Western popular culture has long indulged in the creation and perpetuation of Asian caricature villains. From the Victorian British pulp-tale Chinese opium and gambling kingpins of London to Fu Manchu and Ming the Merciless around the turn of the (19th/20th) century to the Triad/Yakuza gangsters of more contemporary entertainment, Asian villains remain mysterious, inscrutable and often violent.
Hollywood has certainly embraced the trend. DW Griffith’s Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl in 1919 follows the progress of Cheng (played by squinting Caucasian Richard Barthelmess) through his immigration to the West as Buddhist missionary, opium addiction and doomed love of a white woman. Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1961’s horrifying turn by Mickey Rooney as “Mr. Yunioshi”- the buck-toothed, coke-rimmed-glasses-sporting, speech-impediment impeded, lusting-after-Audrey-Hepburn Japanese landlord actually helped to raise awareness of anti-Asian prejudice’s indefensibility on the silver screen.
After Breakfast at Tiffany’s, it wasn’t until the 1980s that a new sort of Asian antagonist found its way into Tinsel Town- the invasive Japanese business behemoth. Although European investment in the U.S. far outstripped that of the Japanese (Germany alone was far more heavily invested; and the Dutch and British…), someone that didn’t come up in the American ‘80s and early ‘90s probably has no idea how profound the national paranoia about being bought out by the Rising Sun was in the states. That paranoia was reflected by a considerable number of big budget big screen productions. Here are a few that stand out.
As the Japanese investment mini-panic has since abated the Japanese have more or less retreated from the American cinematic limelight; with the exception of the largely apolitical J-Horror trend.
Die Hard (1988)- Bruce Willis’s character, John McClane, has come to Los Angeles from New York to visit his semi-estranged wife whose career at the Japanese Nakatomi Corporation has taken off. In the novel Die Hard is based on (Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorpe) the company being bedeviled gun gunmen is the American “Klaxon Oil Company” rather than the Nakatomi Corp. McClane almost immediately confronts the Japanese executive throwing the ill-fated Christmas party, Joseph Takagi (actor James Shigeta).
McCLane: “I didn’t realize the Japanese celebrated Christmas.”
Takagi: “Hey, we’re flexible. Pearl Harbor didn’t work so we got you with tape decks.”
Before McClane can get to the business of killing the German terrorist/thieves, however, he has an argument with his wife, Holly Gennaro McClane (Bonnie Bedelia) about use of her maiden name. She explains that it was a business decision, Nakatomi being a “Japanese company”, and unmarried female employees are more successful. Why it should matter to the Japanese-American Takagi or any of the executives in Japan what Holly’s marital status (or name choice) is remains unclear.
Back to the Future Part II (1989)- There are a few references to the Japanese trade hegemony in the Back to the Future trilogy but one of the most overt is in the second installment. In the sequence hot-headed Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is harried about engaging in an illegal financial transaction by a coworker. Having been called a chicken, McFly obliges the employee and proceeds with the deal. Unfrotunately, Marty’s Japanese boss “Fujitsu-San” has been spying on McFly’s video phone conversation and fires him for the illicit undertaking. The suggestion of the scene is that the Japanese run considerable portions of America’s business infrastructure in the crazy, two-ties-at-once-wearing future of… 2015.
Black Rain (1989)- The bulk of Black Rain takes place in an almost post-apocalyptic-seeming Tokyo where two maverick, tough-guy New York cops chase a vicious Yakuza killer. Its Tokyo is peopled by brutal Yakuza thugs, motorbike gangs that kill by samurai sword, giggling Japanese coquettes fascinated by the American men and a culture far too complex and nuanced for the cops to sort through. At one point a looming gangster delivers a gravely monologue regarding his suffering resultant from the atomic bomb; the speech perhaps symbolically given in front of a massive, roaring fireplace. If the Japanese characters not tattooed gangsters cutting off pinkies, they’re straight-laced, uptight, custom- and ritual-obsessed Japanese cops- by-the-bookers who unwind by getting drunk in a karaoke bar. (It also probably features more occurrences of the word “babe” between two colleagues- police partners Andy Garcia and Michael Douglas- than any film before or since.)
Gung Ho (1986)- This comedy starring Michael Keaton and Gedde Watanabe about a Japanese car corporation taking over an American car factory (even though ‘Gung Ho’ is a Chinese term), is more or less a vehicle and showroom for Japanese stereotypes to be lined up and exhibited. The Japanese and American characters find themselves at all sorts of cultural and ethnic odds leading to amusing shenanigans and misunderstandings. In one of the more infamous scenes, Hunt Stevenson (Michael Keaton) walks in on Takahara Kazuhiro (Gedde Watanabe), a Japanese middle management official, being berated by his (Kazuhiro’s) zaibatsu boss. Hunt compliments Takahara on the ribbons he’s wearing to have the corporate boss scream, “They are ribbons of SHAME!” A number of further antics transpire highlighting the Japanese’s obsessive, strict, conventional approach to business contrasted by the American looseness and laidback approach.
Rising Sun (1993)- Rising Sun’s black and white buddy-cop dynamic (Wesley Snipes and Sean Connery) is further complicated by a murder case they’re investigating involving the freewheeling son of a Japanese business tycoon. That Japanese-American corporate princeling Eddie Sakamura (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) is accused of murdering (of course) a tall, blonde, beautiful American call girl. The subsequent investigation familiarizes them with all manner of Japanese cultural intrigue. Sean Connery’s character, a Japanese guy trapped in a Westerner’s body, is forced to do karate on a bouncer; we’re introduced to love interest Tia Carrera, whose physical deformation has marked her as a life-long outcast from Japanese society. But mostly the point is made that the Japanese, their business community in particular, is mysterious, impenetrable, armored by a thick layer of ritual Westerner’s can’t hope to understand even after years of study and run by ruthless, obsessive businessmen who will do anything to get ahead.
Mario Vitanelli is a freelance writer and blogger who specializes in international politics and finance. His areas of expertise include South American economic policy and Qualifying Recognised Overseas Pension Scheme. When away from his keyboard, he enjoys photography and appreciates the rest of the Vitanelli family’s endless patience with his football dependence.