Review: Films Set In Japan – The Teahouse Of The August Moon (1956)

“All moons are good but an August moon is a little older and a little wiser”

So that’s what the latter part of the title was all about then! For many, many years I’ve been aware of this film but I had absolutely no idea what it was about until I finally got round to watching it a couple of months ago.


Opening with the twangy sound of the shamisen, the shōji (Japanese paper doors) opens to reveal post-WWII Okinawa in 1946. With no preconceptions of the movie contents, I was in for quite a surprise when I saw Marlon Brando portraying a Japanese interpreter as talks to the camera whilst sitting in front of a tree.

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Of course this film is very much of it’s time and is probably now damned by political correctness. Rumour has it that Brando was so convincingly Japanese, that many cinema-goers didn’t even recognise him and demanded refunds thinking that he had not appeared at all. It’s a good story but I find it hard to believe when watching it through the eyes of someone living in a different century.

Many people though could not accept Brando as Japanese. I felt that way at the start of the film but by the end I wasn’t even thinking about it. I wouldn’t say I was totally convinced but having seen Mickey Rooney portraying a Japanese man in ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961) I was maybe able to suspend belief for the duration of this movie.

In these times of high sensitivity, this kind of thing (known as yellow-face) would never be allowed to happen but if you can put that to the side then you’ll be able to enjoy Brando’s engaging and funny performance in what is a rather silly comedy. It has it’s moments such as everyone, including a goat, piling on to a truck to drive to various local villages.

The first 40 minutes or so is taken up with basically three scenes but from there on they are much shorter. The moments of real interest are few and far between and the supposed comedic moments were more annoying than funny for me as the story struggled to really gain any momentum. I will say that I did laugh at the “Don’t give me any of that Oriental hanky panky” line though!

Glenn Ford is the other main actor and his role as the good-natured Captain Fisby is to try and bring American democracy to an Okinawan village and help build a pentagon-shaped schoolhouse. The locals are only interested in building a teahouse but constructing both is not possible due to financial constraints. Their handmade goods fail to captivate the market but then Fisby discovers that they can make brandy. The military can’t get enough of it and the influx of money leads to a teahouse being built very quickly.

Fisby gradually becomes assimilated into the local way of life with the help of Brando’s character Sakini. Remember that this was in an era long before the phrase Turning Japanese was coined! Having been booted out of every village on the island, geisha girl Lotus Blossom finds her place in Tobiki and the women of village want her to teach them how to be geisha girls.

It has to be said that the misfit Captain is not exactly clued in when it comes to helping spread values and the ways of life in the village. There are many scenes with lots and lots of people in them (too many!) and his policy for assembling everyone is to just ask everyone who would be the best person for each position of power. He often refers to a thick manual for guidance which doesn’t seem to befitting for a man of his position!

There is supposedly a Teahouse of the August Moon near Naha which is a popular restaurant specialising in local cuisine and dance. The Okinawan village of Tobiki where the story takes place is fictional and not that dissimilar to Tomi Village which was the made-up name of the place in ‘The Karate Kid Part II‘ (1986). On the subject of tenuous links, this film may have been the first Japanese-related one with August in the title but it wasn’t the last as ‘Rhapsody In August‘ (1991) appeared many decades later with Richard Gere guest-starring in the Akira Kurosawa directed film. Both have now been reviewed on here in August! Coincidence? I think not!

Tokyo Fox Rating 5/10

About tokyofox

A Leicester City fan teaching English in Japan
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6 Responses to Review: Films Set In Japan – The Teahouse Of The August Moon (1956)

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  5. Julie says:

    Sadly you missed the humor and charm of this movie. The location scenes are beautiful and close enough to authentic that I checked where it was filmed. The Okinawan people are warm and intelligent people. The military is often bogged down in burocracy and Americans are sometimes insensitive to the culture of others. I used to live just outside of Naha on Okinawa. Too bad you did not appreciate either the humor or the lessons from the movie.

    • tokyofox says:

      Ah sorry to disappoint you Julie but opinions are of course subjective. I cannot actually remember what I wrote about this film but without rereading it I guess it was negative. However, I really am happy that you got something out of the movie which I missed. Thanks so much for your comment.

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