As someone whose entire adolescence coincided with the late ’80s and early ’90s, I was able to witness firsthand a remarkable movement in Hollywood during that time. It was a period on the calendar when the term “political correctness” first started to become an actual thing. Sure, it would eventually culminate in some really ridiculous casting as the years rolled by (to say nothing of what it did for a serial womanizer such as the character of James Bond), but, all in all, there was one really fascination thread in particular to emerge out of the period. For you see, kids, it was then that Asian-American actors finally started to receive some prominent screen time.
Granted, it wasn’t always positive screen time, since at least half of the action movies made during the late ’80s through the early ’90s featured Asian villains (usually with good guys of Asian descent in the leads, just so filmmakers could argue they weren’t being racist still). But at least we didn’t have to look at non-Asian actors and actresses wearing yellowface make-up much anymore after recent movies like Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen and Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins prompted even those who were not of the Asian persuasion to say “Look, enough already!” To this extent, movies such as Rising Sun, Black Rain, and the so-bad-it’s-good anti-classic Showdown in Little Tokyo began to appear.
One thing few people seemed to notice, however, was the fact that trendsetting filmmaker Samuel Fuller had already done that a good thirty years before, which lands us right on the doorstep of Fuller’s 1959 film noir classic The Crimson Kimono.
Equal parts mystery, gripping social commentary, and time capsule, The Crimson Kimono presents us with more than just a marvelous movie; it also gives us a rare glimpse of what used to be Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo district, where the bulk of the tale is set. While the movie technically lists Victoria Shaw and newcomer Glenn Corbett as its top-billed stars, character actor/singer James Shigeta (whom most of you Millennials will probably only be able to recognize as Mr. Takagi in Die Hard, sadly enough) is the true protagonist here. But it’s not like Hollywood or late ’50s America would have “accepted” a top-billed Asian actor then, which serves as a great segue into Mr. Fuller’s intended subject matter here, that of racism.
After a caucasian stripper half-clad in a kimono is killed in the street, detectives Joe Kojaku (Shigeta) and Charlie Bancroft (Corbett) are assigned to find out whodunit. From all accounts, Joe and Charlie are both all-American lads, sharing a (really nice) pad together when they aren’t hard at work capturing bad guys. But that very perspective shifts into a debilitating sense of paranoia for poor Joe after beautiful young artist Christine Downes (Ms. Shaw) enters the picture. Though she is initially attracted to Charlie’s outgoing adolescent-like charm, Christine feels a true connection with Joe, leading to what you might call “disorientation” (sorry, had to) for Joe as he starts to see an issue of race, even where there isn’t one.
Powerful, poignant, and right on the money ‒ even today ‒ The Crimson Kimono brings us a brilliant, fast-moving character drama set within the confines of a murder mystery. Replete with his classic “tabloid-style” of filmmaking and some jaw-droppingly atmospheric black-and-white photography by Sam Leavitt, Fuller pulls no punches weaving this Kimono. Among the supporting faces (and figures) on display here are Anna Lee, Paul Dubov, Gloria Pall, and Japanese-born character actors Bob Okazaki and Fuji, both of whom popped up in Fuller’s House of Bamboo. You’ll also spot a cameo by Batman‘s future Chief O’Hara, Stafford Repp, if you look close enough.
Not surprisingly, Fuller’s entire message went pretty much ignored when The Crimson Kimono ‒ the director’s first film for Columbia Pictures ‒ made its theatrical debut in 1959, to wit the studio marketed it as an exploitation flick! Thankfully, you can now experience Fuller’s film without any further whitewashing via Twilight Time’s Limited Edition release of this classic on Blu-ray. Presented in 1080p with an MPEG-4 AVC codec, The Crimson Kimono arrives in HD from the Sony vaults in a gorgeous 1.85:1 presentation, even with all the various cost-effective methods Fuller frequently employed in the editing department. The DTS-HD MA 1.0 soundtrack is absolutely perfect, and English (SDH) subtitles are included.
Special features for this marvelous gem include composer Harry Sukman’s score in an isolated DTS-HD MA 2.0 track and two featurettes from Sony’s 2009 DVD release of The Collector’s Choice: The Samuel Fuller Collection. The first Sam Fuller Storyteller, features on-screen interviews with Wim Wenders, Martin Scorsese, and Tim Robbins discussing their fondness for Fuller. Next up is Curtis Hanson: The Culture of The Crimson Kimono, with the late L.A. Confidential filmmaker. Three trailers are also included, one of which stems from a 16mm print, interestingly enough. Lastly, the limited-to-3,000-copies release sports another fantastic essay from Julie Kirgo in the liners.