Monday, April 29, 2013

Fortnightly Book, April 28

Entering the end of term, so I would either need to forego the fortnightly book for a while or pick a fairly light and easy re-read. And I was mulling this over, my eye fell on a book I don't think I've read since high school: Think Fast, Mr. Moto, by John P. Marquand.

When we think of secret agents, we usually think of James Bond, in Her Majesty's service, furthering the cause of Britain and the Commonwealth. But before Bond the most famous fictional secret agent in the English speaking-world was from Imperial Japan. We never learn his actual name -- "Moto" is not a real Japanese name, just a lopped-off pair of syllables, as if an English secret agent went around with the name Mr. Onson. He was an aristocrat, profoundly loyal to his country, unfailingly polite, ruthlessly effective. One of the important things about Mr. Moto is that he is never the main character. It is part of his role as secret agent not to be a main character. All the Mr. Moto stories are actually about Westerners who accidentally get caught up in some tricky matter of East-West espionage, with Mr. Moto just stepping in at just the right moments. This is brilliant; Marquand's Mr. Moto stories are highly formulaic (it's been noted that they all read like highly stereotypical Golden Age B-movie romances), and largely forgettable, but Mr. Moto, in the shadows, is absolutely memorable.

The Mr. Moto stories were developed by Marquand in the 1930s when the Saturday Evening Post needed a replacement for the highly popular Charlie Chan serials after the death of their author. Mr. Moto was an immediate hit, and went to big screen; he was played by Peter Lorre, this being in the age when Hollywood gave Oriental parts to vaguely foreign-looking and foreign-sounding Europeans. (Charlie Chan first came to screen played by a Swede.) The movies were themselves a big hit, and Lorre's acting is quite good with the scripts they gave him, but they tend not to be watched much, because of the obvious and entirely reasonable racial issues. In a sense it's unfortunate that the Lorre films weren't flops: the movies make Mr. Moto less subtle and shadowy, and they both play into old Oriental stereotypes and created some of their own. In the books, for instance, it is made clear that Mr. Moto is fluent in multiple languages, including English, capable of speaking them without any accent or misstep, but that when working with Westerners he often uses the stereotypical "Ah, so"-type speech, complete with mispronounced r's, so that they will underestimate him. This doesn't really come across in the movies. The movies also play down the secret-agent side of Mr. Moto's character; he comes across more as an obvious Charlie Chan substitute, engaging in clever undercover detective-work more than international intrigue. But in the books he is a truly awesome secret agent.

In the early 1930s Imperial Japan was both unknown and familiar: it wasn't quite clear what the full intentions of the Empire were, nor were most Westerners very familiar with day-to-day life in Japan, but Japan had begun its expansionary phase, invading Manchuria in 1931, and Americans were still trying to figure out what to make of this. Mr. Moto, profoundly loyal to the Empire, at one point characterizes the expansion as Manifest Destiny -- a profoundly American term -- but he will also criticize his government's means of proceeding; we learn in the books that Mr. Moto is a moderate imperialist. He thinks the Empire should expand, but that it should do so slowly and by restrained methods rather than by aggressive war-making. But, of course, the build-up of world events put Mr. Moto in an increasingly difficult position, and after Pearl Harbor the possibility of an Imperial Japanese hero in stories was effectively zero. Indeed, the damage was quite considerable: Charlie Chan programs were canceled, and he was a Chinese-American living in Hawaii. After the war, interest in Mr. Moto returned, and he came to a radio program -- a fairly good one, actually -- in which he was reinvented as a Japanese-American secret agent in San Francisco fighting Communists.

Think Fast, Mr. Moto is the third of the Mr. Moto books. I think I also have the second one somewhere, but I couldn't find it offhand. In any case, it will do as light reading for the next two weeks.

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