be concluded with Japan. The people of Shimoda, for their part, didn't want any foreigners around, quite understandably, and didn't make life easy for Harris as he was forced to endure an interminable wait to be permitted entry into Edo some 18 months later, when the treaty was finally concluded. (Perry had only reached an agreement for refueling rights; Harris' mission was to secure a trade treaty.)

Where the movie differs from history is with Harris' personal life. The governor of Shimoda (played by So Yamamura) sent a geisha named Okichi (played by Endo Ando) to the house of Harris and his interpreter (Sam Jaffe), possibly to spy on him. (Historical records suggest that there was a real Okichi, but she only spend a few days at Harris' residence in Shimoda.) In the movie, she begins to develop an attraction for him, and Harris for his part even thinks about taking her to America with him after he concludes the treaty. However, the Japanese system of family honor dictates that Okichi could never do that. The family to whom Okichi was in service was powerless to stop the treaty from being concluded which was supposedly a big blow to their family honor, and for Okichi to leave would, as the movie claims, have disgraced the family.

Several of the reviews I've read of The Barbarian and the Geisha claim that John Wayne was badly miscast and that this is a big problem for the movie. I would tend to disagree with that. I remember hearing once a joke about the "John Wayne School of Foreign Languages": if at first people don't understand your English, speak it loduer and more slowly. I have no idea what the real Townsend Harris was like, but Wayne's forceful, if somewhat blustery, style fits well with a person trying to open up a country and society that's been more or less closed for 200 years. Eiko Ando's acting is OK, but she's also given a bunch of narration which comes across to me as silly. The person you'd really think is miscast is Sam Jaffe as the interpreter, whom I think of as Doc Riemenschneider in The Asphalt Jungle. Yet Jaffe too is enjoyable, espeically in a scene when a giant and midget team up to take his top hat. The Barbarian and the Geisha combines history with romance, although there's more emphasis on the history, which is a good thing. The romance is more of an undercurrent, which only gets more strongly hinted at toward the end, as opposed to the maudlin Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing.

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