Teahouse of the August Moon, The (1956)

“It’s my job to teach these Okinawans democracy — and they’re going to learn democracy if I have to shoot every last one of them!”

Synopsis:
In post-WWII Japan, a bumbling American captain (Glenn Ford) is sent to Okinawa to set up a school and bring democracy to the village. Once there, his wily interpreter (Marlon Brando) helps him understand that the villagers have different goals in mind — including gifting him a geisha girl (Machiko Kyo) and convincing him to use American funds to build a teahouse instead of a school. A visiting military doctor (Eddie Albert) is soon lured into helping with agriculture, and he and Ford assist the village in selling homemade brandy; it’s up to Ford’s promotion-seeking superior (Paul Ford) to set everything straight.

Genres:

Review:
Based on the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning 1953 play by John Patrick (itself based on a 1951 novel by Vern Sneider), this “occupation comedy” arouses immediate suspicion and distaste given the casting of Marlon Brando as a Japanese man — but he’s surprisingly effective and inoffensive, most likely due to his genuine love of the play and respect for his craft. According to TCM’s article:

The role of Sakini had been played by David Wayne on Broadway, but since he had little track record in movies, the part went to Marlon Brando who had loved the play so much he saw it three times. Brando intended to use some of his salary to finance a United Nations film program in Asia. True to his reputation, he worked on making his role as authentic as possible, studying the motions and spoken accents of real Okinawans though he had to adapt the language slightly to be more intelligible to American audiences.

Meanwhile, DVD Savant writes that Brando’s character is “a natural prankster who uses his charm and guile to completely derail Captain Fisby’s [Ford’s] mission. He completely manipulates the situation by selectively interpreting, or misinterpreting, Fisby’s words.” Indeed, the entire film handily mocks America for trying to impose democracy wholesale onto a different culture, and it’s refreshing watching the villagers quietly and insistently get what they want. As Savant — who argues the film “takes a bit of getting used to” — notes:

… It’s disconcerting at first to see the presentation of the Okinawans as ‘cute’ and inoffensive ‘little people.’ Only slowly do we realize that they are the ones in control of the situation, and by the end the film is awarding them full respect while lampooning the American military as hopeless dummies.

Beautiful Machiko Kyo — star of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950); the Academy Award-winning Best Foreign Picture Gate of Hell (1953); Kenzi Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953), Princess Yang Kwei Fei (1955), and Street of Shame (1956); Yasujiro Ozu’s Floating Weeds (1959); and Kon Ichikawa’s Kagi (1961) — acquits herself very nicely, and is especially delightful during an initial tussle with Ford as she struggles to get his clothes off.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Amusing lead performances
  • Beautiful Technicolor cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a one-time look.

Links:

One Response to “Teahouse of the August Moon, The (1956)”

  1. A tentative once-must, for its place in cinema (and political) history.

    I don’t personally have any odd feeling about Brando playing the lead role. (It’s not like he’s Mickey Rooney in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’. 😉 ) This film sort of ties in with Brando’s (non-Asian) work in ‘Sayonara’ – and apparently things Oriental figured largely in Brando’s personal life. Having lived in Japan myself, I sense a certain authenticity of spirit when Brando is speaking English with an accent. I just wish he had tried a little harder with his Japanese dialogue. Not that American audiences would notice but Japanese viewers would certainly catch instances in which his delivery of very simple statements or responses is simply… wrong or inappropriate. (It’s a little regrettable that Brando didn’t think like Streep when she took on ‘Sophie’s Choice’.) Still, Brando clearly has a real fondness for the character he is playing and that often is a delight to watch.

    Kyo’s role is slightly beneath her talent (but, then, the project is nothing more than the lightest of light comedies so *everyone* is ‘slumming’ a little) – but I find her particularly impressive late in the film, when the teahouse has its grand opening and Kyo leads the troupe of women in a traditional Japanese dance. She’s actually mesmerizing.

    I also happen to love the very surprising and very active finish that occurs when the film has nothing but a few minutes to wrap things up.

    As per my post in ‘The ’40s-’50s in Film’ (fb):

    ‘Teahouse of the August Moon’ (1956) [on FilmStruck]: I was unaware that John Patrick’s original play won the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony award for best play. Mentioning this film version (which Patrick adapted) now would probably first get people discussing whether or not Marlon Brando should have played a leading Asian character – in this rather innocuous tale of bumbling, post-WWII military types trying to re-fashion Okinawans to think like Americans. But I kept watching Machiko Kyo (who gets top billing along with Brando and Glenn Ford). This was Kyo’s only (technically) non-Japanese film. All she says in it in English are “Happy birthday” and “hot water”. Most people seeing this film will not be aware of just how famous Kyo was in Japanese cinema. (She is currently 94 and last acted in 2000.) She worked with all of the top Japanese directors (notably for Kurosawa in ‘Rashomon’). Just prior to making ‘Teahouse’, Kyo appeared in Kenji Mizoguchi’s final film ‘Street of Shame’. In it, she commands the screen as a tough, sexy prostitute named Miki (the polar opposite of her passive, comedic turn as Lotus Blossom in ‘Teahouse’). She dominates and anchors ‘SOS’ – and it really is something to see.

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