Academic journal article MELUS

Behind the Inscrutable Half-Shell: Images of Mutant Japanese and Ninja Turtles

Academic journal article MELUS

Behind the Inscrutable Half-Shell: Images of Mutant Japanese and Ninja Turtles

Article excerpt

Anti-Asian sentiment, and specifically "Japan-bashing" has a long, established history in the film industry. Though the early twentieth-century silent films such as "Heathen Chinese and the Sunday School Teachers" (1904) and "Chinese Laundry" (1904) directed racial hatred toward Chinese immigrants in America, these films also worked to demean other groups of Asians, notably the Japanese, who were then immigrating in numbers that far exceeded those of the Chinese, the Chinese population in America having been essentially exterminated" by the U.S. government's first Exclusion Act in 1882. For example, the 1908 production of "The Yellow Peril" - in which a Chinese servant disrupts a household, is thrown from a window, beaten by a policeman, and set on fire - provided, in the words of Eugene Franklin Wong: "an oblique indication of increasingly serious immigration and racial problems between the United States and the rising Empire of Japan, with the Chinese thematically filling the role of scapegoat."(1) Partly because of the "invasion" of America by "hordes" of Japanese immigrants, and partly because of japan's military expansionism (namely its annexation of Korea in 1904 and its defeat of Russia in 1905), the Japanese began to replace "Chinamen" as America's new "Yellow Peril," a threat to everything Americans hold dear.

Later, reacting racially to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the American film industry - in tandem with the U.S. government - further focused its anti-Asian sentiment on the Japanese through the production of war films. During a time when all Japanese-American actors and actresses were being herded up for internment, the movie studios "pumped up" production of manifestly anti-Asiatic racist material, revising earlier Asian villains to fit the new context of war. The "props" - (non-Japanese) Asian extras - graduated from playing the masses of huddled, silently suffering (and dying) Chinese peasants to playing hordes of insect-like, fanatic (and dying) Kamikaze pilots. The starring "Asian" roles went to white actors and actresses in yellow face who played Fu Man Chu and Dragon ladies in Japanese "drag" as Samurai-style warmongers and geishas. The evil Chinese villains of pre-war films were easily transformed into the evil Japanese villains of WWII films, since "all Asians look alike," especially considering how many of the same actors portrayed both Japanese and Chinese characters. The new war films, then, essentially perpetuated the old fear of Yellow Peril, now manifested in the Japanese enemy who - perhaps disguised as farmer or fisherman competing (unfairly) for white America's resources - sought to undermine national security and morality from the inside.

The war genre succeeded in providing Hollywood with a dominant paradigm, still invoked today, to portray Japanese and American relations; many recent films - such as "Gung Ho" (1986) "Black Rain" (1989), "Captured Hearts" (1990) - that explicitly deal with Japanese and American interaction - are framed in the context of war and battle.(2) For example, while World War II is the obvious backdrop of "Captured Hearts," the "war" in "Black Rain" is drug related, with the Japanese Yakuza overthrowing the Italian Mafia as the "new ethnic" mob in America [just as the (good) Japanese character "Mas" replaces the Latino Charlie as Nick Conklin's - the motorcycle-"cowboy" - (white) cop's new ethnic sidekick]. In "Gung Ho" the "war" between the Americans and Japanese is economic, related specifically to car manufacture. Here, even though the American auto workers are employed by the Japanese, whom they have asked to buy the factory, the American workers talk in terms of "us and them," of competition between two opposing teams.

In addition, both "Gung Ho" and "Black Rain" refer to the "original" war, WWII, as the source of prevailing tensions between the Americans and Japanese. In "Gung Ho," when the tension between the Japanese management and the American workers climaxes in a fight between Hunt and Kazihiro ("Kaz"), Hunt is fired and retaliates by saying, "If you're so great, how'd you lose the big one? …

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