Teahouse of the August Moon: A fantastic illusion in Okinawa under U.S. Occupation

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“Little story now concluded. But history of world unfinished. Lovely ladies, kind gentlemen, go home to ponder. What was true at beginning remains true. Pain make man think, thought make man wise, and wisdom make life endurable. So, may August moon bring gentle sleep. Sayonara.”

These are last words of Sakini acted by Marlon Brando at the last scene of a film “Teahouse of the August Moon” in 1956. Do you know the movie? The setting is Okinawa in Japan under U.S. occupation. Marlon Brando, good-looking, Academy Award-winning, one of the greatest actors at that time, did “yellow face makeup” and appeared as an Okinawan (Japanese) interpreter in the film.

     Here is the story: Captain Fisby is relegated to Okinawa under the U.S. occupation because he has failed many things. Colonel Purdy sends him to a village named Tobiki to bring local people democracy and to build a school in a shape of Pentagon there. Fisby tries to work hard to complete his mission with Plan B, but Sakaini, the interpreter, mistranslates purposely and controls him slyly. At first Fisby tries to follow Plan B and rejects approach of Lotus Blossom, a geisha, but he gives up following the plan and accepts the geisha’s service, and gradually goes native.

     Fisby uses all materials for building a school and build a big teahouse instead. He gives up bringing education system to the village, but starts a brewery for brandy there. All of them are local people’s hope and he thinks about their happiness. One day, Purdy asks about his progress of building the schoolhouse on the phone and he thinks Fisby is going crazy while talking, and sends a psychiatrist Captain McLean for him.

     However, McLean is influenced by Fisby and the local citizens and even starts natural farming there in Japanese kimono. McLean and Fisby channel all their energies into building the teahouse and the brewery business with locals. Purdy notices something unexpected is happening in the village and visits there. He finds out the teahouse has been built instead of a school and local people do not learn about democracy but work hard for making brandy, and gets angry. He orders his man to destroy the teahouse and the brewery. Fisby and people watch everything is being destroyed.

     At night Fisby and Lotus Blossom say tearful good-bye each other. Sakini comforts him saying he is not a failure. Fisby says he used to worry about not being a success. But he learned the wisdom of gracious acceptance and has got an inner peace between his ambitions and limitations in the small village. They say good-bye and Fisby leaves when Purdy appears to look for him. A senator is using the village as a good model of policy of American occupation. Purdy feels abandoned because photographers are coming for coverage, but he has destroyed everything.

     But Sakini tells the colonel that destroyed things were water barrels and high quality brandy is hidden and the teahouse was just taken away and is able to be set up again. Purdy is very glad to hear that and calls Sakini an American. Sakini calls people to put everything back. They rebuild the teahouse as singing together. Fisby and Purdy are invited inside under the beautiful moon.

Marlon Brando does not look like Japanese at all from the eyes of Japanese at the beginning of the movie, but he has been as Japanese without any discomfort by the end of the film. Some people might disagree with me, but at least he cannot look like an Anglo-American. He hunches to show himself shorter, mimics Japanese action, and speaks Japanese and broken English in Japanese accent during the drama. I think he became a Hollywood star because of not only being good-looking but also his acting skills and his strong sense of professionalism.

Although I really enjoyed the film in a class at the university, according to Ms. Shoko Yonaha, a researcher of Okinawa’s entertainment, it was a box-office bomb in Okinawa when it was released there for the first time in 1957. It was because Okinawan thought that the movie insulted Okinawa and its people and caricatured them as colonial population, and protested against the production. Actually, three years before it, in 1954, a play of “Teahouse of the August Moon” was performed on the U.S. Army Base in Okinawa. The promoter tried to put on the stage outside of the base because it was big success, but he had to give it up due to the protest movement.

Why did Okinawan people act so repulsively against “Teahouse of the August Moon”? According to Ms. Yonaha, it was because of the scenario that the U.S. force is planning to build a school in a shape of Pentagon, but it is changed to build a teahouse by desire of local people, who regarded it as getting looked down. However, Okinawa in the film is not Okinawa at all, though I have never been there and cannot see its real scenery and life of more than 50 years ago. Okinawa has its unique natural, historical and cultural features and language. The movie looks like a digest of introducing Japan video.

This film is not a documentary at all but a comedy. A military satire. In fact, it is more a cynical joke of American military service, in which people follow manuals, never express their opinions, and just obey orders in the vertical and class society, than insulting Okinawan people.For instance, it is interesting that a character Colonel Purdy thinks only about his career advancement because of his wife’s desire, and that he adores adventure but never combats with enemies in the battle field or enjoys a wild life in nature of Okinawa but just reads an adventure magazine in his office.

There are many strange things in the film through the point of view of Japanese. For example, in the movie geisha is treated as a prostitute. Probably, people in the U.S at that time thought so. Yet, Lotus Blossom, the geisha, played by Machiko Kyo is very beautiful and charming. Besides, it is really fun that Okinawan people just look like being controlled by the U.S. Army but they achieve what they want by using Americans. So, there is no need to raise your eyebrows if the movie does not depict real Okinawa or Japan. So, why don’t you try to see it as a fantasy once?

By the way, the words I introduced at the beginning of this page finished with Japanese word “sayonara”.  Marlon Brando said the line and it is interesting that he appeared a film named “Sayonara” next year of “Teahouse of the August Moon”.

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