Mr. Yunioshi Featurette Decoded with Mark Young

breakfast at tiffany's

Despite the beauty and iconicity of the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, there was one thing that stuck out as being a terrible mistake, particularly to Asian Americans—the character of Mr.Yunioshi. Played by Mickey Rooney, the role called for using makeup and prosthetics to transform the White actor into a caricature of a Japanese man. This practice, called “yellowface,” was unfortunately fairly common in early cinema, but Rooney took the act to new lows by affecting a hideous accent and generally making the character an embarrassing buffoon. When producers began planning extra featurettes for the Centennial Collection’s version of the film, Eric Young of Sparkhill saw the opportunity to openly discuss the problem of Mr. Yunioshi.

“It was almost like the proverbial elephant in the room that needed commenting on,” said his brother Mark Young, who eventually produced the segment, Mr. Yunioshi: An Asian Perspective.“Breakfast at Tiffany’s is such an iconic film and it just had this mistake right in the middle of it, this character, and here we are in a more contemporary era—it just begs to be addressed and discussed.”

Young knew that he wanted to interview a panel of experts for the featurette, so he started making phone calls to academics who studied representations of Asian Americans in the media. Since it was the beginning of the school year, they were too busy to participate in the project. That’s when he turned to MANAA, the Media Action Network for Asian Americans.

“When I was able to reach Phil Lee at MANAA it was like reaching pay dirt, he was so receptive and he invited me to a meeting,” said Young. “When I first met the group at MANAA’s meeting I knew I’d have a nice lively group of individuals to interview, each with a different personality. Everyone’s background was different so we had different voices in discussing the same topic.”

From MANAA, Young found President Phil Lee, Vice President Jeffery Mio, and Founding President Guy Aoki. Since they wanted to include a female perspective as well, they suggested Marilyn Tokuda, an actress who had a long history of acting in films and was currently involved with East West Players.

In the 17-minute segment, stories of reactions to the film and the character of Mr. Yunioshi eventually opened into wider territory.Lee, Mio, Aoki and Tokuda also discuss the Japanese American internment, activism toward redress for Japanese Americans, the perils of being an Asian American actor/actress, and the impact of George Takei’s role on Star Trek for the Asian American community, among other topics.

“I know I’ll get specific answers to specific questions to build my story, but I like to leave room for personal stories or other topics or issues that are important to the person I’m interviewing,” said Young. “I found it very interesting to hear from the interviews what it’s like, what impression the movie made on them, and growing up in the environment with yellowface being part of the culture. Myself, an Anglo, not having that sensitivity but in hearing the stories, I gained a real appreciation for it.”

It may seem strange for a studio to include information on their own DVD that criticizes the film, but Young said that Paramount was open to the idea from the first proposal. They were curious to see how the segment would turn out, but he says that when they saw the final product they were happy to put it on the DVD. For his part, Young is proud to have contributed to a discussion of these important issues.

“For me personally I’ll always remember it,” he said. “It’s a standout both because of the subject matter and the people I met and interviewed for it.”

 

 

An Interview With Mark Young

Q&A with Mark Young about MANAA’s participation in a segment on the new DVD release of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Why did you decide to do the Mr. Yunioshi segment?

Well to begin, I work with my brother Eric Young, his company is called Sparkhill. They actually produced all the extra bonus material for the DVD, so I was the producer on this one and it was his idea. To him it was obvious because of the Mickey Rooney character that the film just had, for its time, a mistake that was made. Now with the perspective since then it needed to be addressed. It was almost was like the proverbial elephant in the room that needed commenting on. He presented it to Paramount as part of the overall proposal for the DVD. They encouraged him to go further and see how it would turn out. When they saw the final product they were pleased with it and were happy to put it on the DVD. We were very proud of it, you know. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is such an iconic film and it just had this mistake right in the middle of it, this character, and here we are in a more contemporary era—it just begs to be addressed and discussed.

When you first proposed it to Paramount there was no resistance?

I wasn’t part of that presentation, but Eric indicated that they were willing to give it a try and see how it worked out. Do the interviews, put the piece together and see how it came across. They were quite pleased with how it was put together.

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MANAA on Breakfast At Tiffany’s

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We’ve been voicing our feelings about Breakfast at Tiffany’s for years now, which is a bit sad since the movie is 47 years old. Still, the racism of the Mickey Rooney character was too much to let go, even with a movie so beloved, and it continues to teach a valuable lesson about the dangers of “yellowface.”

We’re proud to say that our voice has been heard, and is now part of the Breakfast at Tiffany’s Paramount Centennial Collection, which was released this January. The remastered edition includes a good deal of new material, including a documentary called “Mr. Yunioshi: An Asian Perspective”. The segment stars our very own Guy Aoki, Phil Lee, and Jeffrey Mio, as well as actress Marilyn Tokuda, and has been getting great reviews so far.

A sample:
Colin Jacobson from DVD Mag:”It proves pretty interesting. I worried that “Perspective” would do little more than act as an apology for the awful Yunioshi character, but it doesn’t. Correctly, the participants regard the portrayal as a product of its time, but they don’t simply excuse it. This turns into a thought-provoking chat.”

Frank Sifaldi at Einsiders.com: “The reason I was glad to see this included is because I remember the first time I saw this film, I was a bit disgusted to see Mr. Rooney is such a horrible, comically stereotyped role as an Asian…It appears that time has healed the wounds of 47 years ago when some Chinese people wouldn’t go see the film because of the unjust portrayal of their people. I hope that in the future, ethnic persons will be able to get their roles played by persons of that ethnicity.”

Jeremy Thomas at 411 mania: “It’s certainly not the kind of featurette that you would expect to see on a celebratory DVD set, and Paramount deserves some praise for addressing this one issue with the film quite candidly and in a balanced way.”