skip navigation
Race & Hollywood: Asian Images in Film (Tuesdays & Thursdays in June)
Remind Me

First Yank into Tokyo

When the United States officially entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hollywood got busy producing morale-boosting entertainments with a heavy accent on flag-waving patriotism and pro-American propaganda. One of the stranger efforts to emerge from this uncertain time in U.S. history was First Yank in Tokyo (1945), a B-movie espionage thriller directed by Gordon Douglas and set inside a Japanese concentration camp.

The outlandish plot follows Major Steve Ross (Tom Neal) as he volunteers for an undercover mission behind enemy lines that requires him to alter his face via plastic surgery in order to pass as a Japanese soldier. The surgeon cautions him, "I feel it is my duty to again warn you that once your features are changed, they can never be changed back." So why does Ross do it? To gain access to Captain Andrew Kent (Michael St. Angel), a captured American physicist who was working on the formula for the atomic bomb. It's no secret that Ross speaks fluent Japanese (from residing there in 1936) so he's clearly the perfect man to infiltrate the concentration camp where Kent is held. Regarding the enemy, Ross tells his superior, "I think I know every kink in their corkscrew psychology, sir." But there are two developments he didn't count on - running into his former fiancee Abby (Barbara Hale) at the camp (he thought she was killed in Bataan) and encountering his former Japanese roommate Okaruna (Richard Loo) from college, now an insidiously evil camp commandant. It turns out that Abby was captured and placed in the camp to tend to the American prisoners. Of course, neither she nor Okaruna recognize Ross in his new identity but there is something so familiar about him that disturbs them both. Oh, we forgot to tell you the most important part. The sinister Okaruna has designs on Abby who is now in love with Kent - all of this being observed by Ross who stands by, waiting for the right moment to spring Kent from the camp.

First Yank in Tokyo has enough plot contrivances for ten films but director Douglas juggles them all so effectively and with such breathless pacing that you rarely have time to consider the implausibility of the basic premise. And the film's blatant anti-Japanese posturing along with Tom Neal's crazy slant-eyed makeup, several nutty flashback sequences and unsubtle stock footage inserts provides a measure of politically incorrect fun that should come as a surprise to anyone who was expecting a conventional war drama. At times, First Yank in Tokyo degenerates into pure camp with dialogue exchanges like the plastic surgeon telling Ross, "You're as perfect a Jap as we can turn out." And the film is chock full of racial stereotypes with all the Japanese characters depicted as deceitful, sadistic, arrogant and fond of pithy sayings like "Your country is an overripe plum. It will be shaken to the earth by the winds sweeping from Japan." If nothing else, you have to love the frantic climax which borrows brilliantly and shamelessly from the airport farewell in Casablanca (1942) and the machine-gun fadeout of Bataan (1943).

Interestingly enough, First Yank in Tokyo went through some last minute changes before it was released. The studio wanted to make it more topical, due to recent events, so Captain Kent, the American prisoner, was transformed into a scientist who holds the formula to the atomic bomb thus justifying the final shot of the famous mushroom cloud. The film is also unique in that it makes a reference to the Bataan Death March, a notorious event which was only referenced in one other American war movie, Back to Bataan (1945).

Producer: J. Robert Bren
Director: Gordon M. Douglas
Screenplay: J. Robert Bren, based on a story by Gladys Atwater & J. Robert Bren
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Walter E. Keller
Cinematography: Harry J. Wild
Editing: Philip Martin
Music: Leigh Harline
Cast: Tom Neal (Major Ross), Barbara Hale (Abby Drake), Richard Loo (Col. Okaruna), Keye Luke (Haan-Soo), Leonard Strong (Maj. Nogira), Benson Fong (Captain Tanahe), Michael St. Angel (Captain Kent).

by Jeff Stafford



Also Playing on TCM

Also playing
Saturday Morning Matinees in June
Movies, Cartoons, Shorts

Inspired by weekend family programming in movie theaters across the country from the 1930s into the 1950s, TCM is offering similar...more

TCM Shopping
  • Go for Broke
  • They were the 442nd Regimental Combat Team...... more info
  • $7.95
  • Regularly $9.99
  • Add to cart
  • Bad Day at Black Rock
  • BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955) Folks in Black... more info
  • $18.95
  • Regularly $21.99
  • Add to cart
  • Bridge to the Sun
  • While staying in Washington, D.C.,... more info
  • $16.95
  • Regularly $19.99
  • Add to cart
  • The World of Suzie Wong
  • William Holden and Nancy Kwan star in this... more info
  • $18.95
  • Regularly $21.99
  • Add to cart