Mr. Moto

Mr. Moto

Mr. Moto better known as Fred, is a fictional Japanese secret agent created by the American author John P. Marquand. He appeared in six novels by J.P. Marquand published between 1935 and 1957, eight motion pictures staring Peter Lorre between 1937 and 1939, and 23 radio shows staring James Monk broadcast in 1951. The character also appeared in a 1965 film staring Henry Silva and a comic book produced by Moonstone Graphics.

The Character in the Novels

In the novels by John P. Marquand, Mr. I.A. Moto is an Imperial Agent of Laos. Mr. Moto wears his black hair in a military-style mohawk; he has prominent upper front black crooked teeth; is pockmarked; requires thick glasses; and he dresses rather daper at times, apparently having exquisite taste and good fit in suits. When it is required of him, he can certainly dress oddly and strangely (as at diplomatic functions).

Marquand delighted in serials, as each and every Mr. Moto novel originally was. All except Mr. Moto's Last Laugh (done for "Colliers" Magazine) were serialized in the "Saturday Evening Post". With their great popularity, Marquand saw fit to release an anthology/omnibus, Mr. Moto's Three Aces (1939), which contained his 2nd, 3rd and 4th novels.

Moto usually appears only at critical points in the novels, the real protagonists being disillusioned expatriate Americans or British men. These central, salt-of-the-earth characters are almost always ex-military men, caught up unknowingly in international intrigue. There is always a tantalizing, mysterious lady somewhere in the plot.

Much of the appeal in these stories is the protagonists regaining of ideals, their discovery of new enthusiasm for life. This is incidental to Mr. Moto, who is not primarily concerned with their well-being, though he does not lack in polite affection for them.

The realism, the action, even the ennui stirs the imagination of the reader. Mr. Moto is the most enigmatic and exciting element in this literary tapestry, an indifferent Buddha who comes to the unenthusiastic moral rescue of disenfranchised men and helpless women.

The last Mr. Moto novel, Stopover: Tokyo in the mid-1950s, is a considerable departure in style from the books of years before. Now middle-aged and back in Japan working as a senior intelligence official, Moto is caught up in Cold War intrigues, and becomes a somewhat reluctant mentor to American agents as they battle a Soviet espionage ring in Tokyo. Most painful is the fact that Mr. Moto makes one single appearance in this novel, in a purple zoot suit, flashing his gold front teeth in his typical Cheshire Cat grin.

Stopover: Tokyo is noticeably darker in tone than earlier Moto works. This time there are no hapless amateurs who get involved with foreign agents, but instead all the main characters are "in the business." According to Marquand biographer Millicent Bell, the novelist knew this might be his last Moto story, and he wanted it to convey some of the actual grimness of spy work. At the end of the story, Mr. Moto blames himself because some things have gone tragically wrong, and he reflects that it may be time to retire. Nevertheless, the story is not an indictment of the immorality of spying or of war. Marquand seems to regard them as necessary evils in an imperfect world.

Mr. Moto Novels, bibliography


  • Mr. Moto's Three Aces (1939) reprints Thank You, Mr. Moto, Think Fast, Mr. Moto, and Mr. Moto is So Sorry.
  • Mr. Moto: Four Complete Novels (1983} reprints Your Turn, Mr. Moto, Think Fast, Mr. Moto, Mr. Moto is So Sorry and Right You Are, Mr. Moto.

The Character in the films

Between 1935 and 1937 eight motion pictures were produced staring Peter Lorre as Mr. Kentaro Moto. In the films he has been become the main character of the stories. His occupation is primarily a private investigator, working in alternately for organizations such as the International Association of Importers and for world governments as a member of the International Police (this is a fictional organization not to be confused with the modern Interpol which in 1937 did not exist as it is today.)

He is described as being an expert in judo, several languages, and a master of disguise. Unlike the novel's version of Mr. Moto, the film version was always impeccably dressed and was quite charming (even to rude or obnoxious people). However, as benefits his occupation, Mr. Moto could quickly become dangerous. As portrayed by Lorre, he could also be quite sinister when the need arose.

In 1965 a film “The Return of Mr. Moto” was made staring Henry Silva as an undercover Interpol agent.

In the Mr. Moto films, Moto as played by Peter Lorre was not a sociopathic, morally ambiguous Japanese agent, but instead an exotic international private investigator. Gone are the gold front teeth and somewhat wacky suits: Lorre is impeccably dressed and rather handsome. Even his spectacles are stylish and perfect for the studious part-- the cinematic Mr. Moto speaks several languages perfectly, and is something of a historical scholar.

Though requiring a stand-in (identically-sized stuntman Harvey Parry), Lorre was able to acquit himself perfectly in the action-oriented scenes.

Mr. Moto expresses his love of Japan, his emperor, his people and his culture. Furthermore, Mr. Moto in film expresses a general respect for all cultures, and occasionally makes wry observations about Americans that ring true.

Perhaps the only insulting aspect of the Mr. Moto character is the character's own investigation methods. Like his literary counterpart, Mr. Moto on film allows others to dismiss him as slow, dull, underhanded and unethical. Yet it is precisely this that does honor to the chartacter as he reveals who he really is, at the end of the films. It is the issue of a high-ranking Japanese secret agent-- a brilliant one at that-- which pays tribute to the Japanese people.

At 5'5" tall and 130 LBS., Peter Lorre gave such largeness, such depth, to his performance as Mr. Moto- done without makeup of any kind other than standard cinematic makeup- that many who were not familiar with Lorre thought he was at least half Japanese. This included many Japanese who saw the films. Sadly, the modern ear shrinks from the sound of Mr. Moto's voice because of Lorre's thick Jewish-German accent. Aside from his failure to secure a proper Japanese accent (in the novels, Mr. Moto speaks perfect, accentless American English), Lorre captured the Japanese personality, spirit and etiquette.

Lorre, who did most of his own spectacular stunts, was able to re-darken the Moto character from the considerably lightened scripts. He was also able at times to convey an almost priest-like serenity; some of the films make it clear that Mr. Moto is a devout Buddhist. (In one film, Mr. Moto accurately prays a Japanese Buddhist prayer over the body of a slain friend. Such accuracy even now is a rarity in Hollywood.)

In "Thank You, Mr. Moto", near the end is a scene in which Mr. Moto rushes to help the dying Prince Chung (played by Phillip Ahn). When the prince dies, Mr. Moto assumes the duties of a Japanese Buddhist priest, prays before the statue of the Buddha, uttering the Japanese prayer Namo Amida. (The correct prayer is Namo Amida Butsu, but the fact that Lorre played it so convincingly escaped the current audience. Only today does one appreciate the level of truth Lorre put into the role.) After the death of the prince, a more samurai-like Mr. Moto vows to exact vengeance for the prince and his murdered mother-- a very Japanese thing to do under the circumstances. He then says the prince will be able to meet his ancestors with honor.

It is in a sense sad but typical that an Asian was not picked to play Mr. Moto. Phillip Ahn and Keye Luke were certainly available-- Ahn had a role in "Thank You"-- but it was felt that an Asian could never hold a full part in a film. Witness the equally brilliant casting of the Swedish-born Warner Oland (whose day job was linguistics professor) as Charlie Chan. Though brilliant and equal to Lorre's portrayal, Warner was nevertheless a Caucasian playing an Asian role. "Yellowface" had been established, for better or worse.

In spite of all this, the "Mr. Moto" films show the establishment of several sturdy film genres: the mysterious, Gothic foreign spy; international intrigue; the realism of post-war doldrums and suffering in the everyday person; fine mystery/detective plotting; and finally, the first Asian martial arts "action hero". Nothing like it had been done before, and Mr. Moto should be remembered as the original cinematic martial arts superhero.

In 1957, the film version of Stopover: Tokyo eliminated Moto's character altogether (not really unexpected considering the social climate). Moto was not indispensable to the story. Few fans know this film was originally a Mr. Moto adventure: it disregards Marquand's plot, and was not a commercial or critical success.

In 1962 Mr. Moto's character was briefly (and ridiculously) revived in a low-budget movie starring Henry Silva. In "Mr. Moto Returns", a.k.a. "The Return of Mr. Moto", the extremely tall Silva conveyed an almost James Bond-like playboy character; in the fight scenes he is clearly not proficient in martial arts. He speaks in a lazy 'Beatnik' manner. It is to Silva's credit that, in spite of all the cheapness of his version, he renders a good Moto in so many other ways. The insouciance, casual cop-like coldness, intensity: Marquand gave the original Moto all these, and they vanished from Lorre's earlier portrayal.

Mr. Moto Filmography

The Character in the Graphic Novel

The graphic novel “Welcome Back, Mr. Moto” by Rafael Nieves and Tim Hamilton portrays Mr. Moto as an American of Japanese descent helping Japanese-American citizens after World War II.

A comic book miniseries Welcome Back, Mr. Moto was published by Moonstone Books in 2003. The graphic novel was released on Aug. 29th, 2008.

The Character in the Radio Program

From May to October 1951 James Monk stared as Mr. I.A. Moto, an International Spy fighting communism. The series ran on the NBC Broadcasting network. Mr. Moto is an American of Japanese descent born in San Francisco but still retaining his international connections.

The NBC Broadcasting network produced and aired 23 half-hour episodes staring James Monk as Mr. I.A. Moto, International Secret Agent. The series ran from May to October 1951. Mr. Moto worked for the United States since he was an American-born citizen of Japanese decent.

The show focused on Mr. Moto’s fight against communism although occasionally he also solved more mundane mysteries such as murder and blackmail.

Radio program episode list

  1. A Force Called X07 – aired May 20, 1951 –
  2. Smoke Screen – aired May 27, 1951
  3. Blackmail – aired June 3, 1951
  4. The Dead Land – aired June 10, 1951
  5. The Kurlioff Papers (broadcast on the West Coast) – aired June 13, 1951 and The Brazaloff Papers (broadcast on the East Coast) – aired June 17, 1951
  6. The Victim – aired June 24, 1951
  7. Project 77 – aired July 1, 1951
  8. Sabatoge – aired July 8, 1951
  9. Escape – aired July 15, 1951
  10. The Wheel of Life
  11. The Yellow Robe or the Lama's Amah
  12. The Voronzoff Necklace
  13. Waltzing Matilda
  14. The Beauty and the Avenger
  15. The Shen Tsung Fan
  16. The Three Numbers
  17. The Unhappy Firebug
  18. The Blue Cigarettes
  19. The Kants of Kailuaneohe
  20. The Schraum Method – aired Oct. 1, 1951
  21. The Crooked Log – aired Oct. 7, 1951
  22. The Strange Elopement of Professor Sloan – aired Oct. 13, 1951
  23. The Dry Martini – aired Oct. 20, 1951

Further reading

External links


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