James Shigeta: A Pioneer Actor who Broke Much Ground

December 1, 2014 at 5:01 pm

By Terry Watada.

James ShigetaJames Shigeta died on July 28, 2014.  The news made nary a wrinkle in the Japanese News Media.  But to me, the passing of the famed actor, singer and recording artist was a profound event; it meant the end of an era.

My mother always took me to the Eastwood Theatre near our home on weekends to view whatever was playing.  We saw all of the beach movies, How the West was Won and anything else that was featured, good and bad.  Her favourites were any that featured James Shigeta – a Japanese name attached to a handsome man.  I don’t know how many times we saw Flower Drum Song, a musical that made her laugh since so many Nikkei were in the cast (it was a Chinese American story).  She also didn’t need to understand English so much; she just enjoyed the singing and dancing.

To a kid like me, it was refreshing to see an Asian face in the lead role, a face like mine (at least in the same ballpark).  So I too enjoyed James Shigeta movies.  Flower Drum Song was fun but it was Bridge to the Sun that really affected me.  I didn’t understand it too much being a kid of ten when I saw it, but the idea that the protagonist dies alone at the end made me rather sad for the longest time.  I also was tickled by the fact that Shigeta was married to Carroll Baker (the thinking man’s Marilyn Monroe) in the film.  It wasn’t until I looked into Shigeta’s career upon his death that I realized just how significant the man was.

He was a “country boy” as he put it, born in Hawaii (June 17, 1929) into a family with six kids (five boys and one girl, he was the middle child).  His father was a Honolulu contractor.  Some say he was a Sansei, others a Nisei.  He studied at New York University and then served as a Marine during the Korean War.  After the cease fire, he landed in Japan where he was discharged and found work at the Toho Studios, in radio, television, and the musical stage.  He soon decided on a musical career and became the “Frank Sinatra of Japan”.  There is much more to his initial endeavours but what stayed with me was his film acting.  I decided to have a mini-Shigeta film festival in my living room.  Fortunately, many of his films are available on DVD if not Netflix.

The Crimson Kimono, his first film in 1959, was an auspicious start.  He played a Nisei Detective in Los Angeles (with no phoney chop suey accent).  I loved the tour of Little Tokyo.  His co-star was Glenn Corbett, who went on to star in television’s Route 66.  Shigeta as Joe Kojaku was a Korean War hero (given his war experience, Shigeta must’ve been perfect for the director, Sam Fuller) who saved his partner’s life.  The remarkable aspect of the film was the love interest.  Victoria Shaw played Christine Downes, a painting instructor caught in the middle of a murder investigation.  It’s a classic love triangle with a twist.  In the end, it is Detective Kojaku who is kissing Christine in the middle of the Nisei Week Parade.  Imagine that?  What was all the fuss about when Capt. Kirk kissed Lt. Uhura on television?  The other theme of the film was the Nisei psyche.  Not sure I agree but the auteur Fuller describes Kojaku as having an inferiority complex about his full acceptance as an American.  The white characters are of course the epitome of liberal virtue and opinion when it came to race relations.

Perhaps his most famous role was as Wang Ta in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song (1961).  It was his fifth film and he really displayed his singing and acting talent.  He played the callow youth well as the college graduate about to go to law school to avoid “real life”.  Though he insists on being American in choosing his own bride, he learns his lesson and obeys his father by marrying his father’s choice (Miyoshi Umeki’s Mei Li – an illegal immigrant whose “back is wet”).  I have always had a love/hate relationship with this film.

The final film I viewed was another groundbreaking role.  As I mentioned earlier Bridge to the Sun featured Shigeta and Carroll Baker as a married couple during WWII.  It is the relatively true story of Hidenari (Terry, maybe that’s why I like the film so much) and Gwen Terasaki, a Japanese diplomat and Georgia Peach who fell in love in Washington DC and left for Japan after Pearl Harbor.  In the US, the Japanese man stands by his love and accepts all of her foibles, as she does his.  The culture clash happens in Japan when she acts in a very American way, which of course embarrasses him.  Other issues become apparent, like the racism against their happa daughter, the tragedy and deprivation of the times, and Japan’s fascism.

As a kid, I was left with the impression that they were never shown expressing their love physically for one another (not even holding hands).  I didn’t remember if they ever shared a bed.  On second viewing, I realized that there was lots of affectionate interaction throughout.  Shigeta again was seen kissing his white wife, sharing a bed and playing a nude scene (with her back to the camera of course) in an ofuro.  Remarkable for 1961.  Again, what was it with Star Trek?

James Shigeta was definitely a pioneer; his filmography is filled with remarkable roles, many exploring what it means to be a Japanese American.  That sets him apart from other actors like George Takei, Robert Ito, Pat Morita and Mako.  The others were sometimes forced to play demeaning roles; Shigeta as the last contract player in Hollywood avoided the chop suey parts perhaps because they didn’t fit his image.  Or as he said in a recent interview: “I wouldn’t be averse to ‘gardener’ roles if they’re well-written. If it’s strictly ‘Yes, missy, no missy’, then forget it.”  Then again he was never offered a gardener role.  Surely he is an ideal for all Asian North American actors.

The Crimson Kimono: part of the Sam Fuller Collection, Sony Pictures, 2009.  There is a Region 2 available but you need a Region 2 player.
Bridge to the Sun: Warner Bros Archive Collection, 2012
Flower Drum Song: Universal Pictures, 2006

Available only on DVD, not Blu-ray.