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Lots of kung-fu experts on set, with no dialogue coach to be found

What can go wrong when you mix Hollywood sensibilities, a host of Asian stereotypes, and pretty people? Apparently nothing! The kung-fu fest Kill Bill obviously did amazing box office, and even people in Japan really dug it! In principle, the first “Kill Bill” is a really cool flick. So how come none of the characters, even Japanese ones or those who are supposed to be raised in Japan (Like Lucy Liu’s hybrid hottie) can actually speak Japanese? Trust me, when Uma Thurman raised her sword and said something like, “I am the devil woman, come to kill you with my sword of death,” I nearly fell out of my chair laughing. Tarantino just helps reinforce the stereotypical idea that everyone Asian must automatically speak like Yoda. But if you’re not Yoda, you don’t sound cool trying this–you sound silly and over your head. Anyway, this is just the first example on a short list of properties that, for whatever reason, get Japan hilariously wrong. I’ve tried to showcase Japanese posters whenever possible just to, you know, push the irony or something.

You Only Live Twice

“No, Dr. Evil is a parody of ME, dammit!”

If you picked up the digitally-mastered version of “You Only Live Twice” in Japan, you wouldn’t notice anything special. Just classic gun-toting Bond with Blofeld and evil cat in background, with absolutely no clue as to the chaos inside. To be fair, that goes for the English additions I perused, too.

“May I slant your eyes for you, Mr. Bond?”

But one look at the movie soundtrack and all bets are off. This cover at least shows “You Only Live Twice” for what it is–an even more than usually sexist Bond outing, with Japanese slave girls (really just stand-ins for any ol’ Asian) doing the master’s bidding. While that’s not terribly unusual for the globe-trotting spy, that’s not the half of it. “Twice” has Bond making himself up as a Japanese (‘slanty eyes’ and all) and slashing people with samurai swords and stuff. So the Japanese appear both subservient AND stupid. Yikes. I love Bond in all his incarnations, but I hope this one only lives once.

Memoirs of a Geisha

Zang Ziyi looks…almost Japanese here

This is the tastefully subdued movie poster for “Memoirs of a Geisha” as it was marketed in Japan. Aside from changing the name to the title character (because let’s face it, “Memoirs” is a mouthful), the colors are washed out, Zang Ziyi’s face turned down in a show of humility and duty. Having actually lived in Kyoto and seen my fair share of real geisha, I can tell you that she actually kind of looks like one here.

Things are apparently very, very RED in Japan

It’s too bad that the actual movie makes virtually no attempt to stay true to Japan or Japanese culture. The pan-Asian cast is one hell of an idea, one that has actually worked in Japanese films like “Swallowtail.” But here it’s just condescending. Zang Ziyi and the host of other Chinese actresses that for some reason fill in the main Japanese parts neither look or act Japanese–that makes the inclusion of actual Japanese talent, such as Ken Watanabe and Yuki Kudo, jarring to the senses. Also, the choice to have all of them speak “Asian English” was a weird one, probably motivated by international disdain for subtitles but silly nonetheless. Finally, the costumes and production design. They should be unanimously praised as a wonderful fairy-tale rendering of…somewhere in Asia, I guess. But those kimono are more fit for Star Wars characters than human beings, and Japan-as-recreated-on-a-soundstage looks like…well, I said it, didn’t I?

FYI, I don’t automatically discount American renderings of Japan–I loved “The Last Samurai.” I am also quite a big fan of Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha,” upon which the unfortunate movie was based. Read it instead.

Rising Sun

“Don’t mind that mysterious stare…it’s just a Japanese mind-trick.”

Michael Crichton’s thriller “Rising Sun” had some racist tripe in it, but it also had some pretty interesting commentary on US-Japan friction in the 80s and 90s. The movie keeps the thriller part, jettison’s most of the interesting commentary, and adds Sean Connery…who is both the movie’s greatest and worst asset. Crichton apparently wrote that part for Connery in the first place, and I totally think he nails it–but that’s kind of the problem. His character seems to know the minds and hearts of the Japanese, apparently better than the natives themselves! Whether right or wrong, he has no Japanese foils to set him straight. Sure there are uptight security people, Japanese mafia types and one apparently half-Japanese woman, but they are all just stereotypes. Even when the whole murder mystery turns out to have little to do with Japan or Japanese, they come off at best as vaguely mysterious, at worst as thugs. Just ask Sean Connery–he knows all about their tricks! He’s onto them faster than he can say, “Domo arigatou!” in his cool Scottish brogue.

The Karate Kid

Same crane-block, same beach–but “Best Kid” in Japan

Apparently from a Japanese VHS version…the coolest image I have ever seen

Let me just say that I love “Karate Kid” and worship Pat Morita. My god, what a presence. So I’m not slamming the movie, so much as just being honest about a few things. Even though Morita’s antics were sometimes silly, I also give the filmmakers points for trying to paint Japanese culture in a positive light. No, “Karate Kid” may have a bigger problem–that most of its Karate moves either aren’t karate, or don’t exist at all! Don’t take it from me–watch interviews with Ralph Macchio (Daniel-san) if you want to hash it out. I just find it funny that a movie that probably inspired millions of kids to start martial arts training may not measure up in the chop-socky department! Could it be that because Karate (“the art of the empty hand”) originates in Japan, they had to change the title to avoid copious laughter from audiences? Naw, I just think “Best Kid” was catchier. Also, I’m pretty sure that nobody I know in Japan can catch flies with chopsticks. Maybe I’ve just been hanging out with the wrong crowd.

The Simpsons go to Japan

No, it’s not the right poster…so sue me!

Love ’em or hate ’em, the Simpsons are part of American culture and international pop culture at large. As such, they’ve travelled just about everywhere, including Japan! This episode (which, for the life of me, I can’t locate) has them jaunting around a carnival-esque AsianLand that bears little resemblance to my personal image of Japan–especially in the little matter of bowing. In Japan, one can bow from the neck, with hands down, or from the waist, hands down. Either way, nothing at all to do with hands. What is it with Hollywood and hand-bowing? I’ve never seen anybody, Japanese or otherwise Asian, put their hands together as if in prayer, smile deferentially, and nod their head like that!

It shouldn’t be a big deal, except that Simpsons writers are usually so good with satirical detail–if you’re going to make fun of something, do it after knowing what the original custom is, dammit. It’s possible, dimly possible, that they did that on purpose to show that they actually know how Japanese bow and stuff, but I think it was just some writer picking his nose. Which, as a writer who occasionally picks his nose, I can respect.

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