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Iwao Robert Okazaki, The Crimson Kimono (1959) and forty years of Blade Runner (1982)
Hello 2022. Let’s talk about the dead. Can’t say I spent a lot of time hanging around grave yards but recently I visited one and discovered the family grave of actor Iwao Robert Okazaki 岡崎巌 (1902-1985) in the shade of a small tree. Born February 3, 1902, in Tokyo he moved to America before the war and became a regular face in film and on television with shows like Bewitched, I Spy, The Time Tunnel, The Man from U.N.C.L.E, even The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. One notable appearance was alongside James Saburo Shigeta 繁田三郎 (1927-2014) who was known for his parts in the original Mission: Impossible (1970) and Die Hard (1988). Yet none of these compared with Samuel Fuller’s obscure and often overlooked piece of LA film noir, The Crimson Kimono (1959).
The Crimson Kimono is a great film but difficult to watch. It wasn't exactly kind to the immigrant community of the day but an unconventional storyline meant both actors stood out from the rest. The film had a difficult conception. The head of Columbia Pictures Harry Cohn argued that middle America would find the the film’s central premise of a mixed relationship difficult to accept. As with any institution of the late 50s and early 60s Hollywood was extremely conservative fearful of misreading the public mood. Cohn, probably sensing the changing tide, eventually relented and gave the film the go ahead. Fuller based Shigeta’s character on a friend who happened to be second generation Japanese, nisei, and a prominent LAPD detective. Shigeta however was much younger. He was American, born in Hawai’i to Japanese parents and part of a new wave of actors appearing alongside the likes of Elvis Presley. Both Okazaki and Shigeta were jobbing actors who worked and worked… then worked some more. Despite the turbulent times both presented an image of the future. The part I most associate with Okazaki was one of his final appearances on screen, the owner of The White Dragon street diner and itamae chef Howie Lee who served Harrison Ford’s detective in Blade Runner.「二つで十分ですよ！」
In a moment of uncanny resemblance each film shares an important scene and begin by pulling heartstrings. Ford’s detective Rick Deckard chases down his bounty through the busy streets of downtown Los Angeles. Zhora Salome (Joanna Cassidy) is a burlesque dancer hiding in plain sight. She is on the run and when discovered bolts from the dressing room at The Snake Pit out into the street dressed in little more than a see-through raincoat only to be shot in the back soon after by Deckard. Her final moments are spent crashing through a shop window of fake snow before coming to rest on a bed of broken mirror uncannily reflecting mannequins shrouded in neon. In Fuller’s film, the stripper is Sugar Torch (Gloria Pall) who runs screaming from an intruder in her dressing-room. She runs through traffic half-dressed and chased by the intruder who shoots her amid the hustle of LA street life.
The cinematic LA is a cemetery laid under the expanding skyline. If not littered by the afterlife each city image is almost certainly obsessed with the almost-living, that life and love (and death) go hand in hand. In each instance Okazaki offers direction like a way-post. At first he’s met by Shigeta at Evergreen Cemetery asking for help to find a mutual acquaintance. Okazaki is there leaving flowers for his deceased son and casualty of the recent Korean War. Then they attend his memorial service at the Koyasan Buddhist Temple. It’s a moment of rare calm that lingers unexpectedly before both head out towards a certain storm. Later, assuming the guise of street chef, he scolds Ford’s detective for a lack of manners. When Ford is arrested Okazaki translates what Deckard already knows in a way that is clearer and more precise than any of Ford’s own voiceover.
Okazaki actually passed away on May 28, 1985 and his head stone is one of two – the other being in LA. Finding the grave was one thing but finding the stone in such a sorry state was quite a shock. This should not be that surprising I suppose. I’m told it’s a normal for family cemeteries to wither as the family itself grows old. By all accounts Okazaki spoke little of his acting and even less of his success. Perhaps he preferred it that way.
His family first moved to America at the turn of the century. His father Fukumatsu Okazaki was a pastor and emigrated in 1890 at the tail end of Japan’s Meiji period (1868–1912). Fukumatsu settled in Seattle helping to establish the Japanese Y.M.C.A, the first and only meeting place for Japanese immigrants in Seattle. The year after he was born, he and his mother Yoshi joined his father in 1903. From there the family grew to include four younger sisters — Sumire (1904–1999), Mika (1907–1945), Amy (1909–2002), and Yuri (1913–1998) — and a younger brother, Jun (1910–1972). The family all remained in America even after they passed away. His father and younger sister Mika were the only ones returned to the family grave in Tokyo. Rather his mother was laid to rest at Evergreen Cemetery in 1963, the very same place where, in character, Okazaki had laid flowers four years earlier on film.
2022 marks the 40th anniversary of Blade Runner. By the time Okazaki had passed away the film seemed destined to be forgotten. One story from when it was remastered years later describes how negative prints were discovered languishing in boxes on palleted crates all marked for destruction in 1988. Whoever was tasked with the job never got around to signing them off and sealing their fate. The boxes simply stayed there, lost in storage. For all the film’s visual magnificence, I keep returning to this idea of being lost then found and the film’s odd reference of Robert Louis Stephenson’s Treasure Island buried deep within both the 1982 film and its 2017 sequel. 1 Ford’s detective is now hiding in plain sight, exiled and cut off from the world spending time reading, drinking, and reminiscing of a time gone by, waiting for the world to catch up with him.
After finding Okazaki’s grave and paying our respects we walked to the Tokyo Olympic Stadium which is already being dug up in places … some things can’t be forgotten quickly enough. The day ended at a local Vietnamese restaurant. It was empty except for us and a few other people. At the time we were completely unaware that Zen Buddhist monk and exile Thích Nhất Hạnh had just past away, a monk credited with protesting the Vietnam war while bringing mindfulness to the wider world. The day had been a strange collision of characters made stranger by how we found them and the connections they seemed to suggest.
Evergreen Cemetery, Los Angeles —
Noir of the Week: The Crimson Kimono (1959) —
“They call you a Bodhisattva”: Thich Nhat Hanh’s friendship with Dr. King —
Deckard visits Holden in hospital: Deckard: “What you reading?” Holden: “An old favorite, Treasure Island!” | In the 2017 sequel after Deckard is found holed up in a Las Vegas hotel: “You mightn't happen to have a piece of cheese about you, now? Would you boy?… Many is the night I dream of cheese. Toasted, mostly.” Blade Runner 2049 (Dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2017) from Robert Louis Stephenson, Treasure Island (1883)