Around ten years after the end of World War II, Hollywood made a number of films that aimed to rehabilitate Japan’s image in American pop culture and give our new ally and onetime enemy a kinder, gentler makeover in the eyes of a public once stirred up to see Japan as barbarism incarnate. While there had been earlier Hollywood films shot in postwar Japan, beginning with the Humphrey Bogart vehicle, TOKYO JOE (1949) and the low-budget thriller TOKYO FILE 212 (1951), the years 1955-58 saw quite a wave of Hollywood productions filmed partly or entirely in Japan, all involving significant interaction between Americans and Japanese, including HOUSE OF BAMBOO, THREE STRIPES IN THE SUN, TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON, SAYONARA, STOPOVER TOKYO, JOE BUTTERFLY, THE BARBARIAN AND THE GEISHA, and the film I’m covering today, ESCAPADE IN JAPAN.
ESCAPADE IN JAPAN (1957), in color and widescreen, is much more of a travelogue than the other films I cited, with a slim story designed solely to get the boy protagonists to move around the countryside and end up in Kyoto and Nara where they manage to enter two historic temples. In fact, the major distinction of this film is that it was the first production allowed to film inside these temples, according to text displayed at the beginning of the film:
Of course, it’s not clear whether they meant the first Hollywood production allowed to film or if no Japanese film crew had ever been let inside these sites before either. IMDB lists only two temples in the “Filming Locations” section of its entry for ESCAPADE IN JAPAN: Horyu-ji Temple in Nara and Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto. This is the only film listed on IMDB for Horyu-ji as a location and only two other films are listed for Kiyomizu Temple, one Hollywood and one Japanese and both made over 45 years later. If this listing is accurate, it would indicate to me that the authorities in charge of both places must have regretted letting the film crew in and opted not to do it again—ever in the case of Horyu-ji and not until two generations later in the case of Kiyomizu. Film crews can be awfully hard on sacred sites.
Kiyomizu Temple was also seen in JANKEN MUSUME (1955), a Japanese musical that I wrote about here on June 14, 2015, but there were no shots inside the temple, only these exteriors:
In any event, ESCAPADE IN JAPAN is about a small American boy and his Japanese companion and their unlikely journey across Japan as they hide from the police searching for them in every location, unwilling to turn themselves in due to an absurd misunderstanding.
Tony Saunders (Jon Provost, future star of TV’s “Lassie”), a young boy traveling alone on a plane from Manila to be reunited with his father, a diplomat, and his mother in Tokyo, turns up adrift, alone in a lifeboat after a forced landing of the plane at sea, and is found and rescued by a Japanese fisherman and his family and brought to their home in a seacoast fishing village. It’s never explained how Tony got separated from the other passengers on the plane, all of whom were presumably rescued as well. The Japanese fisherman’s son, Hiko (Roger Nakagawa), is two years older than Tony and speaks some English and takes an immediate liking to the boy, who teaches him how to play with a yo-yo. When Hiko hears his father (Susumu Fujita) and mother (Kuniko Miyake) discuss calling the police, he fears that Tony will be arrested and jailed for some unknown crime and even asks Tony if he caused the plane to crash. He gets the idea to run away with Tony and get him to Tokyo to reunite with his parents before the police can get him.
It strikes me as ridiculous that Hiko would so fear the police in his fishing village, where local officers were more apt to function as friendly neighborhood patrolmen and not some sinister enforcers of oppressive laws, that he would take such a drastic measure as he does. He says to Tony at one point, “Japanese boy not talk back to father,” yet he thinks nothing of actually running away from his parents, a considerably more egregious offense than talking back. And I can’t accept that Tony himself, despite being so young, would think that traveling on foot through a strange land without adult supervision would be the best way to find his parents. He is, after all, the child of a diplomat and must have some sense of privilege connected to that. If Hiko was apprehensive about the summoning of the police, he would have asked his father if the police were going to arrest Tony and his father would simply have assured him that they were only going to reunite him with his parents and that would have been the end of it and no movie would have resulted. So the filmmakers had to contrive a reason to send these kids on the run and keep them avoiding the police at every turn, despite being tired, hungry and dirty from their travels.
If one can get past this implausible premise, there’s a lot to enjoy in this film, which really does travel through the back routes and country roads of Japan for much of its running time, showing ordinary Japanese people reacting to the boys, helping them out and then calling the police when it becomes clear that they’re runaways. The film makes a point of stressing that Japan’s a safe country where children are valued and the citizenry would not allow them to come to any harm.
Hiko’s poor sense of direction (unusual in a child of a fisherman) keeps taking them farther and farther away from Tokyo, eventually landing them in Kyoto and, later, in Nara. All this, of course, was just an excuse to get the two boys into two of the most historic cities in Japan and allow the cameras to explore some of the most important cultural treasures in the region. In these scenes, we see one impressive site after another, including Horyu-ji and Kiyomizu, the two temples cited above, but also Deer Park in Nara, where tame deer congregate around a temple site, and a theater performance by a full lineup of dancers dressed as geishas.
While in Kyoto, they even fall in with a busload of schoolchildren and make friends with an adorable little girl, Dekko (Hideko Koshikawa), who shares her lunch with them as they visit Kiyomizu and other sites. The teacher who supervises the children (Tatsuo Saito) also speaks English.
During all this, Tony’s frantic parents, Dick and Mary Saunders, played by Cameron Mitchell and Teresa Wright, aided by Colonel Hargrave (Philip Ober) of the U.S. Air Force, connect with local police at each stop of the boys’ travels, culminating in their arrival in Nara where the boys are finally cornered by local police in the upper levels of Horyu-ji Temple.
We meet a handful of Japanese who speak English, but most speak only Japanese which means a lot of untranslated Japanese is heard in the film, putting the viewer in the position of Tony, who is dependent on Hiko for interpretation. In this fashion, we get some sense of authentic everyday life among ordinary people in Japan at a time when Japan was treated by Hollywood most often as a source of exotic images, forbidden pleasures and interracial romance. In fact, the only “exotic” touch is found in the lineup of geisha dancers, but we see them mainly in their offstage moments, bantering with each other as they entertain the boys, bathe them and feed them, and never with any adult male clients (if they were indeed supposed to be actual geishas, which I doubt). The dancers’ female manager speaks some English as does one of the dancers, something that might be expected given the numbers of western customers they would have had during the Occupation.
The film’s depiction of Japanese civil authorities demonstrates their efficiency and ability to communicate from village to town to city, spreading the word about Tony and the available image of him so that the citizens who encounter him quickly realize he’s a runaway child and alert the local police almost immediately afterwards. The English-speaking police chief in Kyoto (Ureo Egawa) even pointedly insists to Colonel Hargrave that extra help from U.S. security forces isn’t needed. The fact that they keep missing the boys at every turn is clearly the screenwriter’s way of keeping up suspense and delaying a happy, tearful resolution till the requisite 90 minutes have passed.
One thing that bothered me upon re-viewing the film for this piece is the absence of Hiko’s parents for a long stretch of the film. While Tony’s parents and the Colonel are flying or driving all over Japan, accompanied by local police, to keep up with sightings of the boys, the Japanese parents are presumably left behind in their fishing village, not turning up again till the boys are placed in a hospital after their rescue at the end. Certainly, they would have been just as anxious as the American parents. Granted, they may have felt that Hiko might find his way home before the police found him and didn’t want to be away when he did, but this is never expressed in any way.
I was pleased to see a number of major Japanese actors in the cast. Hiko’s father is played by none other than Susumu Fujita, who starred in Akira Kurosawa’s SANSHIRO SUGATA (1943), which I wrote about here on November 19, 2015, and appeared in numerous other films by Kurosawa, as well as playing generals and police chiefs in Japanese monster movies, and appearing in JAPAN’S LONGEST DAY, which I wrote about here on August 16, 2015. Hiko’s mother is played by Kuniko Miyake, who appeared in numerous films by Yasujiro Ozu, including LATE SPRING, EARLY SUMMER, TOKYO STORY, OHAYO and his last, AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON.
The beret-wearing, English-speaking teacher on the bus trip is played by Tatsuo Saito, who I discovered last year in two films by Hiroshi Shimizu (JAPANESE GIRLS AT THE HARBOR, ORNAMENTAL HAIRPIN) and a silent Ozu (TOKYO CHORUS). He’s also in a Hollywood drama about the Occupation, THREE STRIPES IN THE SUN, in which he plays the disapproving father of a Japanese interpreter being courted by an American sergeant. (It’s an excellent film and will be the subject of a future blog entry.) Saito appeared in a number of other Hollywood films made in Japan, including JOE BUTTERFLY, STOPOVER TOKYO and MY GEISHA.
Ureo Egawa, who plays the Kyoto police chief, had a long and illustrious film career dating back to the 1920s, although the only other thing I’ve seen him in is an episode of the science fiction TV series, “Ultra Q.” He’s also in Ozu’s EQUINOX FLOWER (1958), which I have yet to see.
Katsuhiko Haida, who plays the English-speaking Captain Hibino, the first officer to aid Mr. and Mrs. Saunders, was also a composer and had an intermittent film career dating back to 1937. This was his last film. The only other film of his I’ve seen is TOKYO FILE 212 (1951), an American-Japanese indie co-production that also featured Tatsuo Saito.
The little girl who befriends the boys, shares her lunch with them and even visits them in the hospital at the end, dressed in a kimono, is played by Hideko Koshikawa and this was her only film credit.
This is also the only film credit for Roger Nakagawa, who plays Hiko, and I guessed from his accent, correctly as it turns out, that he was Japanese-American. (IMDB tells us nothing about him.)
I found a post about the film on a blog called Hollywood Japan File that includes short interviews with both Jon Provost and Roger Nakagawa discussing how they got the parts and what the filming was like. Provost’s description of his affection for little Hideko Koshikawa is particularly amusing:
Cameron Mitchell, who plays Tony’s father, had earlier co-starred in HOUSE OF BAMBOO (1955), which was also shot in Japan.
Finally, there’s a future Hollywood star-director in a bit part early in the film as one of the American rescue pilots, seen at right in this shot and the shot below it:
Nearly 50 years later he would direct a film set during WWII with a Japanese cast, LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA (2006).
ESCAPADE IN JAPAN was the last film produced by RKO, the studio that gave us KING KONG and CITIZEN KANE, among other classics. It was released theatrically by Universal Pictures. The director was Arthur Lubin, who was active in films and television in the course of a career that lasted from 1934 to 1981 and is probably best known for five of the earliest Abbott & Costello comedies in 1941-42, including some of their best. I watched this film on Turner Classic Movies.
Here’s a link to the original New York Times review of ESCAPADE IN JAPAN. The unnamed reviewer liked the film, but acknowledged its contrivances: