Perry Mason in Japan: “The Case of the Blushing Pearls” (1959)

24 Oct

Well, okay, he doesn’t go to Japan exactly, but rather to Little Tokyo in Los Angeles in an episode of “Perry Mason” called “The Case of the Blushing Pearls,” which had its premiere on Saturday night, October 24, 1959, 58 years ago today. It was Raymond Burr’s first on-screen encounter with Japanese characters since he’d shot scenes with Japanese-American actors three years earlier to be inserted into a re-edited version of the Japanese monster film GOJIRA (1954), to be called GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS (1956) for its U.S. release, as seen here:

This was, of course, the film that turned a lot of young Baby Boomers into lifelong Japanophiles. Fortunately, the outcome of Burr’s encounter in Little Tokyo was a lot more pleasant for him than that with Godzilla.

“The Case of the Blushing Pearls” is the first “Perry Mason” episode to feature a plot centered around Asian characters. All four of these characters are Japanese. Three of them are played by Japanese or Japanese-American actors—Nobu McCarthy, George Takei, Rollin Moriyama—while the fourth is played by Chinese-American Benson Fong, who had appeared in two earlier Perry Mason episodes, but not with other Asian actors. All four work at Oriental Imports in Little Tokyo, a firm run by Ito Kamuri (Moriyama), whose niece Mitsou (Nobu McCarthy) gets the plot rolling when she finds a necklace of pearls stashed in her bungalow that was evidently stolen from her white boyfriend’s stepmother and planted there. The boyfriend’s father (Ralph Dumke) accuses her of theft and she’s arrested and jailed. He bails her out on the condition that she stop seeing his son Grove (Steve Terrell) so that he can marry Alice (Christine White), a “more suitable” girl that the family likes. Grove shows his true colors when he accuses Mitsou of stealing the necklace. At one point, after Mason has taken Mitsou’s case, he asks her if she loves Grove, to which she replies, “I am drawn to Grove, but my heart has not yet spoken, Mr. Mason.” George Takei plays Toma Sakai, the bookkeeper for Kamuri’s firm and Benson Fong plays the resident jewelry expert, Itsubi Nogata.

L-R: Nobu McCarthy (as Mitsou Kamuri), Barbara Hale (as Della Street), Raymond Burr (as Perry Mason)

L-R: Rollin Moriyama (as Ito Kamuri), Raymond Burr, Benson Fong (as Itsubi Nogata), George Takei (as Toma Sakai)

Things get complicated when it is learned that the pearls, after they’ve been returned to Grove’s stepmother Thelma (Angela Greene), are not the natural pearls she owned but a set of cultured pearls, evidently made to replace the natural pearls, which are much more expensive. When Ito is found dead in his office, the initial assumption is suicide, evidently from disgrace over his niece’s arrest, but further investigation by Lt. Tragg (Ray Collins) reveals that Ito was murdered and Mitsou becomes the prime suspect because she had been heard arguing with him earlier that evening. Mason has to figure out who possesses the original pearls and who had the cultured ones made to replace them and, hence, had the motive to cover up the deed by murder. In the course of the trial, we learn that Toma Sakai is in love with Mitsou. That’s all I’m going to say right now. If you’re intrigued enough by this description, you should be able to find the episode on Amazon Prime.

There is quite a bit of Japanese flavor in the episode. There are two scenes in Japanese restaurants and glimpses of Japanese art on the walls of Oriental Imports as well as in Mitsou’s bungalow. The music score for this episode, composed by Jerry Goldsmith before he became one of Hollywood’s most prominent film composers, includes lots of Japanese motifs.

The episode also deserves note for featuring the first African-American character with a speaking part in a “Perry Mason” episode. Connors, the night watchman for Oriental Imports, is played by Bill Walker, a veteran actor whose Hollywood career began in THE KILLERS (1946), where he played Sam, the cook at the diner where Hemingway’s two hitmen come looking for “the Swede” in the opening scene, and ended with an episode of “Hunter” in 1987.

As played by Nobu McCarthy, Mitsou is a sensitive soul and an art student in her spare time. She met Grove at an art class, which he attended as an act of rebellion aimed at his father who wants him to go into the family business. Mitsou eventually concludes that Grove’s involvement with her was also an act of rebellion. She is demure and soft-spoken in the manner in which Japanese women were often portrayed in Hollywood films and TV shows of the time, but she speaks her own mind and stands up for herself when necessary. I felt a lot of sympathy for her, more than I do for most wrongly-accused suspects that Mason defends, partly because she’s so sweet and gentle, but also because she’s falsely accused of two different crimes in this episode.

Of the other Japanese actors, George Takei has the most extensive role and it is indeed the earliest major role I’ve seen Takei portray in the years before he became famous as Sulu, the helmsman on the Starship Enterprise on “Star Trek” (1966-69), seen here:

Takei’s character here, Toma, is the one who comforts Mitsou when she finds the pearl necklace and offers to return it to Grove’s stepmother before the elder Mr. Nichols bursts in on them with a private eye with a camera. Toma later meets Mitsou when she gets out of jail and tries to help Mason solve the problem of determining what happened to the natural pearls and who ordered the duplicates from Mitsou’s uncle. Given how unpredictable the plots on “Perry Mason” often are, I initially thought that maybe Toma had an ulterior motive.

Benson Fong as Nogata, with artificially gray hair and beard (the actor was only 42 here), has a few scenes where he dispenses his knowledge of pearls so the viewer can understand the difference between natural pearls and cultured pearls, key to understanding the plot, and he testifies as an expert witness at the trial. He has much more involvement in the case than I can reveal and Mason and his crew are forced to pay a visit to Nogata’s home late in the episode. Fong had an active career in Hollywood from 1943 to 1986. He was in one additional Perry Mason episode after this one, making a total of four appearances on the show.

Rollin Moriyama as Ito, the murder victim, has too small a part to develop much of a character but he comes off as a gentleman, dignified and cultured. In his introduction to Mason, he points out that Mason had once saved the life of a countryman of his, whom I’m assuming was yet another of the hundreds of innocents charged with murder in the Perry Mason alternate universe. As far as I can determine, that case was not dramatized on the show. I was not familiar with Moriyama before seeing him here, but he has a long list of credits, including a film made in Hollywood before the war, PENNY SERENADE (1941), with his next credit being TOKYO JOE (1949) and a long list of Hollywood credits afterwards in both film and television right up to 1981.

Canadian-born Japanese actress Nobu McCarthy was active in Hollywood, primarily in television, from 1958 to 1990, with intermittent credits after that before her death in 2002. She had significant roles in a handful of interesting movies, including GEISHA BOY, FIVE GATES TO HELL, WAKE ME WHEN IT’S OVER and the western, WALK LIKE A DRAGON, which also starred James Shigeta. I wrote about her here when I covered “Dragon at the Door,” an episode of “Laramie” in which she guest starred with other Japanese actors.

She’s also in an episode of “Wagon Train” entitled “The John Augustus Story,” which I’d like to see, as well as a later episode of “Perry Mason,” “The Case of the Wrongful Writ” (1965), which also features James Shigeta.

For the record, “The Case of the Blushing Pearls” was directed by former actor Richard Whorf and written by veteran screenwriter Jonathan Latimer. I earlier wrote about Perry Mason in my piece on Raymond Burr’s centennial on May 21 of this year.

 

 

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One Response to “Perry Mason in Japan: “The Case of the Blushing Pearls” (1959)”

  1. ejgalvin@comcast.net October 26, 2017 at 11:15 PM #

    Wow- that is so interesting. I loved Perry Mason when we were younger- there was always a problem that got solved and right won and wrong lost- good vs. bad. I think that’s why I love Law and Order: SVU so much. Would we have been watching Perry Mason at that age? I kind of think not- not until we were a little older. Have you figured out your new TV system on your computer? Thanks for sharing this- not that I get Amazon Prime at the moment. But I have other methods that would work.

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