It’s been heartening these past few weeks to see social media, followed by mainstream media, address yellowface and whitewashing.
It’s a problem that’s been around pretty much since the birth of Hollywood — D.W. Griffith’s 1919 silent movie “Broken Blosssoms,” also alternatively titled “The Yellow Man and the Girl,” shows how far back yellowface goes. (Also interesting is how the word “girl” in the alternative title doesn’t need an adjective; I guess we just presume that the girl has to be white.)
Yellowface is, of course, when a role in a movie, TV production or play that either should or is supposed to be played by an Asian American or Asian actor goes to another actor of a different race or ethnicity, 99 percent of the time a Caucasian actor.
Whitewashing, yellowface’s kissing cousin, is (in these cases) when a role that was originally Asian American or Asian, either in real life or in the source material from which a movie, TV or stage adaptation came, but gets changed so that an actor of a different race or ethnicity — again, usually but not always white — gets the part.
Notable yellowface exceptions include Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban when he played Japanese dance master Nakamura in 1957’s “Sayonara” and Khan Noonien Singh in the original “Star Trek” TV series and one “Star Trek” movie.
Meantime, in what might be considered a case of blackwashing, African American actor Khigh Dheigh (born Kenneth Dickerson) played Chinese crime lord Wo Fat in the original “Hawaii Five-0” TV series. (More recently, “The Martian” did it when it used black Briton Chiwetel Ejiofor to play a character originally South Asian in the source material. The filmmakers tried to split the difference by making his character half-South Asian. Meantime, that same movie did whitewash a different character, originally a woman of Korean ancestry, by using white actress Mackenzie Davis.)
So, with a few exceptions, I guess you could call yellowface and whitewashing affirmative action to keep white actors employed.
Following the #OscarsSoWhite Twitter controversy, we now have a couple of upcoming Hollywood movie productions in which a pair of major roles that, indisputably, should have gone to Asian American or Asian actors (or actresses, to use that now looked-down-upon word, in this case) are going to white women.
In the first instance, Scarlett Johansson is playing the lead in the live-action adaptation of Japanese manga and anime “Ghost in the Shell,” in which the character she plays is Japanese and named Motoko Kusanagi. In the second, the role of the Ancient One in the “Doctor Strange” live-action adaptation of the comic book series is going to Tilda Swinton. In the comics, the Ancient One is an old Asian man, presumably Tibetan but never explicitly identified as such.
(There is precedent, again, to both these instances. In the late 1980s, a different Japanese manga, “Mai, the Psychic Girl,” was under consideration to be adapted as a movie with Winona Ryder supposedly set to the get part. Meantime, Joel Grey actually did play the part of Chiun, a North Korean master assassin, in “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins,” circa 1985.)
Fanboys and Asian Americans seem to be united in their respective disgust and outrage that these roles aren’t going to thespians who are at least in the genetic ballpark of the fictional characters.
One of the defenses the respective movies’ producers use is that there just are no actresses who might be better suited for the roles who are proven box-office draws or at least “names” people recognize. It’s not that different from “Memoirs of a Geisha” a few years back, when ethnic Chinese actresses played characters who were Japanese. Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang all had name recognition, the argument went. I guess there’s a quantum of solace, to borrow a movie title, that the producers at least used Asians to play Asians.
Scarlett Johannson as Motoko Kusanagi in “Ghost in the Shell.”
But in the case of “Ghost in the Shell” and “Doctor Strange,” it was back to the decades-old playbook of yellowface.
I do take issue, however, with the circular argument used, that because there is no suitable “name” acting talent of Asian heritage, non-Asians have to be used. I’ve said it before: In Hollywood, stars are not just born, they are made.
There are literally dozens of white (and nowadays, some black) actors and actresses who become stars, regardless of talent. They are seen to have a look and appeal and are given a chance — sometimes multiple chances — until something sticks. (George Clooney and Matthew McConaughey are examples of actors who were perceived as having star potential and got multiple chances to make that leap from unknown-dom to stardom.)
Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in “Dr. Strange.”
So, let me propose a possible solution. While the post-#OscarsSoWhite sentiment exists, why not start a campaign to pick a month this summer to not see any movies? How about the month of June or July, one of those months when the big studios are rolling out their summer blockbusters that help pay for the rest of the year?
Then, use social media to reach out to the #OscarsSoWhite minions, college students, different ethnic groups, Hollywood guilds and so on to stay away from the movies for an entire month. Publicize the heck out of it and don’t patronize any commercial movie releases for an entire month. If green truly is the only color that counts in Hollywood, then maybe the message that yellowface, whitewashing and all the other hogwash Hollywood gets away with will finally end.
Saving the Rafu Dept.: I’m still giving this issue a lot of thought. One important question that there appears to be no answer for is who reads which sections of Rafu Shimpo, or to be more direct, what percentage of subscribers are exclusive Japanese-language readers, what percentage are exclusive English-language readers, and what percentage read both.
Back in 2012, I was called back to help The Pacific Citizen when it was between full-time editors, so I had a half-page dedicated to a survey that asked readers questions like what digital devices and computers they owned, which services like Facebook and Twitter they used, what kinds of news they wanted to see more or less of, etc. We got hundreds of responses, mostly via the USPS. (The info culled was helpful and interesting but never compiled into a spreadsheet and utilized like it should have been, due to staff shortages.)
Can something like that be done with The Rafu Shimpo? It already goes to the people who have those answers. It could be done in English and Japanese, with a deadline, and run over multiple days. Throw in a prize or two for random respondents. It may not get a 100 percent return rate, but good data could be extrapolated from such a survey. The info is really needed to figure out what direction is needed to save this paper.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at George@NikkeiNation.com. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2016 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.)