I have always loved the story of the 47 Ronin, or Chushingura. We were told of it somewhere in our Japanese school lives, a classic heroes tale in which a vassal of loyal warriors to one particular Lord sought to avenge his wrongful death. It is a story of honor triumphing over corruption, also highlighting a team spirit that is so important to Japanese culture. 47 Ronin is a very valuable tale to the Japanese, but while its samurai setting amid stone gardens, singing cicadas and the singular meaning of a drawn sword defines a very old and beautiful culture, this sort of subtlety is just not Oriental enough for Hollywood.
Of course, no one does Oriental better than Hollywood, the land of Charlie Chan, I.Y. Yunioshi and “Sullivan & Sons”. All racial stereotypes seem to find root and flourish under set lights and inside a movie camera, but both Asians and Asian Americans will find that there is no balance when it comes to their own representation. Our faces usually only appear on screen when a soap opera needs a gynecologist, or when a film or movie needs a maid, war bride or VSSP (very smart, serious person) hovering in the background. Had it not been for outer reaches of space or a futuristic zombie setting, we might never know that an Hikaru Sulu or Glenn from “The Walking Dead” could exist to be normal, everyday people who are not pre-occupied with kung fu, participating in the Triad Olympics of firearms and immigrant exchange or dry cleaning.
What is the impression that your regular movie goer might have of Japanese culture? I once saw a “”The Godfather III”/”Karate Kid III” double feature at a theater in Berkeley, two films which ought to have qualified me for a lifetime prescription for medicinal marijuana. One film was intent upon reinforcing the idea that Sicilians loved to shoot their guns into crowds of people while the other was causing the three pro-audience participation women seated in front of me to scream “HONOR! BOW! SHAME! YOU MUST DO IT FOR HONOR!” in regular intervals. I have this idea that Americans believe that when Japanese men are not too busy sniffing used school girl underwear or walking through Tokyo brandishing their samurai swords, they bow incessantly in between seeking honor, drawing anime porn, tending their garden of bonsai and brushing their buckteeth.
These images seem to excite Hollywood, where Japan is either part of an entire Asian continent otherwise known as China, or the mystical land of “…dragons and witches…”, as described in the opening scenes of Hollywood’s version “47 Ronin”. I would not have paid to see this movie, but it was offered for free on my ANA flight to Japan. I had a choice of many other movies, and really wanted to see “12 Years a Slave”, but something in me that needed to feel massive mental pain provoked me to choose “47 Ronin”.
Once I got past the whole line about Japan being the land of dragons and witches, the film moved on to talk about how this country was shut off from foreigners for hundreds of years. Cut to a Caucasian kid running through a Japanese forest, and I could only shake my husband awake and ask, “HOW DID THAT WHITE KID GET IN JAPAN IF IT WAS CUT OFF FROM FOREIGNERS??” The film, of course, meandered on into no man’s land of samurai honorville, dragon women, scaly creatures and spooky Orientalness. Had I not been aware that Japan was an actual country, the “47 Ronin” would have made me believe that this was a country that probably bordered Middle Earth and the Klingon Homeworld.
While I could and should have possibly tried to pretend that this was a film called “Crouching Samurai, Hidden Dragon,” there was a part of me that was thoroughly insulted that Hollywood could dip its fingers into a story as historically important as “47 Ronin”, and fingerpaint it to make a Hokusai print like a Thomas Kincaid painting. While I could even muster up some understanding the dragons and the strange presence of Lovecraft Samurai, why was it necessary to have Keanu Reeves, or any other actor conveniently Hollywood Asian when it matters, as the main character? I would have let the beautiful Hiroyuki Sanada take the lead and give this film a throughly honest rendition that Americans might seriously love. Americans, after all, do genuinely like samurai. Not Tom Cruise last samurai. I mean, the sort of samurai that includes a group of seven men that sacrificed themselves for a whole village in exchange for a bowl of rice and a sense of justice. George Lucas was smart enough to recreate Akira Kurosawa’s “Hidden Fortress” into “Star Wars,” injecting the original film’s inherent importance of justice, honor and rejection of worldly goods to great international success. This, however, is not in keeping with the usual Hollywood practice of repurposing popular Japanese films (“Shall We Dance”, “Snow Dogs”, “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale”) to utter Milquetoast banality.
So here I was, watching a horribly feeble film while I sat in business class, wavering between continuing on with this torture or testing the lie back capabilities on this 777-200. It was not true lie back, as the leg portion of the seat curved downward. I leaned back, pushed enough buttons to make the whole thing turn into a bed and found my hips bumping uncomfortably against something.
Instead, I opted to watch “12 Years A Slave,” and then happily spent the film’s first twenty minutes marveling at the originality of the script. “12 Years A Slave” is a British film with a British actor playing the role of a slave. A filmgoer would not know this because there were no trams, royal family members or Union Jack waving moments to disintegrate the historical significance that is the horror of slavery. If you have not yet seen Steve McQueen’s other works, you might be singularly impressed at how capable he is of telling a story in powerful ways that only a film can do.
Are you paying attention, Hollywood?
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