A few years back I rented a pan-and-scan video copy of Samuel Fuller’s House of Bamboo and within minutes of its opening sequence (a brutally detached train heist, enacted in the shadow of Mount Fuji, that climaxes with an extreme close-up shriek) I turned it off in disgust. It’s already somewhat unprincipled to watch a movie—any movie—outside of its proper frame ratio, but something rang particularly false about House of Bamboo’s rectangle-to-square reduction that was only brought into focus once I viewed the film’s DVD transfer.
Quite simply, House of Bamboo has some of the most stunning examples of widescreen photography in the history of cinema. Travelling to Japan on 20th Century Fox’s dime, Fuller captured a country divided, trapped between past traditions and progressive attitudes while lingering in the devastating aftereffects of an all-too-recent World War. His visual schema represents the societal fractures through a series of deep-focus, Noh-theatrical tableaus, a succession of silhouettes, screens, and stylized color photography that melds the heady insanity of a Douglas Sirk melodrama (see, as an especial point of comparison, Sirk’s 1956 Korea-set war film Battle Hymn) with the philosophical inquiry of the best noirs.
The result is a rather uncharacteristic dual love story, one explicit (between the film’s mystery-shrouded, ugly American protagonist Eddie Spanier, played by Robert Stack, and his stunning Japanese mistress Mariko, played by Shirley Yamaguchi) and one implicit (in the subtly homoerotic relationship between Eddie and Tokyo-based American crime boss Sandy Dawson, played by Robert Ryan). The serious critical studies of Fuller’s film tend to focus on the latter interactions between Eddie and Sandy (understandable considering the inspired pairing of Stack’s perpetually stoic cluelessness with Ryan’s subdued sexual menace), while ultimately dismissing the Mariko/Eddie relationship as substandard Hollywood kitsch. Indeed, film historians James Ursini and Alain Silver, on an otherwise excellent DVD commentary track, suggest that Fuller is completely disinterested in these scenes and then go on to state—or, rather, contemptuously bemoan—that the heterosexual love story is what the “audience” (that reductive, amorphous blob of a description that we critics fall back on far too often) really wants to see.
I’d counter that the Mariko/Eddie scenes are as interesting as the ones between Eddie and Sandy, though for entirely different reasons. Ursini and Silver unwittingly hit upon the points of interest when they superficially note that the gender roles in the gauzy romantic scenes are reversals of the norm, with Eddie often undressed or “feminized” in a kimono while Mariko—with a kind of ingratiating, yet robotic thoughtfulness—attends to certain of his bodily needs. Interestingly, though she cooks his meals, massages his shoulders, and compliments his eyebrows, sexual gratification is not among Mariko’s offerings. Indeed, the only time she kisses Eddie (Fuller working quite cognizantly and subversively against Hays code hysteria) is in a moment when he needs quick-think protection from one of Sandy’s gang members. And as the film progresses, Mariko becomes more and more motherly, with Fuller finally tossing her out of the narrative in an alternately cruel and heartbreaking scene, occurring about 20 minutes before House of Bamboo’s actual climax, where she races around Eddie’s room—all the time opening and closing the director’s omnipresent screens and doors—and worriedly calls his name.
I’d guess that many viewers focus on the Eddie/Sandy relationship because of its relative subtlety, which is in strict opposition to the explicit and overbearing nature of Mariko’s interactions with Eddie (always accentuated by Leigh Harline’s weeping-violin orchestrations). To an extent, this is a product of the times—obviously, homosexual attraction could not be openly spoken of in a ’50s studio picture, so the tendency for a modern viewer is, perhaps, to latch onto House of Bamboo’s subtextual motivations as its most interesting aspects. Yet this is to give short shrift to the Mariko/Eddie love story, which complements the soft-spoken undercurrents of the Eddie/Sandy bond with big, broad colorful strokes and effectively accentuates the romanticism of Fuller’s atypically nonchalant portrayal of an interracial relationship, a union that, in the film’s final, beautifully composed long shot, seems graciously blessed by the gods. It’s the hetero yin to the film’s homo yang and it should ultimately be clear, as the saying goes, that you can’t have one without the other.