Growing up, my parents would constantly remind me to embrace my unique individual qualities and be proud of where I come from. They told me to never feel ashamed of who I am and what I look like. I can truly say that I have never felt embarrassed of being half Japanese. In fact, I have always had a big interest and love for my Japanese culture, from dressing up in a kimono and going to Japanese festivals when I was a little girl to working to get my minor in Japanese now. For this project, I decided to explore my Japanese identity with the hopes of learning more about myself and how people, like me, are being represented in today’s popular culture.
After I chose my identity, I wanted to narrow my artifacts and choose one that I wanted to explore. This was an easy choice for me because I am a huge movie lover where some of my best memories include going to the movies with my family. One of my favorite movies as a young girl was Memoirs of a Geisha because I loved the storyline with Japanese geishas. At the time, I thought it was such a beautiful movie as it embodied my Japanese culture. However, as I got older, my perspective toward the movie changed as I soon took notice of the many wrongs of the movie. Knowing that I wanted to explore this movie for my project, I began to think about a topic focusing on Japanese actors and/or actresses along with similar movies that I could analyze. Finally, I came up with “looking at the roles that Japanese actresses play in Hollywood movies.”
Along with Memoirs of a Geisha, I chose two other movies featuring Japanese actresses that played different characters: Babel and The Wolverine. After analyzing the roles played by the actresses, I started asking questions such as, “Why are they given these type of roles?” and “How do these roles play an influence on the audiences’ perspective and beliefs about Japanese women/girls?” These questions then led me to see if there was a connection between the roles Japanese actresses play and the common stereotypes surrounding Japanese women. My research then led me to come up with my argument. Despite improvements in role diversity for Japanese actresses, the characters they have played in Hollywood films have reinforced common stereotypes and portrayals of Japanese women, ultimately, bringing them into a negative light.
With this blog post, I will, first, analyze all characters played by Japanese actresses, talking about their personality and behavior, in my three chosen movies. Next, I will talk about how two of the movies negatively reinforce stereotypes about Japanese women with the last movie representing an improvement in roles played by Japanese actresses by challenging stereotypical portrayals of Japanese women. Afterwards, I will look into an important question related to my topic, which is: “How has Hollywood created a barrier of exclusion toward Japanese actresses?” Finally, I will conclude with my overall thoughts regarding this topic and my favorite learning moments of the class.
Let’s take a look at the three movies.
Memoirs of a Geisha
Memoirs of a Geisha is an American drama and romance film that tells the story of Sayuri’s journey of becoming a Japanese geisha. However, I won’t be talking about the actress who plays Sayuri because she is not Japanese. This is something I will talk about in the latter portion of the blog post.
The character I will be focusing on is Pumpkin [Youki Kudoh], one of the geishas at Sayuri’s geisha house (who is also the only geisha character to be played by a Japanese actress). We first see her character as a childhood friend of Sayuri as they both worked as servants at the geisha house as young girls. As both become geishas, Pumpkin struggles with becoming successful and becomes jealous of Sayuri’s success. Her jealously increases further when Sayuri is adopted by the head woman of the geisha house, something she was working towards her entire life. She then turns on Sayuri and becomes a rival. Throughout the movie, Pumpkin tries to sabotage Sayuri’s geisha career and even betrays her by trying to ruin her relationship with her true love.
This movie itself sparked assumptions and beliefs about geishas in a negative connotation, reinforcing the stereotype that geishas are similar to prostitutes who entertain men with sex. With the character Pumpkin, the movie further shines a negative light on Japanese women as she represents a common portrayal of Japanese and other Asian women. This portrayal is known as the “Dragon Lady.” According to Herbst, a dragon lady is portrayed as an overbearing, aggressive, deceitful, cold, and mysterious woman who will often do whatever it takes to get what she wants (72). In this case, Pumpkin is one of the dragon ladies in the movie. While Sayuri (played by a Chinese actress) is the heroine and victim in the movie, Pumpkin is seen as a backstabbing, conniving “dragon lady” who is spiteful and malicious because of her jealousy and resentment towards Sayuri.
Babel is an American drama film that features four stories of characters in different places around the world such as Morrocco, USA, Mexico, and Japan. The four stories are interrelated, being connected to an incident to an American couple in Morrocco. In the movie, there is a Japanese actress named Rinko Kikuchi who plays Chieko, one of the four people affected by the incident. Chieko is a deaf-mute teenage girl who is struggling with the loss of her mother due to suicide. She also has a broken relationship with her father. All of these factors contribute to her troubled personality by often getting angry and doing reckless things.
Throughout the movie, she tries to seduce many guys by exposing her body. For example, she tries to get her dentist to touch her inappropriately, flashes a group of boys at her school, and takes off her clothes for a detective who is trying to ask her questions. She is rejected every time, causing her to continue her sexual advances. The movie shows that we live in a disconnected world where people speak different languages and have contrasting beliefs, causing problems of understanding and communicating. Chieko, struggling to communicate due to her inability to speak, chooses to use her body as a form of communication. However, her frequent sexual advances overshadow her struggles of not being able to express her anger and frustration to people in words.
Rinko’s character in very unique because you don’t see typically see Japanese actresses playing these type of roles in Hollywood films. However, her character reinforces yet another common stereotype surrounding Japanese and Asian women. There are many names to this stereotype such as “geisha girl”, “lotus flower”, and “china doll.” This stereotype describes Japanese women as being “submissive, childlike, silent, and eager for sex” (Hagedorn 74). They are willing to use their body to get anything they desire. Chieko embodies this stereotype in the movie as she can’t speak due to being deaf-mute, throws tantrums when she doesn’t get what she wants, and frequently engages in sexually proactive behavior. The purpose of her character was to explore pain and loneliness, but instead, people may have created sexualize and objectified image of Japanese women because of her actions.
The Wolverine is an American action and adventure film that follows the story of Wolverine, who is brought to Japan to visit an old friend that is dying and to deal with personal issues from the previous installments of the series. The Wolverine features two leading Japanese actresses that play two different roles. Rila Fukushima plays Yukio, a Japanese fighter/samurai who has the power to foresee people’s deaths. Throughout the movie, she stays by the Wolverine’s side as his partner-in-crime and bodyguard at times by protecting and defending him whenever turmoil occurs. Susan George, a film reviewer for a Science Film and Television journal, noted that Yukio was one of the highlights of the film because of her determination and her amazing sword-fighting abilities. (George, 118). The other Japanese actress is Tao Okamoto who plays Mariko, the love interest of Wolverine who later becomes the CEO of her grandfather’s powerful technology company in Japan. Both actresses play characters that have a significant effect on the movie’s plot.
Out of all three movies, this one doesn’t create negative assumptions or beliefs surrounding Japanese women. Even though Rila’s character depicts a common portrayal of Japanese people in Hollywood movies (samurais), this movie challenges stereotypical portrayals of Japanese women. The character of Yukio shows that Japanese women can be strong, courageous and brave. They can also be independent and stand up for themselves.
Mariko shows that, while Japanese women are gentle and beautiful, they can also have high-level job positions, such as a CEO, and be successful in their career. In addition to this, the movie does a great job in maintaining authenticity by filming majority of the movie in Japan, casting Japanese actors and actresses, and incorporating aspects of Japanese culture. This film was a step into the right direction in terms of what Hollywood films depicting Japanese actresses should look like. Even though many unrealistic aspects of the film, the two characters allowed audiences to see that Japanese women are more than just “dragon ladies” and “geisha girls” and that Japanese actresses are fully capable of playing a variety of roles.
How has Hollywood created a barrier of exclusion toward Japanese actresses?
Reported by USC Annennberg School and Communication, only 1% of leading roles goes to Asians (Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, Indians, Malaysians, etc.) (qtd. in Calderon). You can imagine the percentage of only Japanese people is pretty low. For Memoirs of a Geisha, the main actress and two of the leading actresses are Chinese. In the movie, Japanese actresses don’t have prominent roles despite being a movie about Japanese culture.
The barriers of exclusion towards Japanese actresses has been further built as non-Asian actors/actresses have been given roles of Japanese characters. This is known as “whitewashing.” The most recent example of this was in the movie Ghost in the Shell, based on a Japanese manga. Scarlett Johansson was casted as Motoko Kusanagi, the protagonist and main character. The film was criticized for “whitewashing” and racism. So, why don’t filmmakers choose to avoid criticism by allowing Japanese actresses to play Japanese characters?
Well, can you think of a big name Japanese actor or actress in Hollywood? I can think of maybe one, but there are definitely not enough. The primary goal for filmmakers is to make a movie that will maximize profits. Using big name stars will help them achieve this because everyone knows who they are. Using unknown actors and actresses is risky since people are unsure of their acting abilities and don’t want to risk spending their money on tickets. However, research has shown a deeper reason for this barrier of exclusion.
Institutional racism in Hollywood’s film industry has been discussed and debated about for quite some time. Jeffrey Mio believes that filmmakers will cast people who they feel comfortable with because we have a tendency to be attractive to those who look and share similar characteristics as us (qtd. in Brook). In another study conducted by the USC Anennberg School and Communication, they found that out of 1,000 Hollywood films, only 3.4% were directed by Asians (4). While filmmakers argue that they only choose actors and actresses that are the most qualified to fit the role, many think it means they’re casting people they’re most used to being around.
With Pumpkin (Memoirs of a Geisha) being an evil, malicious “dragon lady” to Chieko (Babel) being a submissive “geisha girl” who frequently used her body to try and get what she wants, these two characters reinforced common stereotypes about Japanese women. On the other hand, Yukio and Mariko (The Wolverine) are two examples of the roles Japanese actresses should be playing. However, with this barrier towards Japanese actresses, it’s difficult for them to even acquire roles in Hollywood films. Therefore, it seems like they have no choice but to take stereotypical roles because they want to establish themselves in this seemingly prejudiced industry. There are two steps that can be done to help Japanese actresses in Hollywood.
1) Give them non-stereotypical roles. I’ve watched many Japanese movies and dramas, so I’ve seen the amazing talent Japanese actresses possess. Due to the limited roles they are given in American movies, audiences don’t see their versatility of being able to play a variety of characters.
2) Cast more Japanese actresses. Everyone starts from somewhere and should be given a chance to prove themselves. Filmmakers might be missing out on a hidden star because they are choosing big name stars over lesser known Japanese actresses. Japanese actresses shouldn’t be discouraged or disappointed because what they look like is preventing them from being successful. As my parents told me, they should always feel proud of their Japanese background no matter what and shouldn’t let anyone take that away from them.
In week 3, there was an article written by Douglas Rushkoff that talked about how the Pokemon show not only entertained kids, but pushed them to Pokemon products. As a kid, I was a huge Pokemon lover. I played the games, watched the show, had Pokemon stuffed animals, and collected Pokemon trading cards. Therefore, I couldn’t help but realize that I fell into that trap. This article really opened my eyes as it made me think about the subtly advertising that television shows will include in episodes to promote their brand/products. This is something I will take with me towards the future because I am a business student and this is a marketing technique that I may come across in another class. I will also be more attuned to subtle marketing plugs that television shows might use to advertise a good or service.
In week 6, there was an article about Melissa Zimdars’ list of popular but unreliable news sites. In my FRINQ class, I had previously learned about verifying sources, but I thought her document provided great tips for analyzing websites. This document will be very helpful to use in my future classes if I ever want to use information from a website, but I’m not 100% sure if the site is reliable or credible. It makes me really wonder about the credibility of sites that I’ve clicked on in the past and if I actually used statistics or other information from a fake sources. Since I have been tricked before by clickbait and fake news before, I can refer back to the document to always check first.
George, Susan A., -. “The Wolverine by James Mangold (Review).” Science Fiction Film and Television, vol. 8, no. 1, 2015, pp. 117–120.
Hagedorn, Jessica. “Asian Women in Film: No Joy, No Luck.” Ms. Magazine, vol. 4, no. 4, 1994, p. 74.
Herbst, Philip. The Color of Word: an Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Ethnic Bias in the United States. Intercultural Press, 1997, p. 72
Brook, Tom. “When white actors play other races.” BBC, 6 Oct 2015, http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20151006-when-white-actors-play-other-races
Calderon, Josue Lopez. “7 reasons why we need an Asian-Latino alliance” Huffington Post, 31 May 2016, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/josue-lopez-calderon/7-reasons-why-we-need-an-_b_10200278.html