Over the past 70 years, when a "Japanese" -- which is to say an actor representing a male Japanese -- appeared in a Hollywood movie, what sort of image was he most likely to project? A pint-sized man wearing black-framed spectacles, with protuberant incisors, perhaps? Like the klutzy photographer "Yunioshi" in "Breakfast at Tiffany's?"
Well, writes Sapio (September), such a description would not be entirely wrong. Looking back at the 70 years since the end of World War II, it would certainly be no exaggeration to say that Hollywood's portrayals of Japanese males have been less than flattering.
Females, on the other hand, were likely to evoke the characteristics of the geisha: feminine, subservient, eager and willing to please males. Based, in part, on stories brought back to the U.S. by soldiers returning home from the military occupation of Japan.
As with Swedish actor Warner Oland and his two successors in the Honolulu detective Charlie Chan film series, and Hungarian-born Peter Lorre as Japanese secret agent Mr Moto, Caucasians made up to appear Asian dominated U.S. cinema as late as the 1960s, and with a few exceptions it was not until the rise of Bruce Lee that Asian-American actors managed to break into heroic starring roles.
Ever so gradually, however, images of Japanese began to diversify, so that by the 1970s and 1980s, there would be Lee spin-off films, about the exploits of modern-day ninjas -- teams of secret assassins whose origins dated back several centuries. And thanks to best-selling books like Ezra Vogel's "Japan as Number One: Lessons for America" and Eric Van Lustbader's "The Ninja," Japan evolved into a country portrayed as a fusion of tradition and high tech.
"Americans continue to show their preference to see Japan portrayed as a land of ninja and samurai, a part of the 'mysterious East,'" Yumiko Murakami, a researcher on the history of Japan and the U.S., tells Sapio. She cites the 1986 comedy film "Gung Ho," a politically incorrect comedy directed by Ron Howard, which featured a Japanese automaker reopening a car factory in western Pennsylvania's rust belt.
Typical of the gags in the film is one where lead star Michael Keaton, an autoworker invited to his boss's home for what he assumes is a home-cooked Japanese dinner. Smacking his lips, he compliments his hostess, saying "Mmm, this is great! What do you call this anyway?"
"Meat roaf?" comes the puzzled reply.
While "Gung Ho" was at least grounded in the reality of Americans' concerns over economic incursions from Japan, it became far more common to find stereotypical film motifs related to sumo or kabuki. Or scenes featuring "nyotai-mori," in which morsels of sushi are artistically served from atop the torso of a nude female.
By the start of the present century, more Japan-born actors began to be tabbed for prominent roles. Examples include Chiaki Kuriyama who appeared in "Kill Bill Vol. 1," as Go-go Yubari, a cold-blooded high school age assassin and understudy to female heavy Lucy Liu.
And Japanese male performers are at long last also being accorded a modicum of dignity, such as Ken Watanabe's role in "Inception" (2010), a science-fiction film about corporate espionage.
As Murakami notes, "Ken Watanabe is neither a half-pint, nor does he have buck teeth. His popularity may be due to his defying what has up to now been the stereotypical image of Japanese men. But I'm not sure whether this means that Japanese are not receiving fair treatment.
"Due to trade friction, the 1980s became known as the time for 'Japan bashing'; after that came 'Japan passing'; and now things have come to 'Japan nasshing' (nothing)," observes Murakami. "Japan and other Asian countries have been almost completely eclipsed by China, and we can see this trend strengthening in Hollywood as well."
How Japanese will be portrayed in Hollywood films of the future, then, is anybody's guess.© Japan Today