The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958)
Director: John Houston.
Starring: John Wayne (Townsend Harris), Eiko Ando (Okichi), Sam Jaffe (Henry Heusken), Sô Yamamura (Governor Tamura), Kodaya Ichikawa (Daimyo, uncredited), Tokujiro Iketaniuchi (Harusha, uncredited), Fuji Kasai (Lord Hotta, uncredited), Takeshi Kumagai (Chamberlain, uncredited), Fuyukichi Maki (Peasant, uncredited), Morita (Prime Minister, uncredited), James Robbins (Lt. Fisher, uncredited), Norman Thomson (Captain Edmunds, uncredited), Hiroshi Yamato (The Shogun, uncredited).
in 1850s US President Pierce sends to Japan the first U.S. Consul-General
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
This is the story of Townsend Harris the American Consul General who, in 1856, became the first foreign diplomat to enter the Forbidden Empire. It is also the story of a beautiful geisha girl known as Okichi and her place in Harris’ life.
It began in the small fishing village of Shimoda on the night of the Oban festival (an annual celebration where the participants invite the spirits of their dead ancestors to join the living in the festivities). Okichi is one of the geisha dancers.
While the Japanese celebrate, an American steamship approaches. A man in the tower spots the ship and shouts a warning. A messenger is sent to warn Governor Baron Tamura, who paid for Okichi’s training as a geisha. The ship lay at anchor all night.
In the morning the American diplomat and his translator are rowed to shore. The Japanese shout that it is forbidden for them to land. Townsend tells his translator to tell them that he is the Consul General to Japan from the United States and he is here in accordance with a treaty entered into by their Shogun and Commodore Perry two years ago.
The Japanese shout that there is no such treat in force so they have no right to land. The ship fires its cannon to impress the Japanese, but they are more scared than impressed. The people run away.
Townsend lands and the translator tells the Governor that the cannon fire is a salute. Townsend introduces himself and so does Governor Saemon-No-Kami Tamura. The Governor says that both countries have to agree that a Consul General is needed and Shimoda did not agree. He tells Townsend that he will acquaint his superiors at Edo about what’s happened.
Townsend says he needs quarters for Mr. Henry Heusken, his interpreter, three Chinese servants and himself. The Governor won’t recognize Townsend’s diplomatic status, but he will provide housing for the men. The place where they are staying has been wracked by a typhoon and it’s a mess, but Townsend tells the Governor that it will do. The American flag is raised and saluted. Work is started on repairing the place. Japanese children watch the repair process. They laugh because the tall Townsend keeps hitting his head on the support beams overhead.
The Japanese tell Townsend that he has to take the flag down, so he takes it down. But he tells them that it will fly again on certain days of celebration and on the arrival and departure of American ships.
The Governor orders that no one should sell anything to the Americans, so when Townsend goes to the market everyone flees from him. All foreigners are seen as barbarians and they must go. Townsend goes to the Governor to protest the way he and his household are being treated. The Governor insists that the treaty between the two countries is invalid because it was made under the threat of Commodore Perry’s guns. Townsend says that Perry came because shipwrecked sailors were being beheaded and no ship could put in to a Japanese port.
Townsend explains that more and more international trade is taking place and Japan cannot remain isolated against the world. Otherwise Japan will be treated as a band of brigands infesting a highway. He gives the Governor an official letter to be given to the Shogun. At that Townsend simply leaves.
Edo (the future Tokyo) responds that until a decision is reached, the Governor is to keep the Consul General happy in Shimoda. And so far Townsend is not that happy. He has to eat salt pork and hardtack left by the ship. He tells Henry, his translator, that President Pierce send him to Japan to confer with the Shogun on the subject of Japan’s entry into the free community of nations.
Five months have past since Townsend’s arrival and he is losing his patience. He can’t even get a message to or from Washington. But just then Townsend receives an invitation to dine with the Governor.
At the dinner they sit on the floor before a low table and are entertained by the music and dancing of the geishas. Townsend thanks the Governor but tells him he may go to Edo to hurry things up a bit. The Governor warns him that he will never get there. Townsend says he will not be discouraged. Okichi comes out and sings a song and Townsend seems impressed. The Governor takes note of this.
When Townsend gets back to his place, Okichi is waiting for him. Tamura has sent her, she explains. She is to make Townsend’s life here less troublesome. Townsend decides to let her stay. Okichi waited in terror for the big man to come to be with her, but he never came.
The next morning Okichi gets up and explores what she calls "the house of many mysteries." She is concerned at what she sees and goes to tell Tamura. Okichi wants to go back to the geisha house, but the Governor tells her that it is her duty to go back. Townsend Harris is a danger to Japan. The foreigners are planning to invade Japan. She must keep an eye on Townsend.
At night Okichi sings for Townsend and Henry. She tells them that she is from a poor family and was sold at the age of fourteen to a geisha house. Later she would be able to help her parents.
Okichi notes that the foreigners were being constantly teased and harassed by the locals. On one occasion Okichi scolds the two men involved in keeping Henry from recovering his hat. One of the culprits is a giant Japanese man, but he doesn’t know about boxing. Townsend is able to hit him in the face numerous times and the giant goes down. Okichi is pleased at this. The little guy uses his judo to put Townsend down three or four times. Okichi gives Townsend a back rub to make him feel better.
The women of the village turn against Okichi. To them she had become the concubine of Harris-san. They refused to let her bathe with them. They are so mean to her that she leaves.
Another ship approaches. Up goes the American flag. And down comes the Governor to tell Harris to take it down and that the ship will not land. They have made their cannon ready. Harris comes down and stands in front of the huge cannon. The Governor will not fire.
Townsend rows out to the ship and is told to stay away. They have three dead and five sick from cholera. The crew jumps overboard and starts swimming ashore. Townsend shouts to the Japanese to stay away from those diseased men, but they either can't hear him or ignore him.
Almost everyone in the village was stricken with cholera. Townsend and Henry both help take care of the sick and dying. The dead are sealed in barrels and then the barrels are burned at the sacred grounds. Okichi becomes ill. Townsend takes her home, puts her in her bed and nurses her.
Townsend and Henry start burning the houses after they remove the sick. This makes the villagers angry at them. The Americans burn the entire market place. The Governor arrests the Americans and says they will be sent home on the first boat. The Americans are kept under house arrest. Townsend still nurses Okichi. He is so relieved when he realizes that she is sick, but not with cholera.
Okichi comments that the fire had burned away the cholera and the village has returned to its quiet ways. And she herself recovers. When she is well she finds out that Townsend is leaving. He explains that it’s Tamura’s orders. But then he notices that Okichi is very upset and stops speaking. She rushes back into the house.
Later she hears a lot of Japanese speaking outside the gate. They have come to say thank you to Mr. Harris for saving their lives. The Governor comes to see Townsend. He says that he owes Harris a big debt of gratitude. His ancestors cry out that his debt must be paid, so he has arranged for Townsend a visit to Edo.
The people of Shimoda make a big procession for Harris so that he "enters proudly" into Edo. Okichi accompanies Townsend and Henry to Edo. In Edo the guests are put up in a regal style. Many geisha women swarm over the two men. They give the men a hot bath. They take off their clothes which makes Townsend a bit uncomfortable.
The next morning Townsend and Henry enter the Great Hall to see the Shogun, who is very young. The Americans brought whiskey, books, a telescope, a chair and many other things to His Highness. Harris says the United States does not ask for anything from Japan except for it to lower its barriers that have kept Japan isolated from the rest of the world. He wants the Shogun to agree to a treaty of friendship with the United States.
The Council asks Harris a lot of questions about war and slavery. Lord Hotta tells Harris that he will support him. He hopes that Lord Shijo will join with him. If so, the vote will be favorable.
During an archery demonstration, one of the archers shoots an arrow into the chest of a Japanese man. Henry tells Townsend that Lord Shijo has just been assassinated.
The Governor of Shimoda comes to Harris to ask him to go back to Shimoda. Japan is being ripped apart by violence between the factions for and against progress. He is concerned for Harris’ safety. The Council meets again and decides for progress and Harris’ treaty. Harris, Henry and Okichi celebrate.
While they are celebrating, the clan of Baron Tamura plans a tragic deed. Tamura is given the assignment of assassinating Harris. A messenger tells Okichi to go see Tamura. He makes Okichi swear to obey him in all things. Tamura tells her that he will kill Harris and Okichi was his to command. She says she had no choice. Okichi cries over the news.
Townsend tells Okichi that, once the treaty is signed, he will have to go back to the United States, but he is coming back to her and that will be the last time they are separated. Townsend goes to bed. The assassins come into the compound. Okichi signals by waving a candle and then putting a red cloth on the door indicating the bedroom of Harris.
But when the assassin goes into the bedroom, he discovers that it is Okichi herself that is under the covers. Tamura starts to kill her with his sword, but finds that he cannot. He leaves, but runs into Harris in the hallway. He tells Harris to: "Take back your life!" and leaves.
Townsend asks Okichi what does Tamura mean? He came to kill you, she says. But once drawn, the sword must taste blood, so Tamura has gone to kill himself. Harris runs after Tamura but he is too late. Tamura has killed himself. He had not the will to kill Harris.
Okichi wears black and prays. She comments that she has to go because she had broken her promise; her lord Tamura had killed himself; and she failed her people. Henry has to break the bad news to Harris, who is naturally very upset.
Okichi watches the procession as Harris goes to sign the treaty. So he passed into our history, but never from my heart, says Okichi.
Good movie. Japanese feudal society was not one I would want to be a part of. It was too cruel with too many stupid rules and customs. And when you throw an American like Townsend Harris into the mix the mix is probably not going to be a happy one in the long run. The film is both a love story and an historical movie. Eiko Ando (Okichi) was very lovely and gave a good performance. John Wayne was John Wayne, which I don't mind at all, but some people don't like him as a man or as an actor. Enjoyed it all except for the ending.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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