A strand of innocence runs underneath the curt urban poetry of Samuel Fuller’s cinema. The filmmaker revels in the shtick his characters invent for themselves and in the camaraderie they share, and it’s this authentic, playful sense of humanity that gives Fuller’s lurid conceits meaning.
In The Crimson Kimono, Japanese-American detective Joe Kojaku (James Shigeta) eats an apple while questioning a man associated with a murdered stripper, Sugar Torch (Gloria Pall). Halfway through their conversation, Joe reaches into his jacket pocket and produces another apple, handing it to the man. In strict narrative terms, there’s no reason for this gesture, though it’s the heart of the scene, establishing Joe’s kind inquisitiveness without making an expository issue of it. The moment tickles the imagination, as hard-boiled noir cops don’t usually give potential witnesses apples.
Later, Joe’s partner, Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett), questions Mac (Anna Lee), an artist who might know “Chris,” the person who painted Sugar Torch in preparation for a new act that she was devising before her murder. For a routine filmmaker, this moment might merely serve as a transition from point A to B, allowing Charlie to find and meet Christine Downes (Victoria Shaw), the painter who comes between him and Joe. But Fuller revels in the mysterious energy that exists between Charlie and Mac, who’ve known each other for a while and have probably unrealized sexual tension. Mac’s a classic hard-living and unpretentious Fuller broad, introduced in The Crimson Kimono spackled in paint while working on a composition—drunk on art, booze, and her own mythology of herself as a fount of tough wisdom. Later on, Mac has a priceless moment in which she describes the difference between cigarettes and cigars, likening the former to beer sipped out of a thimble.
Subtlety resides within Fuller’s celebrated bluntness as a filmmaker, as these bits cumulatively build a relational infrastructure between the characters. Charlie and Joe served together in the Korean War, and Charlie’s a lady’s man while Joe’s a sensitive guy who claims to have a woman out of town. In a beautiful performance, Shigeta allows us to feel Joe’s sense of alienation from America long before it becomes an explicit plot point. A bicultural man, Joe feels adrift from both his American and Japanese roots, and he perceives racist resentment in Charlie’s reactions when they both fall for Christine, though Charlie’s jealousy has nothing to do with Joe’s cultural identity.
A biracial love triangle is thorny stuff for American cinema in 1959. Fuller, a continental renaissance man in a no-nonsense guy’s-guy exterior, treats Joe and Christine’s attraction as matter-of-factly as he regarded all the other controversial subjects he tackled throughout his career. In fact, Fuller’s almost too matter-of-fact. Christine and Joe fall in love so quickly as to risk giving the audience whiplash. In the second half of the film, the murder mystery is largely forgotten while Fuller explores the insidious effects of the postwar tensions existing between Japan and the United States.
The Crimson Kimono is haunting and emotionally nourishing, particularly in the poignant intersection that the film establishes between the murder mystery at its center and the love stories concerning Joe and Charlie and Joe and Christine. There’s also an evocation of Japanese American life that includes affectionate, nearly docudramatic references to kendo, karate, and Buddhist worship. Rather than preaching superficially about the perils of racism, Fuller actively celebrates the textures of differing walks of life, showing how racism can blind one to the everyday rapture of community.
The film also abounds in Fuller’s talent for physicalizing emotion. When Charlie and Joe team up to fight a beefy murder suspect, Fuller cuts the action into exhilaratingly geometric shards of incident, alternating from disconnected fists to feet to shots of bodies tumbling. These crisp action beats establish Charlie and Joe’s deep friendship via their teamwork, which is, however, built on a foundation of resentment, acknowledging cultural bridges that can perhaps never be crossed. Charlie’s generosity, somewhat unusual for an American detective in 1950s cinema, might not be enough to transcend Joe’s indoctrinated self-loathing. The Crimson Kimono is driven and enlivened by the filmmaker’s wedding of genre trope, eccentric visual and verbal symbolism, and common-sense decency, yielding a distinctly pure kind of macho empathy that can only be called Fuller-esque.
The image is inconsistent, alternating from pristine to somewhat grainy, though it's generally quite attractive. Blacks are strong and whites are sharp across the board, and there's plenty of textural detail to savor throughout this transfer, particularly in the vivid close-ups of the wigs, swords, and other garments that Sam Fuller provides of Japanese culture. The monaural soundtrack is significantly cleaner than those of earlier editions of the film, informing the dialogue with a musical snap and the score with a robust, clanging sensationalism that's familiar to Fuller's work.
"Sam Fuller: Storyteller" is a short featurette that covers the broad strokes of the filmmaker's career, from working as a crime reporter to serving in WWII to writing novels and making films. Fuller's fans with already be well-versed in this material, but it's enjoyable to watch as luminaries such as Tim Robbins, Martin Scorsese, and Wim Wenders pay tribute to a master. "Curtis Hanson: The Culture of The Crimson Kimono" is shorter yet, though Hanson offers perceptive observations about the film's sense of troubled friendship and racial identity. Meanwhile, historian Julie Kirgo's characteristically astute essay discusses the film's beauty while mentioning Fuller's disappointment with The Crimson Kimono's marketing as exploitation fodder. An isolated score and a gallery of trailers round out an affectionate yet slim package.
A slim and somewhat inconsistent package, though Sam Fuller's poignant and dynamic The Crimson Kimono is still a beautiful sight to behold.