Tokyo Joe combines three of my favorite things: film noir, a historical setting, and political intrigue. It’s a criminally underrated movie and while it’s not Humphrey Bogart’s best, it still deserves to be rediscovered by audiences.
Tokyo Joe was released and set in then-present day 1949. Made by Bogart’s own Santana Productions, the film was one of the first in the postwar era to deal with the American occupation of Japan. In addition to being a noir movie, Tokyo Joe also functions as a time capsule for a very brief period of time in American-Japanese relations, after the surrender but before war erupted in Korea. It’s a strange period that author Richard Lingeman has dubbed The Noir Forties.
Bogie is at his Bogiest here, cynical and wry, and his character, Joe Barrett, could be a long-lost brother of Rick from Casablanca. There are obvious parallels: both owned a bar in a foreign country prior to America’s entry into World War II, both have become jaded, and both have loves who are now in the arms of other men. Humphrey Bogart is always someone who entertains me when he’s on camera. Although he always maintains his distinct deadpan voice in every role, his characters vary widely: villain, hero, anti-hero, etc. It’s also incredibly fun to hear him mumbling through the Japanese lines he obviously learned before the director yelled “Action!”
The film is also notable for bringing Sessue Hayakawa back to Hollywood. With his dark and brooding good looks, Hayakawa became Hollywood’s first movie heartthrob. But in 1922, amidst a climate of xenophobia and nativism, Hayakawa left Hollywood for Europe, appearing in only a handful of pictures throughout the next two decades. Tokyo Joe paved the way for some of Hayakawa’s most memorable role in The Bridge Over the River Kwai.
The movie opens with Joe Barrett returning to Japan where he had owned a bar before the war, the titular Tokyo Joe’s. The ominous mood is palpable in these opening shots, partly because a second unit was actually sent to Japan to film everyday street scenes, lending to its authenticity. The scenes shot in Hollywood are easy to spot with Bogie sitting in front of a rear-projection, along with many other clues that we’ll get to later.
Joe finds himself tied up by red tape thanks to the American Military, even though he’s a vet himself. The film does a good job of creating an atmosphere of tension, a nameless, conspiratorial dread that makes the noir genre one of my favorites. The viewer is clued in early on that the bureaucratic stalling by US Army officers is secretly intentional.
Nevertheless, Joe reunites with his Japanese friend Ito who is played by Teru Shimada and not someone in yellowface as was common at the time. In fact, all of the Japanese characters are thankfully played by Asian actors. There is even a quick scene where a Nisei Army officer serves as a translator. Ito tells Joe that his wife Trina, who Joe had walked out on before the war and presumably died in a Japanese prison camp, is actually alive and well. Elated, Joe runs out to greet her, only to discover she’s divorced him and married another man.
Vowing to win her back, Joe allows Ito to arrange a meeting with Baron Kimura (Hayakawa) the former head of the Japanese Secret Police. Kimura wants to start up an airline franchise but the Occupation Authorities block his efforts. Joe also learns, through Kimura’s secret wartime files, of how exactly Trina survived the war. Faced with starvation, she made propaganda broadcasts a la Tokyo Rose.
When Joe confronts her, Trina reveals a bombshell of her own: she had been pregnant with his child, now a seven-year-old girl named Anya. Shell-shocked, Joe tries to back out of the deal with Kimura but finds himself stuck. Should he terminate their partnership, Baron Kimura will release the documents concerning Trina’s treason. Joe agrees to front for the airline service but grows increasingly suspicious of Kimura, who insists that the airplane is only carrying “frozen frogs”.
In one trip to Seoul, a strange Japanese man is brought back, raising Joe’s suspicions even further. Eventually, Trina reveals that the occupation authorities know all about Joe’s flight to Seoul. He decides to turn himself in and they reveal that they’ve had a spy in Joe’s airline company; a former Japanese pilot nicknamed “Kamikaze”. The Japanese man they picked up was just a test run in preparation for the real haul: a Japanese general, his chief of staff, and the former leader of the Black Dragon Society, three war criminals who have avoided capture by Allied authorities.
With these three imposing figures on his side, Baron Kimura could stir up a “Communist-inspired, Communist-directed plan”. Although cynical, Joe Barrett agrees to help, partly out of patriotism and partly to avoid a lengthy prison sentence.
Sensing Joe’s reluctance, Baron Kimura has Anya kidnapped to ensure Joe will actually complete the mission. Joe makes the trip with the three Japanese war criminals, who double-cross him and take control of the plane, attempting to land it in a different airfield. Still, American Army units have every landing strip in Japan covered and arrest the war criminals anyway.
Determined to find Anya, Joe confronts Ito, who is in the middle of committing ritual suicide. Wracked by guilt and shame for having brought Joe into this shadowy affair, Ito gives the address of Kimura’s hideout before kicking off. Joe races off to save Anya and has a drawn-out and sloppy old Hollywood fight with one of Kimura’s henchmen. On a side note, I love the awkwardness of old fight scenes, free of any of the stylized glamor that today’s movies indulge in.
But Baron Kimura gets the drop on Joe, shooting him while trying to protect Anya. The American Army arrives just in time, raking Baron Kimura full of bullets before he can detonate a grenade. That’s another interesting thing from old Hollywood: Joe isn’t even the one who vanquishes Kimura but rather some nameless Army officer.
At first, Joe’s wounds look superficial but he’s fading fast. After a heartfelt goodbye to Trina and Anya, Joe is carried out on a stretcher as the camera blurs into oblivion. It’s a downer ending and very indicative of film noir. In fact, Tokyo Joe is part moody noir, part international intrigue, with some corn thrown in. That being said, it’s definitely worth a watch for Bogart fans, noir fans, and anyone interested in this brief period of history that ended on June 25th, 1950.
- A big theme of the movie, intentional or not, is the “rehabilitation” of the Japanese people. Although there is a fair dose of “Yellow Peril” stereotyping in the form of Baron Kimura and Trina’s maid who turns out to be a spy, there are also positive portrayals of the Japanese in the forms of Ito and “Kamikaze”, an almost unthinkable gesture only a few years earlier. In fact, I’ve only seen two wartime movies which even bother to have “good” Japanese characters and that’s Behind the Rising Sun and Blood on the Sun, both of which merit their own reviews eventually.
- There’s a line delivered by Joe to Ito: “You think we’re the real enemies because we’re occupying Japan. You know why we’re doing it? To help the Japanese people stand up on their hind legs like men and women have a right to in this world.” This changing viewpoint was the result of many events. After the war, General MacArthur made a speech where he insinuated that Japan was essentially like a child and should not be held to the same standards as Western nations. Although this racist condescending attitude is laughable today, it helped shift the American public’s hatred away from the Japanese people as a whole and onto the rather amorphous and shadowy ruling clique of “militarists”. The result as dramatic. Although there would continue to be movies, books, television shows that portrayed wartime Japanese as a savage and cruel people, the American public gradually grew to accept the “new” Japan.
- The other big event was happening in China. While this film was in production, Communist forces were winning victory after victory in the Chinese Civil War. America’s best friend in Asia was quickly becoming its worst enemy, allowing the once-hated Japan to become “rehabilitated”. There were more complex reasons, particularly MacArthur’s occupation policy and the Korean War, but in 1949 the American people were slowly beginning to accept the Japanese as full-fledged citizens of the world again.
- It’s interesting that Baron Kimura’s plan to cause riots and chaos is a “Communist directed” one, echoing the portents of the Cold War. While it is true that there was much Communist subversion and antagonism during the American occupation, the traditional Japanese right-wing (which Baron Kimura and the three war criminals would be on) were usually pro-American because of a mutual anti-Communism. That being said, politics makes strange bedfellows and I’m sure there were some on the Far-Left and Far-Right who were united against the occupation.
- An easy way to tell, at least for me (because I’m a weirdo), whether or not the footage is from Japan or Hollywood is by looking at the field caps, the ryakubo (略帽) Worn as part of the Imperial Army, Navy, and civilian uniform from the late 1930s and throughout the war, this uniquely Japanese cap is still seen today. This cap, along with uniforms stripped of rank, were worn for years after the war, earning the cynical nickname, “defeat suits.” Hollywood reproduced a boxy version with a long visor and is an incredibly poor facsimile whenever you compare it to the actual cap.
You can rent or buy Tokyo Joe here.