MANAA Asserts Offensive Use of Yellowface Make-Up and Exclusion of Asian Actors In The Film “Cloud Atlas”

LOS ANGELES – The Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) is criticizing the new Warner Brothers motion picture “Cloud Atlas”—promoted as artistically groundbreaking because its actors swap racial and sexual identities—as business-as-usual in its exclusion and offensive yellow-faced renditions of Asian people. A multi-ethnic epic spanning 500 years and around the globe, “it’s an artistically ambitious approach to filmmaking,” according to the organization’s Founding President Guy Aoki. “Unfortunately, it reflects the same old racial pecking order that the entertainment industry has been practicing for decades.”

“Cloud Atlas,” written and directed by Tom Tykwer (“Run, Lola, Run”) and Lana and Andy Wachowski (“The Matrix” trilogy) and based on the novel by David Mitchell, utilizes an all-star cast that includes Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, and Hugo Weaving. In order to stress a thematic continuity among the movie’s six different interwoven stories, the filmmakers cast many of the same actors as different characters in each time period. One of the stories takes place in a totalitarian, mechanized Neo Seoul Korea in the year 2144. An Asian female clone (South Korean actress Doona Bae) is encouraged by another female clone (Chinese movie star Xun Zhou) to break out of her oppressive pre-programmed routine to serve men and become an independent thinker. The segment also includes White actors Sturgess, Weaving, and James D’Arcy as ostensibly Korean characters, using eye prosthetics to make their Caucasian features look more Asian.

“’Cloud Atlas’ prides itself on its ‘multi-racial cast,’” said Aoki, “but that basically means White men and women of color, like La Jolla Playhouse’s ‘The Nightingale,’ which was criticized last Summer for using only two Asian American actresses but allowing five White men to play Chinese characters. Aoki said, “’Cloud Atlas missed a great opportunity. The Korea story’s protagonist is an Asian man–an action hero who defies the odds and holds off armies of attackers. He’s the one who liberates Doona Bae from her repressive life and encourages her to join the resistance against the government. It would have been a great, stereotype-busting role for an Asian American actor to play, as Asian American men aren’t allowed to be dynamic or heroic very often.

“But instead, they cast Jim Sturgess in yellowface,” Aoki continued, referring to the historically frowned-upon practice of using cosmetics, such as eye prosthetics, to make Caucasian actors look Asian. “In fact, every major male character in the Korea story is played by non-Asian actors in really bad yellowface make-up. When you first see Hugo Weaving as a Korean executioner, there’s this big close-up of him in this totally unconvincing Asian make-up. The Asian Americans at the pre-screening burst out laughing because he looked terrible–like a Vulcan on ‘Star Trek.’ It took us out of the movie. And Jim Sturgess and James D’Arcy didn’t look much better.”

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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.”

 

 

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.”

Racial Caricature on Adidas HUF/TWIST sneaker

INCIDENT UPDATE: After their first press release, Adidas continued to receive negative response and pressure from those who found the shoe caricature offensive. On April 26, 2006, Adidas released another announcement that it would pull the remaining shoes from the marketplace.

At the March general meeting, MANAA members discussed the controversy over a new Adidas sneaker with a caricature of a buck toothed, slant-eyed Asian. The image is reminiscent of those used in late 1800s and WWII to spread anti-Asian American sentiment.

Adidas Yellowface

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