FUTARI NO HITOMI (GIRLS HAND IN HAND, 1952) is, I believe, the very first Japanese production to import an American star. There were earlier U.S.-Japan co-productions like TOKYO FILE 212 (1951) and, that same year, GEISHA GIRL, which had American actors, but no home-grown Japanese films that had brought over a bonafide American star. This film stars Margaret O'Brien, who had been a child star at MGM in the 1940s (MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, LITTLE WOMEN, THE SECRET GARDEN) but had left the studio after hitting adolescence. Co-starring with her is Hibari Misora, then the reigning recording star in Japan, a position she held throughout the decade. Misora had been in seven previous films and would make 41 more by the end of the 1960s. She starred in several musicals, including JANKEN MUSUME (1955), which I've also reviewed on this site. Both she and O'Brien were 15 when this film came out.
O'Brien plays Katie McDermott, the daughter of an American diplomat in Occupied Japan, ca. 1950. She speaks many of her lines in English, but also speaks quite a number of lines in carefully enunciated American-accented Japanese. (Her character is supposed to be learning the language.) The interior scenes were all shot sync-sound, while exteriors were post-dubbed, so that's O'Brien's own voice we hear in every scene. Japanese subtitles appear on the side of the screen when English is spoken but, alas, no English subtitles are provided when Japanese is spoken, at least on the DVD I purchased (from CDJapan). IMDb lists an American release date. Was this film ever shown in the U.S.? And was it subtitled? I'm curious to know. In any event, enough English is spoken to convey all the basic plot points, although some crucial details slip by in one scene that would help explain the dilemma posed later for one of the protagonists.
Hibari plays Maria Abe, an orphan girl with four younger orphans in her charge who may or may not be her siblings (another important detail that doesn't get confirmed in the English dialogue). Katie (O'Brien) takes the children under her wing and learns that they were denied admittance to an orphanage because they refused to relinquish their pet dog. To make a long story short, Katie and a sympathetic English-speaking Japanese Christian minister (Tetsu Nakamura) eventually spearhead a drive to raise funds to build an orphanage under the church's sponsorship—one that will presumably allow dogs. There is quite a persistent religious undercurrent throughout, including scenes of Katie praying and attending church. Katie even teaches Hibari and the kids to sing "Ave Maria" (a play on Maria's name). In addition to "Ave Maria," Misora sings three songs in the film, all easily found on CD albums by the singer, all still in print.
The plot is somewhat saccharine and O'Brien's goody two-shoes character might have been hard to take if played by any other actress, but O'Brien brings the brand of intensity to the role that made her such a powerhouse as a child star. (Can anyone forget the scene in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS where the seven-year-old performer demolishes a snowman in a fit of rage?) She comes off as wholly sincere, especially in her heartfelt efforts to communicate in Japanese. In short, she wins us over very early in the film. Misora is, of course, a radiant presence and my only lament is that there aren't more singing sequences. There is a non-singing dream sequence in which Misora and O'Brien dance together like two dolls—Misora in western dress, O'Brien in a kimono. It's very charming.
I must say this was quite a discovery. Is it an unsung Japanese classic? Well, not quite, but it has some historical importance as the first Japanese production to boast a significant American presence. Before learning about this film, I had thought that the earliest Japanese films to import an actual star from Hollywood were the two science fiction films that Nick Adams made at Toho Pictures in 1965: FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD and GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO. (Raymond Burr's appearance in GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS, 1956, doesn't count because his scenes were shot in Hollywood and inserted into a recut English-dubbed version of the 1954 Japanese original, GOJIRA.) Seeing FUTARI NO HITOMI was like entering a whole new world, a hybrid Japanese-Hollywood alternate universe. I don't know the circumstances that led to O'Brien's appearance in the film, but I'd sure like to find out.
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