Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Young James Shigeta: Holy moly, how is something in black and white LESS racist than what we see today?

I thought that this post would be relevant right now because of the Katy Perry AMA incident. I don't think she is a racist for wearing a cheongsimono (or whatever her outfit was supposed to be) in her performance. But I do think our society's racist for thinking that the only time it's acceptable for non-Western culture to take center stage is when White people are wearing it as a costume. It's like when you show up to a dinner party, but only your bottle of wine is welcomed. Oh thank you for your culture! Please leave it on the doorstep and go away because we can't stand your ethnic faces.

But astoundingly, the problem seems to have gotten WORSE over time. The video below shows various clips of a young James Shigeta in his days of wine and roses, and it's confusing as hell. He's an Asian actor. In a Hollywood production. And he's acting all normal and suave and shit. This isn't supposed to happen!

I mostly recognize James Shigeta in his various Old Asian Man roles in the past few decades. Most notably, I remember him getting shot in the face by Alan Rickman in Die Hard. You know, it's always eye-opening to see what old Hollywood actors looked like back in the day. A young Paul Newman or a young Warren Beatty pretty much makes every leading man today look like a troll.

Same goes for actresses. Here's a young Joan Fontaine in Rebecca.

Who said you needed Technicolor to be hot?

But it's infinitely more weird watching someone like James Shigeta be all handsome and mack daddyish in his heyday because he's Asian. Can anyone here name a single mainstream movie in recent memory in which an Asian man was a traditional leading man? Some may come up with Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle because Harold ends up with Maria in the end, but that's only because he overcomes his inherent Haroldness to finally talk to the cute girl he's been eyeing since forever. He is the anti-leading man.

Seriously, I'm still waiting. TV has been somewhat better with characters like Jin (Daniel Dae Kim) from Lost and Glenn (Steven Yeun) from The Walking Dead, but they're far from the main characters of their shows.

Sessue Hayakawa, whom I mostly remember as the antagonistic Japanese officer in The Bridge On The River Kwai who is forced into submission by Alec Guinness' heroic Britishness, was also quite the leading man in the early days of film (we're talking World War I era). Believe it or not, some film historians regard him as the first male sex symbol in Hollywood. The tragic reality is that many of his early silent films are lost, so it's almost as if his leading man career has been erased.

This cat's got style

It just makes me wonder how it was possible that in the early 20th century, when the U.S. was just a couple of decades removed from the Chinese Exclusion Acts, the American film industry still somehow cultivated an Asian male sex symbol. Yet today, many people will argue that America is simply not ready for Asian characters who don't fit comforting stereotypes such as man-pleasing geisha girls or emasculated comic relief buffoons.

It's not as if things were all that enlightened back then. There were still the Hop Sings and Mr. Yunioshis and all those other stereotypical characters. But it's all about balance. I wouldn't mind at all the Ken Jeong and Matthew Moy and Gedde Watanabe characters if there were at least some healthy counter-balance.

So please, let's never hear of the "American audiences aren't ready for an Asian..." argument bullshit ever again because apparently, back when interracial marriage was illegal and immigration from non-European countries was strictly controlled and it was perfectly cool to say gook or chink, people were still willing to make and see movies that didn't feature Asians in stereotypical roles. Don't tell me that we've regressed from that.

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