“The Teahouse of the August Moon” (1956)

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Co-stars: Glenn Ford, Paul Ford, Machiko Kyō, Eddie Albert

Awards: Nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor- Motion Picture Musical or Comedy

Character: Sakini

This film is an exercise in calculated insanity. Brando stars as the Okinawan translator, Sakini, and goes all out with a total Asian transformation, including black hair, eyeliner, and “harro’s”. The film is a satire of the occupation and Americanization of Okinawa after World War II, and does a hilarious job of lampooning the situation. It was a product of Brando’s own Pennebaker Productions, which he started in order to make more “socially conscious” films. Yes indeed, Brando actually fought to have this movie made. The man who turned down Lawrence of Arabia, who initially refused to even look at the script of The Godfather

The film starts with Sakini under a tree, setting the tone for the film, and explaining the history of the region. He talks of past conquerors attempting to assimilate the Okinawan people to their own cultures, and of how the Okinawan people endure it. It’s quite silly- but that is okay because it is a comedy. He then gives us a guided tour of the village, and of the Americanization process that has occurred. He is a mischief making translator, and a lazy one at that. When he hears a commanding officer, he stops the tour and pretends to be asleep.

We meet Colonel Wainwright Purdy III, a loud, brash and bumbling American, who believes the locals are not to be trusted and are in serious need of democratization. He sends Captain Fisby, a man with a weak military track record, to the village of Tobiki in order to build a pentagon shaped school for the local children. While he’s there, he is also supposed to teach the locals about democracy and Americanize the village with maximum efficiency. Purdy sends Sakini with Fisby to act as his translator. Almost instantly, Sakini starts pulling stunts on Fisby, by bringing along an old woman and her family and their goat with them to Tobiki, on top of the Jeep they’re driving.

Upon reaching the village, Fisby attempts to hold court with the locals and explain his purpose there. They begin by giving him gifts: cricket cages, Geta shoes, hand made cups, and a straw hat worn by local farmers. Elections are held for a variety of positions, and he tells them of the school that is to be built. Soon, the locals are off to watch the sunset, and Fisby returns to his hut. Sakini then presents him with a pretty geisha girl named Lotus Blossom, whom he believes is nothing but a glorified prostitute. She attacks him and forces him into his pair of Geta shoes. Soon, the locals are asking him to build them a teahouse for the geisha to perform in, instead of a pentagon shaped school.

Attempting to build an industry in Tobiki, Fisby has the villagers go into the souvenir business. They create several crafts, but there is no interest from people to buy them. To console themselves, they go off to get drunk. This is when Fisby discovers that the locals have a quick process for brewing a sweet potato brandy, and has them go into the brewing business. Unlike the straw hats and cricket cages, this industry proves successful, and a teahouse is built. Fisby has been thoroughly indoctrinated by the Okinawan way of life, and the Americanization of the village has been more or less stunted, with him failing to build the school. He also takes to wearing his bath robe as a kimono.

Concerned about the progress in Tobiki, Purdy sends the psychiatrist Captain McLean to keep his eye on Fisby. However, upon reaching the village, the very relaxed Fisby manages to get him on board with the village way of life, and tells him of his plans to bolster the local farming community. When he mentions pesticide use, McLean launches into a monologue about organic farming, and is soon roped into overseeing the growth of the organic local produce. When Purdy calls on a check up, he grows concerned about McLean’s activity in the village, and sets down to Tobiki himself.

In order to get into character as Sakini, Brando spent two months in Asia, soaking up the local culture, accent and mannerisms. He also spent two hours in the make up chair each morning, physically transforming into an Asian man. The result is absolutely hilarious, rivaled only by Robert Downey Jr’s transformation in Tropic Thunder. A good part of the film is shot on location in Asia, but after monsoons made it difficult to continue, production was relocated to sound stages in Hollywood. Brando, who’s current girlfriend, Anna Kashfi (well one of many), was in the hospital with tuberculosis, would head over to the hospital after filming each day in full Sakini dress, and entertain the nurses by impersonating a Japanese doctor. It was in this time frame that he proposed to her, and she was to be his first wife.

The film itself is quite bizarre, but also quite hilarious. It can be bamboozling, because you’re not quite sure if the whole thing is inherently racist or not. It’s not- the tone of the film completely mocks American culture, not Asian culture. It’s just a delightfully politically incorrect film. As it ages, it grows more and more politically incorrect, making it even funnier. It ought to be a proper cult film, as it is totally weird, ridiculous, vaguely rude, and well done. If a person was high, I’m pretty sure they would bust a gut. Brando is funny as hell in this- even demonstrating physical comedy in parts. There are almost no words for his Asian accent either- only in one or two moments do you hear it slip for a split second. If you don’t know his regular speaking voice, you won’t notice it. The one thing of major note here is the fact that his name appears at the top of the bill- he plays a pivotal role, translating between the locals and the Americans, but he is certainly a supporting actor, not the lead. This is a trademark of Brando films though- his star shone so bright that his name appeared at the top of the credits in just about everything he was ever in, even if he were just playing small parts.

All in all, the film is totally weird, and totally unique. I’d recommend it to anyone looking for an offbeat comedy, and can appreciate satire and politcal incorrectness. Thumbs up!

Quote: “Pain make man think. Thought make man wise. Wisdom make life endurable.”

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1 Response to ““The Teahouse of the August Moon” (1956)”

  1. March 9, 2017 at 9:28 pm


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