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VOX POPULI: Don’t Like ‘Yellowface’? Then Casting Young Actors to Play Seniors Is Not Okay

By CHRIS TASHIMA

(The following was posted on actor/director Chris Tashima’s blog on Dec. 13. An Academy Award winner for “Visas and Virtue,” Tashima has appeared in such films as “Americanese,” “Model Minority” and “Lil Tokyo Reporter.”)

James Saito as David Toriyama in an episode of "Hawaii Five-0." (CBS)

James Saito as David Toriyama in an episode of “Hawaii Five-0.” (CBS)

Asian American actors usually are very aware of the lack of Asian characters in any particular movie or TV show. When they are your own people, you are sensitive to issues of discrimination. However, I wonder how many of us (Asian Americans) think about similar discrimination against others — say, Native Americans. How about performers with disabilities? When’s the last time you saw (or thought about) a member of these groups as the romantic lead in a film?

There has been a lot of hype around tonight’s episode 4.10 of CBS’ drama series “Hawaii Five-0,” entitled “Ho’onani Makuakane” (Honor Thy Father). The history-inspired story centers around fictional character David Toriyama, an elderly Japanese American man who seeks justice for his father who was murdered 70 years earlier at Honouliuli, a little known WWII prison camp in Hawaii where many Japanese American citizens were sent, following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor (one of 13 that existed on the Islands). Guest starring as Toriyama is James Saito (a friend who I met 25 years ago at East West Players).

Last week, I was among a small group who was invited by CBS Diversity to preview a rough cut of the episode. For the record, I thought the episode was very well written, with respect, and clearly was researched, and I applaud producers for creating the story.

However, I felt uncomfortable with the casting of the Toriyama role, though I wasn’t sure why. After much thought, it became clear to me later on, what issue was troubling for me.

Like ethnic minorities, or performers with disabilities, Seniors are a “protected group” at SAG-AFTRA — a group of performers who face discrimination, underemployment and poor representation. Principally, like APIs, roles that are written as such — as senior citizens, should be cast appropriately. I saw no reason, no creative justification, why Jim, who is probably 25 years too young and had to get heavy old-age makeup, was cast instead an actual senior actor. It’s especially disappointing, knowing many actual age-appropriate Nisei actors that could have played that role. That should have.

It’s ironic that a role and story that creates opportunity for Asian Americans has resulted in taking something away — a great role — from an actor of a different group. If we, as Asian Americans, truly believe in all arguments against “yellowface,” then we must stand with other discriminated groups and demand equal treatment. My feeling is, casting an actor that is 25 years too young, requiring the use old-age makeup, is no different, in theory, from casting a white actor and using yellowface to play an Asian character.

I dedicate this post to our pioneering Nisei actors, including (but not limited to): Jim Ishida, Rodney Kageyama, Hiroshi Kashiwagi, James Shigeta, Sab Shimono, Ken Takemoto, Michael Yama.

Thanks for reading.

Dec. 16 addendum — I’d like to clarify: It should be noted that I have no issues with the actor James Saito, or his abilities. In fact, I would like to add praise for him on his performance. The matters I bring up are in the hands of decision-makers — in this case, the director, producers and the network. Also, my list of actors above is by no means complete, but certainly should include George Takei.

Follow Chris Tashima on Twitter.

2 Comments

  • anonymous
    December 23, 2013 | Permalink |

    I am Asian American as well and thought this was interesting reading. George Takei, however, appropriate, though, would likely be out of the running having had a recent, well-publicized and highly visible guest turn on H50 as a moonshiner.

  • Name*
    December 25, 2013 | Permalink |

    Does it always have to be something? You’re making a big assumption that you’re familiar with the potential actors considered. Maybe it’s as simple as James Saito was right for the role and others weren’t as right for whatever reason.

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