Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | yellowface
127
archive,tag,tag-yellowface,tag-127,qode-quick-links-1.0,ajax_fade,page_not_loaded,,no_animation_on_touch,qode-title-hidden,qode-theme-ver-11.0,qode-theme-bridge,wpb-js-composer js-comp-ver-5.1.1,vc_responsive

mikado I recently blogged about a video produced by the City of Los Angeles – using taxpaper money – that was originally produced with good intentions: Explaining the importance of recycling water. But to make its point, the video used a ghastly, stereotypical caricature of geishas played by non-Asians with painted faces wearing kimonos, including one played by a non-Asian man. Of course, they spoke in “ching-chong” Japanesey accents. It's disturbing that it's OK even in 2013 to caricature Asians with the most shallow racial stereotypes -- ones that have been used to depict us for 150 years. There’s a long tradition in Hollywood and show business in general of “yellowface” – non-Asians (usually Caucasians) cast as Asians. The most egregious example is probably the horrid character of Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s," in which Mickey Rooney played the part to the hilt with buck teeth, thick glasses, squinty eyes and a terrible accent. But wait, there's more! He played a perverted lech of a photographer who keeps trying to shoot pictures of his downstairs neighbor Holly Golightly (imagine this name pronounced in a horrible fake Japanese accent), played by Audrey Hepburn. There are many, many examples of yellowface going back to Katharine Hepburn and Marlon Brando playing Chinese and Japanese characters with their eyes taped back in classic films such as “Dragon Seed” and “Tea House of the August Moon,” all the way to last year’s big-budget sci-fi flick “Cloud Atlas,” in which Hugo Weaving (of “Matrix” and "Lord of the Rings” fame) was among the cast who played both white and Asian parts, with hideously phony-looking makeup. It's not just on the big screen. Yellowface has also been a tradition on the stage, and I happened to see two plays recently that used elements of the practice, with varying results. Gilbert & Sullivan’s famous 1885 comic opera “The Mikado” is known for its social satire; the musical pokes fun at British politics and society by using Japan as the setting for its wacky love story. But the Japan it portrays is the Japan that people in the late 1800s fantasized about: Exotic, utterly foreign and just plain strange. To ensure that it only depicts simpleminded stereotypes, W.S. Gilbert based the play on a fictional Japan that had just been opened to Western commerce, but he didn’t bother to do any research to make his portrayal of Japanese culture realistic at all. Instead, he named the village where “The Mikado” takes place “Titipu” and gave his characters improbably names such as “Nanki-poo” and “Yum-Yum.”

Here's an update to my post of a few weeks ago, about the use of yellowface to have white actors playing Asian characters in "Cloud Atlas." MANAA, the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, adds its voice to the chorus criticizing the big-budget Hollywood sci-fi for its ridiculous and laughable depiction of Asians: FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE CONTACT: Guy Aoki (818)...

Yellowface is back in Hollywood, and it's as big, ugly, blatant and offensive as ever. Racebending wrote about this a couple of weeks ago in "The Cloud Atlas Conversation: Yellowface, Prejudice, and Artistic License," but as more and more people see the trailer for the new sci-fi flick "Cloud Atlas" (the film just premiered at the Toronto Film Festival) the outrage...

Actor Keanu Reeves, who is half-Asian, will play a samurai in an upcoming move, 47 Ronin.The Hollywood news source Variety reported yesterday that Keanu Reeves, everyone's favorite hapa actor (his father is Hawai'ian-Chinese) is going to play the lead role in a samurai epic, "47 Ronin." The 47 Ronin is the celebrated 18th century story from Japanese history, of a group of masterless samurai who avenged the death of their feudal lord, or daimyo, after a year of planning and then committed seppuku, or ritual suicide, to maintain their warrior code of honor, or bushido. The story's been told a lot in Japanese movies, in variations of the title "Chushingura." The most recent remake in Japan was "47 Ronin" ("Shijushichinin no shikaku") in 1994, written and directed by Kon Ichikawa. It's cool to think that Hollywood is going to tell this story, with the the spectacle of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and the star power of Reeves. Keanu Reeves played Siddhartha in the 1993 film Little Buddha.But it makes me wonder about the choice of Reeves. Yeah, he knows martial arts (and proved it in the Matrix movies), and he's part Asian. But he's not Japanese. And, hellooo, he doesn't look very Asian. When "Memoirs of a Geisha" was produced with Chinese women in the lead roles, it bothered some in the Japanese American community, including me. (It also caused a stir in China, where the women were criticized for playing Japanese roles.) Could it really have been so hard to find qualified Japanese actresses (which was the filmmakers' excuse)? I definitely get that Reeves brings a big name-brand to the samurai film so he's important. But his one previous role playing an Asian was downright surreal, and it makes me apprehensive about how this one will go.

Sept. 24 update: Good news -- CBS appears to have pulled all of the Farnfucious clips off their YouTube channel. It's hard to believe that a major U.S. broadcast network can get away with it, but there it is on YouTube: "Farnfucious Say," a regular (apparently) skit on the "Farnsworth & the Fox" show produced by CBS. The show's co-host, "Farnsworth," is a puppet a la "Sesame Street" and the "Fox" is (not surprisingly) a woman cast for her sex appeal. "Farnfucious" -- they couldn't even spell the pun on Confucius correctly -- is a puppet character with Fu Manchu mustache and traditional Chinese-looking garb, talking in a slimy broken Chinese accent the way white people like to parody Asians speaking. The puppet is introduced by a woman's voice speaking in the same cheesy accent intoning, "And now, anothah episode... of Farnfucious!" and afterwards the outro: "Words of wisdom... from Farnfucious!"

Growing up, I didn't think much about it, but seeing old Westerns now, it's amazing to me that movies got away with casting white people in the roles of American Indians or Mexicans -- almost always as "bad guys." Seeing these movies today, you could tell they're not ethnic actors, and could almost see the smudges from the makeup smeared over their faces and hands. It wasn't any more sophisticated than the blackface makeup white actors wore to play African American roles in silent movies or the early talkies, wide-eyed, shiny black visages like masks, singing about "mammy." You don't see that any more, at least, not with blacks and Latinos. Hollywood also has a long and tiresome tradition of "yellowface" -- having Caucasian actors portray ethnic Asian roles. And, unfortunately, you can still see that on the big screen today. The most famous early examples of yellowface are the various actors from Warner Oland and Boris Karloff to Peter Sellers who played the evil, inscrutable Fu Manchu; Oland and Sidney Toler as the detective Charlie Chan in a series of hit movies; and the German-born, diminutive Peter Lorre as the Japanese detective Mr. Moto in another string of movies. Even the great Katharine Hepburn, one of my favorite actresses, put on yellowface, to play a Chinese woman in the 1944 movie "Dragon Seed."

I missed this NPR report a couple of weeks ago, about the impact of the character Long Duk Dong from the 1980s hit movie, "16 Candles." I had heard a promo for the report while driving but got home before it came on. I finally went back to check it out and it's worth hearing. The link to the report is at the top of the page; the text on the page is the report's transcript. Be sure to check out the extra interview clip with Gedde Watanabe, the Japanese American actor who played "the Donger" -- he doesn't really have a clue, unfortunately. And check out the comic that's included, "Donger and Me."