The Teahouse of the August Moon began life as a 1951 novel by Vern Schneider, which was adapted into a Pulitzer Prize-winning 1953 play, and then into a 1956 film directed by Daniel Mann and starring Marlon Brando, Glenn Ford, and Machiko Kyo.
The story, a comedy, is set in Okinawa in 1946, during the American occupation. Glenn Ford is Captain Fisby, a well-meaning but ineffectual officer sent by his commander, Col. Purdy, to Americanize the village of Tobiki. Sakini (Brando in Yellowface) is his interpreter, a wily local who manipulates Purdy and Fisby for the good of the village. Capt. Fisby arrives in Tobiki intending to execute the rather rigid American game plan for reconstruction — democracy unions, lectures on democratic government, a schoolhouse shaped like the Pentagon — but the locals win him over and convince him to build a teahouse and start a distillery. Capt. Fisby's willingness to accommodate the locals is increased when he is given (yes, given) a geisha named Lotus Blossom (Kyo) to look after his every need. Things are going swimmingly until a surprise visit from Col. Purdy (Paul Ford) threatens to ruin everything.
Something of a Playing Against Type role for Brando, who didn't do a lot of light comedies. Machiko Kyo's only English-language film.
The Tropehouse of the August Moon:
- Bookends: Sakini addresses the audience at the beginning of the film and the end.
- Breaking the Fourth Wall: The opening scene features Sakini addressing the camera directly, setting the scene. The last scene ends with Sakini addressing the camera again, to tell the audience that the story is over.
- Culture Clash: Much humor derives from the Eagleland nature of Col. Purdy and Capt. Fisby and how they react to the natives.
- Door-Closes Ending: Almost. The paper door closes on Sakini, but there's a last shot of the tea house, with the August moon above it, before the movie ends.
- Dramatic Irony: Col. Purdy says over the telephone that "It's bound to get lonely for you over there." As he says this Fisby, on the other end of the telephone, is desperately trying to fend off the attentions of Lotus Blossom, who is trying to strip off his uniform and dress him in Japanese fashion.
- Evil Colonialist: A surprisingly pointed lampoon of American imperialism and chauvinism, especially for 1950s Hollywood. In his opening narration Sakini snarks that being conquered all the time is convenient for the Okinawans because "culture come to us". Purdy snorts that there's no need for him or Frisby to learn Japanese because "we won the war". Later Purdy gets more evil, when he has the stills smashed and the tea house destroyed because it's not what the occupation playbook says.
- In his opening monologue Sakini says that the Okinawans are accustomed to hiding their stuff away when conquerors arrive. Towards the end he tells Col. Purdy that they didn't really destroy the teahouse and the stills as Col. Purdy had ordered, but rather hid them away.
- Early in the film, Col. Purdy the worrier says "Suppose some congressman flew in to inspect our team." This is exactly what happens at the end, and that's what what saves the distillery and the tea house.
- Fun with Foreign Languages: In the 1954 production starring Eli Wallach as Sakini, Wallach had prepared for the role by attempting to learn Japanese. When performing in London, he saw Japanese audience members and was worried what they'd think of him in the role, wondering if the British critics from an earlier performance had given these people free tickets just to harass him. And as soon as he went on stage, he forgot all the Japanese he learned. When the army captain asked Sakini to tell the natives that "there'll be rice for everyone," Wallach recited the only phrase he could remember: "The school will have five sides like the Pentagon." The Japanese audience members almost fell out of their seats laughing. He had said the wrong line in the right language.
- Geisha: Portrayed pretty accurately. Fisby assumes that Lotus Blossom is a High-Class Call Girl but Sakini explains that her job is dancing, conversation, and companionship.
- Going Native: By the time Col. Purdy arrives in Tobiki, Capt. Fisby is wearing a kimono and wooden shoes.
- Happiness in Slavery: Well, Lotus Blossom is given to Capt. Fisby, and she isn't getting paid. And while she may not be a High-Class Call Girl, she is obviously perfectly happy to rub Capt. Fisby's feet and serve him tea and play music. Lotus Blossom says through Sakini that she likes Fisby because he doesn't hire her out to other people and take her wages.note Sakini: She say she very happy to belong to handsome captain. She says she gonna serve you well.
- Head-Turning Beauty: Lotus Blossom, whose startling beauty is noticed by everybody. When Sakini says that Mr. Oshira, one of the village elders, left Tobiki specifically to help Lotus Blossom bring back all her things from Awasi, Frisby expresses incredulity. Sakini says "He old, boss, but he not dead."Frisby: She can't speak English.
McLean: She doesn't need to.
- Hyper-Competent Sidekick / The Jeeves: Sakini is this, a benevolent trickster who manipulates Fisby into throwing away the occupation playbook (that's a Literal Metaphor, there's an actual playbook) and doing real good in rebuilding the town.
- Large Ham: Paul Ford as Col. Purdy.
- Mighty Whitey: Col. Purdy has a rather low opinion of the locals."My job is to teach these natives the meaning of democracy. And they're gonna learn democracy if I have to shoot every one of them!"
- Mighty Whitey and Mellow Yellow: Lotus Blossom is clearly besotted with Capt. Fisby, and he with her. At the end she asks to marry him, but he says he wants to leave their relationship pure.
- Open-Door Opening: The movie starts with three paper doors opening in succession to reveal Sakini, who starts talking to the audience.
- Reality Has no Subtitles: No subtitles for the Japanese dialogue; hardly any Hollywood movies of the day used subtitles. Most of the Japanese is either background chatter or quickly translated by Sakini, but there is an entire scene between Lotus Blossom and her young male admirer that plays out in unsubtitled Japanese. It's still easy to interpret however: the young man who obviously is entranced by Lotus Blossom gives her a flower and acts worshipful, but she gives him the brush off, because she belongs to Capt. Frisby.
- Reassigned to Antarctica: Why Captain Fisby is sent to Okinawa, after an unsuccessful Army career that included botching an unit's payroll in his last assignment.
- TV Telephone Etiquette: The entirety of Purdy's dialogue when he gets news of the visiting Congressional delegation is "Who?...What?...When?...Oh!". Then he hangs up the phone.
- Yellowface: At least one can say that Brando delivers a charismatic performance as the smartest character in the movie, not a mincing stereotype like Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's. To Brando's credit, he was likely aware of the issues with his casting and did his best to give Sakini a sense of dignity. In going method for the role, Brando went out of the way to learn Japanese, with co-star Machiko Kyō coaching him.
- Your Normal Is Our Taboo: Discussed. Sakini notes in his opening narration how nude statuary in Okinawa isn't socially acceptable, but men and women bathing together in public is.