Monday, 21 January 2008


So we're back in Japan. Nothing has changed; not that I really expected it to. We went to a ramen shop today and ate massive punch-bowls full of the stuff while drinking barley tea and listening to jazz music. (Two of the little-remarked upon features of Tokyo ramen shops are that they always give you as much barley tea as you can drink and always have jazz playing in the background. I have no idea why this is, but the three things - ramen, jazz, barley tea - seem to go together very well.)

Anyway, there was an interesting article in the paper about Masi Oka, the actor who stars in the TV show Heroes as a Japanese geek-cum-superhero type guy. (Why do superheroes always have geeky alter-egos, by the way? Peter Parker, Clark Kent...they're never normal, sensible people, are they?) The writer, a Japanese guy, was complaining about the stereotyping of East Asian men in American cinema and TV; Hiro Nakamura (the character Oka plays in Heroes - yes, he really is called Hiro...oh my aching sides), he says, is just the latest in a long line of geeky, inadequate, submissive, meek and generally naff East Asian men in American cinema, and that's all they're ever portrayed as.

This is partly true, and something I've noticed too, but there are of course other East Asian men in Hollywood. There is the dirty old man, who has an unhealthy interest in junior-high school girls' panties and smokes too much. There is the yakuza-punk-chimpira type, who is surly and menacing and does a lot of monosyllabic grunting. And there is the mystical ninja/samurai/judo master type, who is serene and wise and can also beat people up quicker than you can say 'Mr. Miyagi.'

In fact none of these types have much bearing in reality - and nor indeed do the East Asian female stereotypes we often see on the big or little screen: the dragoness ninja queen, beautiful but deadly; the demure, seductive sex-kitten; the ageing prostitute. What interests me about these stereotypes is actually how sexualised they are - we either seem to see East Asian people as perverted in some way (the submissive weakling man, the filthy old sleaze), or else as hyper-erotic (the cute young temptress; the sword-wielding scampily clad assassin). It's odd, and it reminds me of similar stereotyping of black people in Western movies and literature, whereby black men are always seen as sexually dangerous and black women are sexually promiscuous.

It's funny how you notice these things only when you've stepped away from Western culture and come back. I remember watching Lost in Translation after having spent a year in Japan and being shocked at how absurd and unsympathetic it was in its portrayal of the Japanese. But by all accounts, people in Europe and the US lapped it up, and probably never even noticed how racist it was.

Anyway, maybe one day there'll be an East Asian leading man in a Hollywood film. Denzel Washington and Will Smith have broken that particular barrier for black people; I'm hoping Ken Watanabe will be the first East Asian to win an Oscar for Best Actor - and ideally not as a samurai or army officer or other typical 'Japanese' role. Just as a normal person. That would be refreshing.


zero_zero_one said...

I broadly agree with what you're saying; now that I think about it there are very few Japanese films that I have seen which were not "genre" films in some way.

Two that spring to mind were Studio Ghibli films ("Only Yesterday" and "Whisper Of The Heart") and these were more or less set in the real world and just featured ordinary (animated) characters. I was struck at the time actually that these were animated films about ordinary people - no songs, no talking animals or toys or anything.

One thing I want to correct you on is that Hiro Nakamura does not have a geeky alter-ego: he is that person. The whole thing of Heroes is that they don't have alter-egos (although, of course, they might keep some parts of their lives secret from others).

noisms said...

He does really have an alter-ego though, doesn't he? I mean, he has a normal life, and then also super abilities that he keeps secret, presumably. So the only difference between him and superman or spiderman is just that his alter-ego isn't clearly defined by wearing a latex suit and having a daft name.

zero_zero_one said...

I think that an alter-ego is more thank keeping secrets; he doesn't have a secret identity as such, it's just that people in general don't know that he has powers.

Superman and Spider-man (note the hyphen!) are two very different cases as well: the assumption of the general public in the world of Superman is that he is ONLY Superman, that he has no other identity (largely because he doesn't wear a mask), whereas in Spider-man's New York everyone assumes that he has some kind of secret identity because of the fact that he does wear a mask.

One of the interesting things in Heroes is that by and large the characters are not superheroes in the alter-ego/secret identity sense, because the general public does not know they exist.

mattiecore said...

I hated Lost in Translation.