I saw Escapade in Japan at a movie screening and networking event that is held roughly once a month at a cozy little restaurant in Tokyo. As with all of the other films I have caught at this event, this one was much, much more fun to watch with a group of like-minded people. Although there is a good deal of intentional humor in the film, we all roared with laughter at many subtle moments tat would only be funny to a group of Japanese who had lived aboard and expats living in Japan, which is exactly what we were.
The whole film is basically just an excuse to take Technicolor cameras from one scenic Japanese location to another, but the little bit of plot that is there is quite charming. Cameron Mitchell plays an American diplomat who has just be reassigned from the Philippines to Tokyo. His wife (Teresa Wright) shows up and tells him she is leaving him because she found out about the affair he was having at his previous post. Their 7-year-old son (Jon Provost) is put on a flight. When his plane has engine trouble, he winds up floating alone on a raft in the Pacific. Even though an uncredited Clint Eastwood flies in on a search mission, the boy is found by a fisherman and his wife. Tony befriends the fisherman’s son, who learned English by listening to armed forces radio. This is where the movie really begins. By the time the fishing boat docks, the boys are buddies. When the police come to take Tony back to his parents, the boys mistakenly think they are about to be carted off to jail and make a run for it. They conveniently make stops at music halls, temples, geisha houses and the like.
There are some funny moments where the police are portrayed as being totally incompetent at the simple task of finding two young boys, but it is mostly just one travelogue scene after another. But the little pieces that hold the plot together are quite charming. At 7, Jon Provost was already an accomplished child actor and was just about to start his long tenure on “Lassie,” which made him very famous. But Roger Nakagawa, who plays the Japanese boy, was appearing in his first and last film role. But the two really do a lot to carry the film, and were asked to do some pretty dangerous stuff, such as riding on a flatbed carriage of a moving train and climbing across the roof of a shrine in Kyoto.
But there is a more at work here than a buddy film between two boys. Just 12 years after the end of the war, the film relentlessly strives to humanize the Japanese, who were demonized in Hollywood a generation before. In Destination Tokyo in 1943, Cary Grant plays a submarine captain who tells his men with certainly that Japanese children are only seen as future soldiers. In this film, the Japanese police assure the worried American parents that their boy must be OK as people in Japan love all children, and children are never kidnapped.