Comedies about U.S. troops in occupied Japan were kind of a subgenre in the 1950s. Many of them were as much sentimental as funny, and that's true of "Joe Butterfly." It's far from hilarious but gives you a warm feeling.
The casting may seem strange, with action star Audie Murphy in a comic role and Burgess Meredith playing an Asian. But both are pretty good. Murphy plays a member of a military journalism unit arriving in Tokyo just after the war. Meredith's quaintly named character, "Joe Butterfly," is a roguish but likable black marketeer who latches on to him.
Not many movies about the military deal much with the black market, unless to treat it as something exotic and sinister. But it was part of life for U.S. troops stationed in places like Japan in the 1940s, and this movie is less judgmental about it than most.
Murphy, boyish-looking and soft-spoken, is the heart of the film. His character is easygoing, almost naive, whether he's befriending Joe or falling in love with a Japanese girl.
This is not as strange as it sounds. Though he got to Hollywood because of his real-life World War II heroics, and then played mostly tough guys, Murphy was never crazy about war films. He made only two movies actually set in World War II. When he did play men in uniform, he liked films that humanized the GI. This film does that.
Recruiting a famous white actor to play a major Asian role may seem strange today. It may even seem offensive. But it used to be done frequently, so maybe it's forgivable. Meredith gives it his best shot.
If you don't expect too much, this one is worth a look.
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