2019 Film Essays

Shattering Orientalism Through Noir: Samuel Fuller’s ‘House of Bamboo’

The gritty and hard-nosed film noir genre is rife with actors and directors that helped to not only change conversations about American cinema, but also the nation’s consciousness. It can be said without overstatement that one of those figures is the maverick director Samuel Fuller. His life and work is all about battles, influenced by his time as the youngest reporter at the New York Journal and his time in the European theater of World War II. For him, the biggest battle in making movies was to tell a story his way without interference from studio executives and other smaller minds. In the 1950s, Fuller chafed against studio pressures while making acclaimed features such as The Steel Helmet and Pickup on South Street. In the midst of this run for 20th Century Fox, Fuller was enlisted to make a noir picture, House of Bamboo, with post-World War II Japan as the backdrop.

House of Bamboo opens up with Mt. Fujiyama in the background overseeing the wintry Japanese countryside. A military train chugs along with G.I.s and Japanese security. It’s then attacked by a gang of masked men — a shrieking farm woman witnesses the crime, and an American sergeant gets shot & killed by a P-38 pistol. The woman seeks out authorities while the opening credits are displayed. After some investigation by the American military police, along with a Japanese detective (Sessue Hayakawa), it’s found that the train was robbed of its cargo of guns and ammunition. Five weeks later, the investigators question a dying American robber named Webber, who was shot with the same make of gun used to kill the sergeant. Webber doesn’t reveal his fellow gang members, but does reveal that he has a Japanese wife named Mariko (who he purposely kept a secret from the gang). They find correspondence that he wrote to a buddy, Eddie Spanier (Robert Stack), asking him to come to Tokyo. Later on, Spanier arrives in Tokyo and seeks out Mariko (Yoshiko Yamaguchi), who is deathly afraid that he’s running with the gang. Spanier warns her to keep quiet about her marriage and soon runs into the ring of thieves who are former G.I.s, run by Sandy (Robert Ryan). Sandy takes a liking to Eddie and enlists him into the gang, raising the ire of his second-in-command, Griff (Cameron Mitchell). What ensues is a cat-and-mouse game between Sandy and Eddie, the latter of whom isn’t a steel-jawed hood but an undercover Army investigator assigned to find out what’s going on with the gang’s activities. And Mariko is the woman caught in the crossfire.

Fuller made great use of the opportunity 20th Century Fox gave him with House of Bamboo, starting with the cinematography. The movie was the first to be actually shot on location in Japan after World War II, and the director’s use of CinemaScope widescreen technology and Technicolor makes every single scene come alive with vibrant energy, as if they are stolen moments from a travelogue. This gets lost somewhat, as future airings of the movie on television were done in a pan-and-scan print style that takes away from the majestic footage. (Side note: DeForest Kelley, of Star Trek fame, is in this motion picture, but because of these earlier prints, many believed his role came towards the end of the film. It wasn’t until Fox reinstituted the original CinemaScope print in the 1990s that audiences saw he was in the film all along — he had just been cropped out of frame in the earlier versions.)

Fuller also shot many scenes without official permits, using hidden cameras to truly capture the atmosphere. He understood Hollywood’s growing interest in postwar Japan as a wellspring for future projects. Tokyo Joe, starring Humphrey Bogart as a former pilot caught up with a former war criminal played by Hayakawa, was made in 1949 (with footage shot in Japan to supplement what was filmed on set in California) as the first of these films that would cater to an audience who found their interest in Asia rekindled through white Western eyes. This shows up in House of Bamboo in distinct ways, from the “Oriental” stylization of the font in the credits to the fact that the natives seem to only converse in English to begin with to suit everyone else. There’s also the offhand reference to Mariko and other Japanese women that Eddie, Sandy and the gang deal with as “kimonos,”  keeping them in the patriarchal framework of the “dames” that populate the film genre. Both of these instances bring up the point of the two main Japanese actors in this film, Sessue Hayakawa and Yoshiko (billed as Shirley) Yamaguchi as Mariko. In House of Bamboo, Hayakawa is relegated to a few scenes, which brought him back to Hollywood after a long absence after being one of the major stars in the silent era. Racism, exemplified through some disapproving of his sex appeal to white women, forced him to act in Europe in the 1930s. Yamaguchi’s role as Mariko was muted in some aspects, with Fuller fighting against studio fears of recrimination of seeing an interracial romance being totally fulfilled on-screen. In fact, the director stated to reporters around this time that even depicting Eddie and Mariko’s romance was only possible due to revisions in the self-censorship agreement by the movie industry.

The frustrations would lead Fuller to craft a relationship dynamic in the script between Eddie and Sandy that many others have seen as having homoerotic undertones, which also include Griff as the other part of this “triangle.” Mitchell’s gruff acting, in this regard, solidifies this, but nowhere is this visibly evoked more than in the scene where Sandy murders Griff as he’s bathing, believing him to be the one who ratted the gang out. He cradles his head afterwards, almost as a lover would. It also speaks volumes to how the camaraderie that exists between soldiers can veer into different zones; more than likely, Fuller drew from whatever he witnessed during the war. It fits with a world that was still trying to piece itself together, shell-shocked from global warfare.

Fuller would take the lessons learned from this film and make a couple more pictures before going the independent route. The Crimson Kimono (1959) became a more nuanced iteration of these themes, and actually broke ground as the Japanese-American lead, James Shigeta, would go on to get the girl and help to bring more Asian-American talent to the screen. In that light, House of Bamboo becomes an interesting stepping stone and a look at the development of a director who newer audiences are still learning from.

Christopher A. Smith (@infinitewords14) is a freelance writer and a New York City native. He is also an avid visitor of museums and galleries along with being a lover of different genres of cinema from independent film to classics. Find more of his writing HERE.

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