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Townsend Harris is sent by President Pierce to Japan to serve as the first U.S. Consul-General to that country. Harris discovers enormous hostility to foreigners, as well as the love of a young geisha. Written by
Jim Beaver <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Based on the true story of American diplomat Townsend Harris, his time in Japan in the 1850s and 60s, and his romance with a 17-year-old geisha named Kichi. Their story is one of the most well-known folk tales in Japan. The real Harris died in New York in 1878, and the real Kichi committed suicide in Shimoda in 1892. See more »
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This is very much not the sort of movie for which John Wayne is known. He plays a diplomat, a man who gets things done through words and persuasion rather than physical action. The film moves with a quiet realism through its superficially unexciting story.
For the open-minded, the patient and the thoughtful, this movie is a rich depiction of an intriguing part of history.
There are two intertwining stories. The big story is of internalised, isolationist Japan and externalised, expansionist America clashing when their interests conflict. The small, human, story is of an outsider barbarian (Wayne) and a civilised Geisha's initial hostility and dislike turning to mutual respect and love. The human story is a reflection of the greater story of the two nations.
The movie is very well done and all actors play their roles well. The two lead roles are performed to perfection. John Wayne is excellent as Townsend Harris, striking exactly the right blend of force and negotiation in his dealings with the Japanese. Eiko Ando is likewise excellent as the Geisha of the title, charming and delightful. The interaction between her character and John Wayne's is particularly well portrayed. This is exactly how these two individuals (as they are depicted in the film) would have behaved.
The script is very well written. It lacks all pomposity. and is a realistic depiction of the manner in which the depicted events may have occurred. The characters are real people, not self-consciously "great" figures from history. Furthermore, the clash of cultures and interests is portrayed with great skill and subtlety. Indeed, the clash of a traditionalist, and traditionally powerful, isolationist Japan and a rising, newly powerful nation from across the ocean is summarised very well in one exchange between John Wayne and the local Japanese baron. Wayne complains that shipwrecked sailors are beheaded if they land in Japan, and that passing ships cannot even put into port for water. The Baron responds that Japan just wants to be left alone. Wayne's character replies that Japan is at an increasingly important crossroads of international shipping, and that if things continue as before the nation will be regarded as nothing more than a band of brigands infesting an important roadway. A very real summary of the way in which the two countries each saw themselves as being in the right, and saw the other as being in the wrong. The resultant clash between two self-righteous peoples with conflicting interests has its reflections throughout history, a continuing theme that echoes into the present and on into the future.
Cinematography and the depiction of mid-nineteenth century Japan, before the accelerated growth towards industrialisation that was to follow later in the century, is excellent. A visual treat, and an enlightening insight into Japan's ancient civilisation.
I highly recommend anyone, whether a John Wayne fan or not, to watch this film if you get the chance. Just be aware that it isn't an action film. It is a representation of an interesting place and time in history, and a slow-boiling love story which (much to their surprise) comes to dominate the personal lives of the two main characters. Watch this film on its merits, without preconceptions, allow yourself to be immersed in its story, and you will thoroughly enjoy it.
All in all, an excellent film.
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