During the 1930s, Tennessee belle Gwen (Carroll Baker) is swept off her feet by the handsome, courtly, yet in many ways alien Terry Terasaki (James Shigeta), a Japanese diplomat on assignment in Washington DC. He too is attracted by her alien-ness as well as her beauty and spirit, and at first tries to remake her into a proper Japanese wife—at which she’s lousy. While they overcome their personal prejudices and misjudgments and negotiate those of others, Terry’s political conscience is tried by his country’s imperial aggressions. After the attack on Pearl Harbor leads to America’s declaration of war in December 1941, this couple faces a new set of trials and the suspicions of all sides.
This remarkable story is true, or as true as a movie can get. Charles Kaufman adapted it from Gwen Terasaki’s autobiographical novel, which made a splash and presumably got optioned early by MGM. That’s the best explanation for why a French company, Cité Films, made this movie as a US co-production shot in Japan. Only 15 years after the war, it seems unlikely that a major Hollywood studio would have initiated a sympathetic project from the Japanese point of view (actually Gwen’s conflicted view) in which love is the only thing preventing this “bridge” of cultures (materialised in their daughter) from tearing apart.
Of course Baker is an American star to play an American heroine, and Shigeta too is American (probably best known for TV roles), but most of the folks behind the camera are French or Japanese, including producer Jaques Bar, director Etienne Périer (his only Hollywood movie), and composer Georges Auric. Most of the supporting cast is Japanese, including the venerable Tetsuro Tamba (Tiger Tanaka in You Only Live Twice).
The film is a black and white epic that’s well-mounted, sometimes melodramatic, and always absorbing. Perhaps it’s not a masterpiece, but it’s fascinating that it exists at all, and that the story it tells existed. After decades in obscurity, it’s now available through Warner Archive’s made-on-demand service.
// Notes from the Road
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