Movie Review: The Tea House of the August Moon

Kunk Fu Zoby Kung Fu Zu8/21/15
Are you down, feeling blue? Is all the world arrayed against you, can you do nothing right, does no one understand you? Then, may I suggest you watch this magical film. In two hours the world will be a much brighter place.

The Teahouse of the August Moon takes place on 1946 Okinawa, which is ruled by the American Occupation Authority, i.e. the military.

The film starts with a shot of small ponds behind which stands an Okinawan hut. A bucolic, view if there ever was one. It then pans to a picture of children hanging G.I. undershorts on a clothes line. The children run to a character sitting under a palm tree who gives them some chewing gum. They then depart.

This character Sakini, played by Marlon Brando, is a narrator along the lines of Puck in “A Mid-Summer’s Night Dream”. He sets the stage by explaining to the audience that Okinawa has been conquered a number of times throughout its history and has learned from these events. Yet learning can sometimes be painful. But this is necessary as “Pain makes one think, thought makes one wise and wisdom makes life endurable.”

One immediately sees that although he pretends to be a simple peasant, Sakina is adept at manipulating and controlling events around him. (This reminds me of the Hongkong Chinese I used to see running circles around their British bosses.) Sakini acts as interpreter to Colonel Wainwright Purdy III, played by Paul Ford, an officious officer in command of what would probably be called a “civil affairs” unit. Henry Morgan plays the colonel’s secretary Sgt. Gregovich, who is something of a lay-about.

Colonel Purdy has one remaining goal in life. That is to become a general. He wants this, he tells us, “for Mrs. Purdy”. Unfortunately, his present position does not appear to offer very good prospects for achieving this goal. He is therefore cheered when an officer from the Psychological Warfare unit requests to be assigned to Purdy. As the colonel says “they are known to be the cream of the crop”. He is hopeful that the new officer will aid him in his quest for a star. Unfortunately, Captain Fisby, played by Glenn Ford, turns out to be less than the colonel expected. Fisby admits to being “requested” to request a transfer from Psychological Warfare to Colonel Purdy’s unit. Prior to that, he had been “requested” to request a transfer from the Paymaster General’s Office to Psychological Warfare. Clearly, Fisby something of a Sad Sack.

The Captain’s story, notwithstanding, Colonel Purdy is not downcast. He gives Fisby the “Book”. This is a tome about the size of a Gutenberg Bible, issued by the Occupying Authority which lays out everything incipient nation builders need to know. With that, Colonel Purdy instructs Fisby to go to Tobiki where he is to instruct the locals in the wonders of democracy and American get-up-and-go. And since the colonel finds Sakini too familiar and tricky, he sends him with Fisby as his interpreter.

The moment Fisby steps out the colonel’s office, it is clear how things will develop. Sakini tells the Captain that all his gear is already loaded on the Jeep and ready to go. But when Fisby sees the Jeep, it is piled high with all sorts of furniture and containers, on top of which is sitting an old lady. While Fisby tries to explain why the old lady cannot ride on a government vehicle, along comes her daughter, then the daughter’s children, a goat, and to round things out, an old man who sits on the back of the Jeep without the Captain knowing it.

Upon arrival in Tobiki, Fisby proceeds to introduce himself to the villagers. Before he can speak the villagers line up to give him gifts including cricket cages, beautiful lacquer ware bowls, straw hats and other handmade items. Fisby tries to reject these, but Sakini tells him the people would lose face if he refused the gifts. So he accepts them in the name of the American Occupation Force. He thanks everyone and tells the villagers what Uncle Sam is going to do for them. The captain then goes into a speech about how Uncle Sam is their friend and he is here to promote democracy and equality. The villagers respond politely.

Fisby then asks the villagers to pick people to head new organizations which the American Occupation Authority require be founded. They quickly chose a Chief of Police, Chief of Agriculture and Head of the “Ladies Auxiliary to Promote Democracy”. He also announces that the occupation forces are going to supply materials to build new school house for the village. During this speech Sakini is standing slightly behind the captain signaling to the people when they should cheer and when to stop. After Fisby finishes his speech he asks a few questions about the various gifts proffered him and declares the villagers should start producing them for sale as souvenirs.

Shortly thereafter, one of the locals brings a Geisha, named Lotus Blossom, to the village and drops her off at the captain’s home as a gift. Fisby will have nothing to do with this until Sakini assures him that Geishas are not what the captain thinks they are. He explains, “poor man like to feel rich, rich man like to feel wise, sad man like to feel happy. So all go to Geisha House and tell trouble to Geisha girl. She listen very politely and say ‘oh, that very sad’, she sing and dance and make tea and very soon troubles go away. Is that not worth something?” This puts a new light on things and Fisby allows her to stay in the village.

With Lotus Blossom in town, the villagers request to build a teahouse with the materials allocated for the school. Their rationale is that they come from a small village, thus have never had the chance to visit a real teahouse. And Lotus Blossom can teach the village ladies how to dance and serve tea like a trained Geisha.

In no time, Fisby adapts to his new environment and goes a bit “native”. When Colonel Purdy calls for an update, he does not understand a thing the captain says, and is concerned Fisby might be going nuts. He arranges for an army psychiatrist to visit Fisby and determine if he is sane. Captain McLean the shrink, played by Eddie Albert, soon realizes that Fisby is fine. He has simply started to operate outside the parameters of the “Book”.

During their first meeting, Fisby tells McLean that he is thinking of bringing in some nitrates, DDT and chemicals” to help the village grow something other than sweet potatoes. Hearing this McLean is stunned and asks self-righteously, “Do you want to kill these people?” It turns out the shrink is an advocate for organic farming and can wax eloquent about earth worms, compost and manure. Fisby jumps at the opportunity, convincing McLean to stay in the village and help with his expertise.

Shortly thereafter, the villagers return from an outing to sell their wares to G.I.s. But they have had no success. Fisby and McLean try to cheer them up, but the downcast villagers start to leave when Sakini says they are going to go and drown their pain in alcohol. It takes a couple of seconds for this statement to sink in, but when it does Fisby asks, “What are they going to get drunk on?” Sakini says, “All we got is brandy.” Fisby’s eyes light up as he knows there is a shortage of booze on Okinawa. He explains that if the brandy is only half-way good there will be a ready market among the occupation forces. He and the shrink sample the brandy, which turns out to be more that passable. Thus is established “The Topiki Cooperative Brewing Company”.

For those of you who have not seen the movie and do not wish to know the ending, I suggest you skip the next six paragraphs and then read further.

Things start improving for the village. The brandy business is thriving and the teahouse is finished. The villagers invite Fisby and McLean to the teahouse for a special opening where Lotus Blossom and some local women perform. It would appear things could hardly be better for Fisby and Tobiki. Unfortunately, Colonel Purdy has decided to find out what is actually happening. He and Sergeant Gregovich arrive in the village to find it apparently deserted. They go searching for people and eventually find their way to the teahouse just as Fisby and McLean are performing “Deep in the Heart of Texas” for the villagers.

Pandemonium follows, but the colonel eventually corrals both captains. Purdy discovers that the school house has not been built and the village is prospering from the sale of (can one say it?) booze. He orders the sergeant to have the distillery and teahouse destroyed. Fisby is put on notice that he is under arrest and will be transferred out of Tobiki immediately. Meantime, the colonel sends in his report by radio and waits for Fisby’s replacement to arrive.

There is a poignant scene at the, now dismantled, teahouse where Lotus Blossom and Fisby part. Before she leaves, Lotus Blossom tells him he is the best man she has every worked for. She walks away following a cart carrying her belongings, which is pulled by a local farmer who has been trying to win her affections, but till now has had no chance.

Back in Fisby’s home, Colonel Purdy is chewing out the shrink when the phone rings. The colonel answers it and after listening for a while turns pale. He jumps up and starts treating McLean very kindly and says he must go find Captain Fisby. He ends up at the teahouse, which is now only a foundation. Purdy tells Fisby that some Senator read his report and thought what was happening at Topiki was a great example of American get-up-and-go. As a result, a congressional delegation with reporters was on its way to see how things were done in Tobiki. While Purdy talks, in stumbles Gregovich, who is clearly under the influence. He reports that all stills have been destroyed. The colonel is crushed and sits down bemoaning his bad luck and poor Mrs. Purdy’s future disappointment.

While the colonel moans, Sakini quietly tells Purdy and Fisby no stills have been destroyed. He goes on to explain the only thing the sergeant has destroyed is old water barrels. As proof, he claps his hands and the villagers appear with parts of the teahouse, which they reassemble it in a matter of minutes. To top things off, they lower the roof, which has been hidden in the trees.

Relieved that all is well, Captain Fisby invites the colonel for a cup of tea. As they and the whole village pour into the teahouse, Marlon Brando turns to the audience and brings things to a close by saying, “That is the end of our story, but history is not yet finished. What was said at the beginning of the story remains true, ‘pain makes man think, thought makes man wise and wisdom makes life endurable.’” He departs with “May August Moon bring gentle sleep.”

If you have not already guessed, I love this movie. It is a subtle and many layered piece.

There are a couple of comedic scenes which are slightly overdone, but they do not detract greatly from the film, which has aged well. Some people might have to listen closely to understand everything Brando says, but it will be worth doing so.

I have never seen better casting. Brando pulls off being Okinawan. Even his Japanese accent is not bad. He is both narrator and participant. This is a nice device. Paul Ford is perfect as Colonel Purdy and Eddie Albert makes a wonderfully batty Captain McLean. And Kyo Machiko is a delicate Lotus Blossom. But for my money, Glenn Ford rises above the others. Ford’s Fisby is a slightly bumbling character who grows and, by seeing the world through the eyes of others, finds himself.

So, pop some popcorn, make yourself a nice drink and get ready to feel good. Dozo and Sayonara. • (1124 views)

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12 Responses to Movie Review: The Tea House of the August Moon

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    I saw this on TV back in the 1960s, and my memories primarily involve specific scenes — usually in a bit more detail than you present here. For example, I recall that the schoolhouse was to be in the shape of a pentagon, and that the local brandy was tested by seeing if a goat could handle it (“No Marine will admit his stomach is weaker than a goat’s”). Fishy also caught a cricket to put in his cage while talking with one of his visitors. And after the stills were supposedly destroyed, Gregovich explains that he got drunk because he fill into one of the vats “and of course I had to call for help”.

    Sakini’s role reminds me of the role played by John Astin in Viva Max! (the sergeant who actually makes sure the inept officer’s orders are obeyed).

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      There are many very funny scenes in the movie as well as some word-play which is a popular type of humor with the Japanese. But the whole of the movie is greater than the parts, at least in my book. Of course, I am somewhat partial as I lived in Asia for so long and things Asian probably interest me more and mean more to me than the average American.

      Fishy also caught a cricket to put in his cage while talking with one of his visitors

      One will note this happened just after the discovery that the town makes brandy, i.e. a turning point in the town’s and Fisby’s fortunes.

  2. NAHALKIDES NAHALKIDES says:

    I first came upon Teahouse of the August Moon when I was reading a lot of the better-known plays of the American theater. (Yes, like most good movies, this one started out as either a book or a play – Hollywood hates creative writers). It was quite successful both on stage and on screen, but is the kind of thing that I’m afraid simply wouldn’t be done today – it was the product of a better era.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      but is the kind of thing that I’m afraid simply wouldn’t be done today – it was the product of a better era.

      Yes, amazingly it is based on a story and there are no explosions or wild special effects.

      I really do think very few good movies have been made over the last thirty years, and I am being very generous with that timeline.

      What did you think of the play? Was it very similar?

      • NAHALKIDES NAHALKIDES says:

        Yes, as I remember it, it was very similar to the movie, which is another way of saying the movie was faithful to the play. It’s generally better that way.

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I’ve watched the first twenty minutes so far and it looks like a cute comedy. You can hardly recognize Brando. And if I didn’t already know it was him, it likely wouldn’t have occurred to me right away. This is certainly a bit unusual seeing both Brando and Ford doing comedy.

    But your suggestion of this film, Mr. Kung, put me in a Japanese mood. I watched a movie at random on Netflix this morning titled The Admiral: Roaring Currents. As IMDB describes it: “At the strait ‘Roaring Currents’, master strategist Admiral Yi and his 12 battleships oppose enemy’s fleet of 330, and win the most incredible victory of history.”

    So if you liked “300” or any kind of “last stand against all odds” movie, this is a decent enough one. It takes a while to get to the battle scenes. But when it does, it’s pretty good (if violent).

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Of course, Admiral Yi had a slight advantage to make up for the inferior numbers — ironclad galleys. Not many people know that the first ironclads were Korean, and appeared 370 years before Virginia met the Monitor) (which was only a few years after the British and French developed some ironclads).

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        There is a huge bronze statue of the admiral and one of his “turtle”ships in Seoul. As I recall, it was not too far from the presidential palace.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          I first read about him in a small brochure about Korean and its culture and history that someone showed me in the late ’60s. It was also around that time that I first encountered a copy of the Army’s official history of the first several months of the Korean War (South to the Naktong, North to the Yalu by Appleman), which I’ve since gotten my own copy of.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        In the particular battle in question, at least going by the moview, all he had was wooden boats. No turtles left. I think his remaining boats in this battle were Panokseon. Here’s a replica of a turtle.

  4. Timothy Lane says:

    I mentioned this to Elizabeth, and she told me her brother Jack played the role of Sabiki in a performance of the play in college (at Wake Forest, which Elizabeth had attended earlier).

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