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Teru Shimada - a Japanese American Pioneer in Hollywood - Part 2

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In summer 1945, while still confined at Poston, Teru Shimada was cast as a Filipino scout in a war propaganda film for 20th Century Fox, to be entitled “American Guerilla in the Philippines.” (Production of the film was set for Puerto Rico, because its beaches and terrain were considered to resemble those of the Philippines). However, once Japan surrendered and the war ended in late summer 1945, the project was shelved indefinitely. Shimada later claimed that he was summoned back to Hollywood by a telegram from Paul Wilkins, former casting director at MGM, and that he swiftly made the trip back from Poston to Culver City in a milk truck, but was unable to find work once he arrived. He thus returned to his previous idea of moving to New York. (Shimada’s entry on the Poston Final Acountability Roster lists him as leaving camp directly for New York in September 1945, which suggests that he did not actually make it to Hollywood). Whatever the case was, once in New York he took up residence at the Cherrie Lane Theatre in New York’s Greenwich Village. There he stayed backstage and studied theatrical technique, even as he searched for agents and pounded the pavements for work

After several weeks of searching, Shimada found a golden opportunity. He was cast in The First Wife, a play written by the Nobel laureate Pearl S. Buck based on her own story, and performed by The Chinese Theatre, a troupe of Chinese actors that she sponsored. Shimada’s role was that of Yuan, a young Chinese who returns to his family in China after spending several years studying in the United States, and clashes with his wife because of her traditional ways. (To obscure his Japanese origins, Toru Shimada was billed under a Chinese-sounding name, “Shi Ma-Da”). After a run in New York, he joined the show for an extended tour of the United States, and remained with the production for two years. It was his first real experience of legitimate theater. When the show played New Orleans in February 1946, local critic Gilbert Cosulich described Shimada’s lead performance as “intelligently though a bit stiffly portrayed.”

In 1949, Shimada was recruited back to Hollywood by Robert Lord, who had joined the famed actor Humphrey Bogart to form the production company Santana Productions. The two started work on Tokyo Joe, a new motion picture starring Bogart that would be set in Occupation-era Japan, and sought Japanese actors to play in it. The producers located Sessue Hayakawa, by then long absent from Hollywood and living in France, and he agreed to make a comeback role as the main villain. Meanwhile, Lord remembered Teru Shimada from Oil for the Lamps of China, on which he had been a writer, and sought him out as well. While Shimada was by then in his early 40s, with graying hair, his face remained unlined and his body lithe and athletic.

TOKYO JOE © 1949, renewed 1976 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Shimada’s first appearance in Tokyo Joe is near the beginning of the film. Humphrey Bogart’s character Joe Barrett, who had run a bar in Tokyo before the war, comes back to occupied Japan after 7 years away to take care of some unfinished business. He visits his bar, though it is formally off limits to Allied personnel. There Bogart’s Joe is reunited with his old friend and partner Ito, played by Shimada, who now runs the “joint.” While Shimada’s role was orignally designed to be small, as work on the film progressed he was given increasingly more to do. In fact, in the final film, Joe and Ito have a friendly judo match, and Ito succeeds in flooring his opponent. Shimada later stated that Tokyo Joe had been his most enjoyable film experience, as even people who did not know his name recognized him as the man who had licked Humphrey Bogart!

Shimada’s performance in Tokyo Joe led to a revival of his career in Hollywood. Soon after, he was cast as a brutal Japanese officer in Fox’s Three Came Home and a villainous captain of a Chinese junk in Smugglers Island. In The Bridges of Toko-Ri he plays a man who brings his wife and children to a Japanese bath and is surprised to find William Holden and his family already in the tub. In House of Bamboo (1955) Shimada played the uncle of Shirley Yamaguchi’s lead character—the film also offered him his first chance to work together with his childhood idol Sessue Hayakawa. Shimada played a Korean Official in Battle Hymn (1957), and the same year portrayed a Japanese general in King Rat. (During this period, Shimada auditioned for the role of Sakini, the Japanese interpreter, in the 1956 film version of the hit play The Teahouse of the August Moon, but was disappointed when Hollywood star Marlon Brando was awarded the role).

One notable Shimada role during this period was in the low-budget feature The Battle of the Coral Sea (1959). In it he plays Commander Mori, a Japanese naval officer of intergrity who is tasked with interrogating his American prisoners. Abandoning torture, he tries using psychological methods to gain information from his captives. Mori displays sympathy for his victims but does not allow his feelings to interfere with his duty and loyalty to Japan. A more positive role for Shimada was in independent producer Sam Fuller’s 1959 drama Tokyo After Dark. There Shimada plays Sen-Sei, a blind instructor and mentor to the geisha Sumi (played by the late Michi Kobi) who is a master of the Japanese musical instrument called the koto (in fact performed by Kimio Eto). Sumi brings her American boyfriend Bob, who has been accused of murder and is on the lam, to hide at Sen-Sei’s house. Sen-Sei has a lengthy conversation with Bob, explains to him with kindness how badly he’s been behaving, and persuades him to show faith in Japanese justice and his financée’s love by surrendering himself to the authorities, rather than letting himself be smuggled out of the country.

In addition to his film roles, Shimada worked steadily in TV dramas during the “Golden Age of television.” Most notably, he played a lead role in The Kotaro Suto Story. In “The Pearl,” an episode of the anthology series The Loretta Young Show, he appeared as a Japanese fisherman who finds a valuable pearl, but attempts to conceal this fact from his Japanese wife (played by Loretta Young). The program was so successful that “An Innocent Conspiracy,” another episode with the same characters, was presented the following season. Shimada enjoyed the challenge of playing opposite Young, an experienced actress and former Oscar-winner. However, he was more ambivalent about small-screen acting generally: “There’s an advantage of TV shows. One gets the result much quicker, so one can see and correct the mistakes before it is forgotten. But no one can take the pace for very long. We shoot an average show in three days, hardly enough to memorize our lines.”

During the 1960s, Shimada worked primarily in television guest spots. For example, he had a bit part as a Japanese diplomat in an episode of the TV series Batman. He also guest-starred in the adventure series Journey to the Center of the Earth. According to one of the show’s actors, it was a difficult experience, as Shimada had trouble pronouncing English words, and was berated on the set by the show’s producer, Irwin Allen. He also played a few film roles. He had a small part in James Clavell’s Japanese Canadian drama The Sweet and the Bitter (filmed in 1962 but not released until 1967). He also played a supporting role as a Japanese landlord in the 1966 drama Walk, Don’t Run. The film, set in Tokyo at the time of the 1964 Olympics, would became chiefly notable in film history as the final role of Hollywood star Cary Grant. Shimada made a different kind of notable film appearance as the narrator of the documentary “My Garden Japan,” a film tour of notable public and private gardens aroud Japan that was screened regularly at the United Nations Pavilion at Montreal’s Expo ’67 World’s Fair.

It was at this time, in early 1967, that Shimada won the role for which he would be best known, that of Mr. Osato in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice. Mr. Osato, an independently wealthy and well-respected Japanese businessman, runs Osato Chemicals, a chemical and engineering company that is in fact a front for the international crime syndicate SPECTRE. When James Bond (Sean Connery) comes to see him, the suave Osato politely warns him, “You should give up smoking. Cigarettes are very bad for your chest.” Mr. Osato wishes Bond well as he departs his office, then waits a few seconds, turns to his “Confidential Secretary” Helga Brandt (Karin Dor) and utters the succinct icy command: “Kill him!” Shimada acted the role with relish, and received positive media attention for it. Shooting took place in Japan, and Shimada returned to his homeland for the first time in nearly 50 years. Fuji-TV filmed a program recording Shimada’s visit to his childhood home of Mito.

In his later years, Shimada appeared on a number of episodes of popular televison series, including I spyMannixHave Gun Will TravelThe Doris Day Show, and The Six Million Dollar Man. One of his most notable appearances was in the Jack Lord series Hawaii Five-O. Shimada played Mr. Shigato, a millionaire Japanese businessman accused by three former prisoners of war of being the officer responsible for extreme physical and mental cruelty toward them during World War II.

Teru Shimada retired in his 70s, and lived in Encino. He supported himself by buying in an apartment house. He never married (on the draft card he was issued in 1940, he listed Anna Snyder as “next-of-kin”) He became a U.S. citizen in 1954, and began receiving Social Security in 1970. By the time he died, on June 19, 1988, his career was largely forgotten. While he was frequently relegated to playing villains or bit parts, his durability and range make him a true pioneer of Japanese American cinema.


© 2019 Greg Robinson

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