We Tokyo! Very bad here! Very bad Tokyo!

What is it about Hollywood that it can’t authentically portray Japanese people and the Japanese language to save their lives?

I use Hollywood here to collectively refer to all US film and TV media producers. From the Chinese actors in Memoirs of a Geisha to the Korean actor who plays Ando Masahashi on Heroes, Hollywood rarely bothers about accuracy when casting Japanese people and having actors speak the Japanese language. In defense of the casting in Geisha, Spielberg said that talent was more important than nationality. As for Heroes, the cause is entrepreneurial script writing, where the -Japanese- Korean and Japanese-American actors translate the English lines on set and say whatever Japanese they think sounds right. Time and time again the Japanese script is written badly, spoken poorly by actors who appear to have been casted because they were available and happen to have an Asian face. The end product is rarely checked for accuracy or authenticity. The result: a linguistic clusterfuck that’s excrutiatiny for Japanese speakers to watch.

Why the rant? This came to my mind because I was watching Diary of the Dead, the latest George Romero zombie flick, filmed with mock handheld cameras in the same manner as The Blair House Witch Project and Cloverfield. Check out this excerpt where the characters supposedly see a youtube video of a women from Tokyo who speaks about the situation in Japan.

I know how a Japanese person can speak English well. And I know how a Japanese person can speak English poorly. This is neither — it’s a native English speaker with an Asian face doing a bad job at faking a Japanese person’s bad English accent. (Her accent comes off as Hong Kong English blended with U.S. college campus mockery of Manhattan Chinatown English). And as for cultural accuracy, the woman in the video warns viewers not to bury the dead — laughable when said by a person in Tokyo, as that’s the last thing that ever happens to the dead in Japan, where cremation is the rule because there is no real estate to spare.

A remedy to this casting problem is super-obvious. You could find a Japanese person in any North American city to do a perfectly authentic job for minor roles such as this. And if Hollwood insists on using other actors, you could use the same such person to coach the actor or actress to not sound like such a fraud. It wouldn’t take much for Hollywood to avoid sounding ridiculous in Japan (an enormous market for consuming American film and TV media), and avoid being mocked by bloggers such as myself.

As for zombie attacks, Tokyo would be the absolute worst place to be stuck in the event of a Romero-style zombie attack. The city is crowed, guns are scarce, and there are few isolated areas to which the survivors could escape. It would be intense. And actually… that sounds like a great movie idea! If anyone in Hollywood wants to pursue that, I volunteer my services in screening the cast.

32 thoughts on “We Tokyo! Very bad here! Very bad Tokyo!”

  1. Bad acting and poor production qualities are annoying regardless of what language they are trying to speak.

  2. it’s usually the same with the French portrayed in Hollywood
    take any Canadian dude you can find (sometimes not even French Canadian, just Canadian should be enough), stick a beret on his head and he’s French, nevermind the Canadian accent is as far from France’s french as deep deep 関西弁 is to 標準語

  3. I take a zen approach to this and say that in the end we will all be eaten by the zombies anyway, so why worry about strict linguistic and cultural accuracy? At least they didn’t open the Youtube video with a gong sound and the stereotypical “dun-dun-dun-dun-dun dun dun dun DUN!”

    If you listen to enough directors talking on the commentary tracks of on the DVD of their movies, you will soon find out that filmmakers take this “realistic enough for 95% of the population” approach to EVERYTHING. The commentary for the Royal Tannenbaums was especially dream-deflating in that all this stuff you thought was carefully selected was in fact thrown together at the last minute.

    The thing with Heroes in Japan was interesting because they turned the Masi Oka character’s unique Japanese into a selling point. For a few weeks last year the image of him screaming YATTA!!! was all over the place. In his case too, that odd effect of just barely coherent Japanese was the product of shooting from the hip: the directors would give him the script in English which he then personally translated into the first Japanese that came into his head. Hence the awkward phrasing.

    Romero’s movies started seeming juvenile to me as soon as I got out of my horror movie phase. He has been making one movie over and over again for his entire career, just in slightly different settings each time. The best zombie film ever in my mind is Shaun of the Dead.

  4. You lost me with “U.S. college campus mockery of Manhattan Chinatown English”. Where do you get the idea that people on college campuses have some special way of imitating Chinatown English or do it more often than people outside of college campuses?

    Re: Heroes. While Ando’s accent is pretty obviously off, at least the main Japanese character, Masi Oka, is Japanese. However, he mainly (or totally?) grew up in America, so while he probably understands and speaks Japanese fine, he could use some help from a native speaker with experience writing dialogue to produce the lines for the show. The Japanese on Heroes is still quite good by the standards of Hollywood, despite it’s flaws, and I think they get serious props for being perhaps the first prime-time drama in the US to have large sequences of almost every episode in a foreign language, with subtitles.

    When writers had Hiro shouting “Banzai!” after face-clenching trips through time, Oka told them it had a wartime connotation.

    “I suggested ‘Yatta!’ which means ‘I did it!’ ” For Oka and Hiro, the parallels keep on coming.

    George Takai as Hiro’s father was pretty awesome too. He also may not quite speak Japanese like someone who grew up in Japan, but his voice is awesome enough so it doesn’t even matter.

    “The best zombie film ever in my mind is Shaun of the Dead.”
    The problem with saying that is that the film would never exist without the entire history of the genre, and it wouldn’t be nearly as appreciated by a viewer who wasn’t familiar with the tropes of the zombie film genre. It’s like saying that “Watchmen” is the greatest superhero film of all time. It might be true, but most of its points are comments on the genre itself, so if it just isn’t very meaningful if you haven’t seem a decent selection of previous superhero stories.

  5. Peter: I think you posted the wrong link. Doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Masi Oka.

  6. “As for zombie attacks, Tokyo would be the absolute worst place to be stuck in the event of a Romero-style zombie attack.”

    But we burn the corpse.No zombies,No?
    Anyway I’ll be off to Mongolia in such situation or run to Jinbocho and occupy empty second hand bookshop there.

  7. You ranted under a wholly mistaken assumption: that Hollywood gives a fuck about authenticity. The TV and Film business is where they make fake stuff seem real. Remember that Marlon Brando and Ricardo Montalban have played Japanese characters and their movies were bit hits. They’re making billions of bucks doing what they’re doing, and they’re not going to change unless people stop buying their products.

  8. What, you think New Zealand is full of Hobbits? And how do you the girl on the video wasn’t a Chinese monkasho student living in Tokyo? If I were a certain activist, there would be veins on my multicultural forehead popping about now.

    Heroes is just shitty, so I don’t care. Geisha was shitty and total romanticism to boot. For me it was more wretch-inducing to see them Disnefy Kyoto and assume that Geisha could somehow all speak Yank when the occupation forces rolled in. Nova wasn’t around back then, and even if it were, these chicks were speaking in complete sentences.

    If you want class and realism in your portrayals of things Japanese, watch South Park. That or good Japanese movies.

  9. Never even saw Memoirs of a Geisha. I’ve lived in Kyoto now for 4+ years, and if I pass a geisha on a dark street once or twice a year that’s enough for me.

    But speaking of Japanese in lame Hollywood movies, I was seriously annoyed at how Tom Cruise was doing a pretty good job of speaking shitty broken Japanese in The Last Samurai, but the English subtitles rendered it in perfect complete sentences. Of course, subtitles have their own problems. I’m usually pretty disgusted at the quality of translation in the Japanese subtitles of English language films on the rare occasions I go out to see a movie here.

    “What, you think New Zealand is full of Hobbits?”
    I’m not sure you actually want an answer to that one.

  10. I’m just a bit disgusted that Tom Cruise needed to be in the Last Samurai at all.

    But then, it is a tradition. “Tatonka! Tatanka!” and all that, anjin-san.

  11. If you want class and realism in your portrayals of things Japanese, watch South Park.

    The recent “pinewood derby” episode pissed me off. They had portrayals of several real world leaders in it, yet chose to go with a generic Japanese prime minister when a South Park version of Aso would have been one for the record books.

  12. Maybe they just know enough about Japanese politics so that they couldn’t be sure Aso would still be in office on Wednesday when they broadcast the episode?

  13. ”What, you think New Zealand is full of Hobbits?”
    No,but the country seems to be full of samurai.”The last Samurai,Dororo and no we have new Martinc Scorcese film “The Silence” coming up.

    “If you want class and realism in your portrayals of things Japanese, watch South Park. ”
    Trey Parker did take Japanese course when he was studying in University Colorado before he got kicked out and lived here for a while.However,”The Last Samurai” director Edward Zwick was a former student of Edward Reischauer.

  14. When Hollywood gets cultural nuances, language or accents correct, its a pleasant surprise. With their massive budgets, there is no excuse not to get accurate research. Perhaps the American consumer prefers to see it thru their stereotypes. If its too accurate maybe its too foreign and not interesting. We all know Americans can’t deal with subtitles for example.

  15. listening to Ando on Heroes drives me nuts, but I’m surprised you didn’t mention anything about the reverse happening all the time in Japanese cinema and TV….

  16. The shocking thing is that, despite the funky Japanese you here in Heroes, etc., the level of Japanese accuracy has actually IMPROVED over the last few decades in my opinion.

    Try watching stuff like The Replacements or Rising Sun if you really want to see/hear some Japanese language or culture that will make you howl with laughter (in the wrong way).

  17. “the level of Japanese accuracy has actually IMPROVED over the last few decades in my opinion.”

    I have to agree about that.Especially the Japanese dude is being portrayed as an Otaku instead of a Ninja/Samurai/Kamikaze pilot….

  18. There was an Otaku in “Revenge of the Nerds”, a staple from the 1980s. From memory his Japanese accent wasn’t too bad.

  19. Adrian D. Havill wrote: “the level of Japanese accuracy has actually IMPROVED over the last few decades”

    Aceface replied: “I have to agree about that.”

    I wonder whether that’s really true. 1949’s “Tokyo Joe” and 1955’s “House of Bamboo” were better than even some of the stuff you see today, let alone the 70s or 80s. Just don’t judge them by any trailers you find on the web. Also, while it’s easy to make fun of Richard Montalban’s portrayal of kabuki star “Nakamura” in 1957’s “Sayonara”, there’s a good subplot in that film involving the relationship of Red Buttons and Miyoshi Umeki which earned them both oscars. Possibly it helped that those films were shot a good deal on location but they are certainly evidence that there’s no linear progression in Japanese language accuracy as far as Hollywood films go. Similarly, it’s too simplistic to say that Japanese men were portrayed as “Ninja/Samurai/Kamikaze” when James Shigeta was playing romantic leads in the 60s just as Sessue Hayakawa had done decades before.

    I also notice when someone speaks Japanese oddly in a TV programme or film but I’m not sure it really matters very much. It doesn’t detract from the production for most of the audience and it’s questionable how much it would add if it did sound more natural. There’s a danger here of sounding like the guy who gets upset that a particular car is anachronistic when it shows up in a scene. One of my favourite BBC television productions is “I, Claudius” which was made in the 70s. The set and costume design has none of the fetishistic historical detail that we often see today but it still holds up as a drama.

  20. Didn’t actually think about going back that long.Yeah,I’d agree “Tokyo Joe” is better compared to “M*A*S*H”in describing occupied Japan probably because Japan was more familiar to Americans through GI experience in the 50’s because of occupation and the Korean war than the 70’s(but wait.how about GIs who are on tour to Vietnam?Hmmmm).

    And I have my reason to love “House of Bamboo”.Full location in Japan with stars like Yamaguchi Toshiko (aka Li-Koh Ran who is now getting spotlight in English J-book world thanks to Ian Buruma’s “China Lover”)and the director Samuel Fuller.
    But in that movie you see Robert Ryan walking on tatami with his shoes on.
    There’s one sequence in 1997 undercover cop film”Donny Brasco”,Johnny Depp character goes to Japanese restaurant with his mob friends with tape recorder hidden in his boots. And while the waiter insisted to take the shoes off,Depp refused by saying “my old man was killed by Japs during the war” and persuade his buddies to take on the restaurant owner.I’d say this is an improvement.

    Another Sam Fuller film,1959 The Crimson Kimono.This is a story of a love triangle between a white cop who is the protagonist and a Japanese American cop and a
    girlfriend of white cop.Basically it’s about interracial love affair with Japanese man stealing white girl from a white guy,which was pretty scandalous back in the 50’s in the U.S.
    However,I saw this in film club in Hosei University in 1994 and there is this sequence that the Japanese American cop(who is handsome looking with no emotion on his face and wearing fancy suits) interrogate a Korean villain(who is big but blue collared and somewhat unintelligent)and start hitting Korean with belt while questioning in Japanese.There were no intentional irony here and Fuller was simply portraying Japanese American as a vicitim of racial prejudice and no attention was paid to the racial dynamics between Japanese and Korean.

    Now in 2003 Tarantino film”Kill Bill Vol.1″,Lucie Liu character is a Chinese American who became the head of Tokyo Yakuza and she proclaims anyone who is not paying respect to her status as the leader because of her ethnic and national background shall have their heads chopped off.Big difference from “The Crimson Kimono”.

  21. …were better than even some of the stuff you see today, let alone the 70s or 80s…

    Well, there is always “Alternate Universe Star Wars”, starring George Lucas’ first choice for Ben Kenobi:


    Brando made a movie in 1956, in which he played an Okinawan coolie. I can’t find any clips of him speaking Japanese on youtube, but I saw the film about five or six years ago and he wasn’t half bad, from memory. Oddly though, his Japanese-accented English is crap, but that might be more because the dialogue is written in a way that reflects half-assed imaginings of the English that Japanese supposedly use.


  22. Hey Adamu – first time poster.

    I just thought I’d give you a heads up that there HAS been a zombie story that takes place in Japan, and it brings up a lot of the stuff you mentioned in this post. The novel is called World War Z, and although the parts about Japan are a bit on the hokey side (especially to someone who lives here), the complete work is actually very good. It currently has a 4.5 / 5 on Amazon, and it’s written by the author of another great book – The Zombie Survival Guide. I highly recommend it if you are into this genre.

  23. I hear that book is good, so the movie version must be sweet. But so help me if they get *one* detail about Japan wrong I will stamp my feet and write an angry blog post.

    BTW, “Curzon” wrote the original post, not me. You might have meant him

  24. There’s also the movie “Tokyo Zombie” starring Tadanobu Asano, which was based on a manga I haven’t read. That’s the only Japanese film I can think of which entirely conforms to the rules of the American zombie genre, although in a pretty slapstick way.


  25. Doh! I didn’t realize there was more than one person posting here. Sorry about that. 🙂

    The movie is actually in development right now so we’ll just have to keep our fingers crossed that it turns out well. The part concerning Japan is about a PC otaku (see: 2channeler) who loses touch with the outside world until the power shuts off and zombies start knocking on his door. Great stuff.

  26. It sometimes baffles me that people don’t notice there are multiple authors on this blog. I mean, I have it displaying both the post author AND a unique author icon! Do I need to spell it out more somehow?

  27. Well, in my defense, I found the blog yesterday and the first three articles were posted by Adamu (including something about Twitter). I guess I’m still trying to come to terms with the idea that a blog isn’t just an online diary but a collection of articles by multiple posters.

    It looks like you’re the head honcho around here, so apologies for my ignorance.

  28. Well I think we are missing some stuff that might make it easier, namely a FAQ and an about page. I do talk to people all the time who don’t realize it’s multiple people.

  29. Actually Roy just has severe multiple personality disorder…. Or is it Adamu?

  30. I thought the head honcho around here was Roy,the mutant frog.
    Matter as such has crucial importance to us Japanese…..

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