James Shigeta 'Led The Way' For Asian-American Lovers On Screen

Aug 2, 2014
Originally published on August 2, 2014 1:27 pm

Actor James Shigeta had the looks, the talent — and the voice.

"It's melodious. It's deep. There is something quite sensuous about it," says L.S. Kim, a film professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Kim adds that Shigeta — who died from pulmonary failure on Monday in Beverly Hills at age 85, according to his agent Jeffrey Leavitt — embodied an unusual sight on the big screen: a self-assured Asian-American man.

"In many portrayals of Asian-American men in particular, there is no sense of confidence. And with James Shigeta, his screen presence was as deep and seductive as his voice," Kim says.

A co-star of the 1961 movie musical Flower Drum Song, Shigeta broke barriers on screen as one of Hollywood's first Asian-American actors to play romantic lead characters. In Bridge to the Sun, a 1961 film based on a memoir of the same name, Shigeta played Hidenari Terasaki, a dashing Japanese diplomat from Tokyo who meets cute and later marries Gwen Harold, a young white woman from Johnson City, Tenn.

The 'Tragedy' Of Being Asian-American

Only two years earlier, Shigeta had made his film debut in The Crimson Kimono as a Japanese-American homicide detective in Los Angeles caught in a love triangle between his white police partner and a key witness in their murder case. For a black-and-white film from 1959, there was a bit of a surprise ending for Shigeta's character.

"Oh, he wound up with the girl!" Shigeta explained with a hearty laugh in the 2006 documentary The Slanted Screen: Asian Men in Film and Television.

The plotline became a selling point for The Crimson Kimono. Movie posters showed Shigeta's character kissing a white woman. "Yes, this is a beautiful American girl in the arms of a Japanese boy!" one poster declared. "What was his strange appeal for American girls?"

Shigeta's role in that film won him a Golden Globe Award in 1960 for most promising newcomer.

"He clearly had the talent, but the roles weren't there, because unless there was a role that was written for an Asian-American, he would not be considered. And that's the tragedy here," explains Jeff Adachi, San Francisco's elected public defender who interviewed Shigeta for The Slanted Screen.

A Pioneer Who 'Led The Way'

In the documentary, which Adachi wrote, directed and produced, Shigeta recalled an exchange he had early in his career with an MGM producer who told him, "If you were white, you'd be a hell of a big star." Shigeta, who was born in what was then the Territory of Hawaii to a family of Japanese descent, said that encounter was "the first time that [he] had some kind of a clue as to the fact that there might be some discrimination out there."

"It's a very difficult business. It's a constant struggle even if you're not Asian," says actress Nancy Kwan, who co-starred with Shigeta in Flower Drum Song. "He was a pioneer. He led the way."

Shigeta leaves behind a career on screen that lasted half a century. He had smaller, supporting parts in Die Hard and in television series like Hawaii Five-O. But in his earliest movies, he often got top billing and the girl. And for an Asian-American actor, that's a benchmark still remarkable today.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

James Shigeta had the looks, the talent and the voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL")

JAMES SHIGETA: (Singing) You are beautiful, small and shy.

SIMON: The costar of the 1961 movie musical "Flower Drum Song" died this week in Beverly Hills at the age of 85. He broke barriers on screen as one of Hollywood's first Asian-American actors to play lead characters. Hansi Lo Wang of NPR's Code Switch team has this remembrance.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL")

SHIGETA: (Singing) You are the girl whose laugh I heard.

L.S. KIM: It's melodious. It's deep. There's something quite sensuous about it.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: L.S. Kim teaches film at the University of California, Santa Cruz. And she says James Shigeta embodied an unusual sight on the big screen, a self-assured Asian-American man.

KIM: In many portrayals of Asian-American men, in particular, there is no sense of confidence. And with James Shigeta, his screen presence was as deep and seductive as the voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BRIDGE TO THE SUN")

SHIGETA: (As Hidenari Terasaki) A lady should not be alone at a reception.

CAROL BAKER: (As Gwen Terasaki) Hello, Mr. Takasuki.

SHIGETA: (As Hidenari Terasaki) Terasaki - first name, Hidenari.

WANG: In 1961's "Bridge To The Sun," Shigeta plays a dashing, Japanese diplomat, who meets cute, and later marries, a young white woman from Tennessee. Only two years before, he'd made his film debut in "The Crimson Kimono."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CRIMSON KIMONO")

CHRISTINE SHAW: (As Christine Downs) Do you believe there are people who would never fall in love, if they never heard of love?

SHIGETA: (As Det. Joe Kojaku) You can't fight a natural feeling.

WANG: He played a Japanese-American homicide detective caught in a love triangle between his Caucasian police partner and a key witness in their case. For a 1959 black-and-white film, there was a bit of a surprise ending, as Shigeta once explained.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHIGETA: Well, he wound up with a girl. (Laughing).

WANG: Yes, this is a beautiful, American girl in the arms of a Japanese boy - the movie poster declared. In 1960, Shigeta won a Golden Globe award for Most Promising Newcomer.

JEFF ADACHI: He clearly had the talent, but the roles weren't there. And that's the tragedy here.

WANG: For his 2006 documentary, "The Slanted Screen," Jeff Adachi interviewed James Shigeta, who recalled an exchange early in his career with an MGM producer.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SLANTED SCREEN")

SHIGETA: He turned to me and he said - you know, he said if you were white, you'd be a hell of a big star.

NANCY KWAN: It's a very difficult business, even if you're not Asian. And he was a pioneer. He led the way.

WANG: Nancy Kwan says Shigeta, her costar in "Flower Drum Song," leaves behind a career that lasted half a century. He had smaller, supporting parts in "Die Hard" and in TV series, like "Hawaii Five-0." But in his earliest movies, he often got top billing and the girl. And for an Asian-American actor, that's a benchmark still remarkable today. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.