Questions Raised About Japanese Character in ‘Get Out’

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In a scene from “Get Out,” Yasuhiko Oyama (right) appears as Hiroki Tanaka, a friend of the Armitage family. (Universal Pictures)

Jordan Peele’s hit horror thriller “Get Out” is being praised for its satirical depiction of race relations, specifically between black and white Americans. But a Japanese character also appears in the film, and some Asian American commentators are wondering what that means. (Warning — spoilers ahead)

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), who is black, is dating Rose (Allison Williams), who is white. Despite his misgivings, he agrees to meet her parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) at their large country estate and stay there for a few days. Not only are things awkward between Chris and the Armitage family, but he also notices that their African American groundskeeper, Walter (Marcus Henderson), and housekeeper, Georgina (Betty Gabriel), are behaving strangely.

During a garden party, Chris meets some of Rose’s parents’ friends, who are older Caucasians except for one Japanese man, Hiroki Tanaka (Yasuhiko Oyama). The group turns out to be involved in a conspiracy that may prevent Chris from ever leaving.

Oyama is co-founder of World Oyama Karate Organization, headquartered in Alabama, where “Get Out” was filmed, although the film does not take place in the South. Director-writer-producer Peele (of the comedy duo Key and Peele) is a fan of mixed martial arts, and there is a scene in which Chris discusses MMA with Rose’s brother (Caleb Landry Jones). The two characters also fight each other later in the film.

Following are excerpts from some interpretations that have been posted online.

Melissa Phruksachart, assistant professor and faculty fellow for the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University (via Reappropriate): “Chris makes his way through the crowd as white guests accost him with questions about his size, speed, and physical potential, revealing themselves to be obsessed with his status as flesh. Only one person, Tanaka, engages Chris on a more philosophical level: ‘Is the African American experience an advantage or disadvantage?’

“There’s plenty to cringe at here: there is no singular African American experience, for one; and it’s simplistic to assert that people experience race as an either/or. But the audience is invited to read the query as blazingly tone-deaf in light of the microaggressions Chris endures (and the outright aggressions he will endure later in the film).

“Tanaka’s guileless question is positioned to nudge at the complicity of Asians and other non-black people of color in anti-black racism. In this sense, Peele suggests that the racial divide operates not merely between black and white, but between black and not-black. Though Asians aren’t white, they aren’t innocent, either, and they aren’t automatically aligned with black people …

“I’d argue that the Asian character in ‘Get Out’ is both critique and homage: Oyama’s appearance is read by the audience as a critique of Asian complicity in anti-black racism, but Oyama’s status as revered teacher, as well as Chris’ use of jiu jitsu at a key moment in the film, suggests that Peele is also acknowledging the potential of Afro-Asian alliances – if Asians would only show up on the right side.”

Mitchell Kuga, New York-based journalist, writer and editor (via mic.com): “His presence is jarring, both because race is framed as a black-and-white issue up until that point and because Tanaka, the only guest who’s without a partner (minus a blind man), delivers the question in a thick Japanese accent — in a rare twist, Tanaka is portrayed by an actual Japanese person, Yasuhiko Oyama. The trope of the neutered Long Duk Dong foreigner in a self-proclaimed ‘woke’ horror film? Scary!

“As a Japanese man myself, Tanaka’s stereotypical setup left me stunned and confused. Symbols are powerful, but so is representation. Although Tanaka symbolized a vital point about non-white complicity, his representation felt one-dimensional, his setup hasty and unresolved. As the token Asian guy, Tanaka’s character whitewashes all Asians into the model minority. It’s no coincidence he’s Japanese, what comedian Ali Wong calls ‘fancy Asians.’ …

“Would Peele’s point about anti-blackness have been lost if he created a Japanese character who wasn’t so blatantly other? What if he was American and partnered, like everyone else at the party? What if, in making his very important point, he didn’t bolster tired representations of the perpetual foreigner?

“Based on the commercial success of ‘Get Out,’ it’s worth considering that Tanaka is one of the most prominent depictions of an Asian person moviegoers will see this year, at least until whatever John Cho has coming out next. This says more about Hollywood, where Peele knows first-hand that roles for minorities are rare commodities, so it’s a pity he couldn’t present Tanaka with a little more grace.”

Ranier Maningding of the social justice page “The Love Life of an Asian Guy” (via Nextshark): “The inclusion of the Asian character was a powerful message, but why did Jordan Peele add one? Why not five? If subtlety was the objective, then one Asian character was enough, but I don’t think Peele was trying to be discreet about his commentary on Asians. Instead, the decision to cast one Asian guy mimicked the actual demographics of Asians in America …

“The cocktail party scene was a brilliant way to demonstrate the racial microaggressions and dehumanization that black folks experience. Upon meeting the white party guests, protagonist Chris was asked a number of rude, racist questions. These specific questions said a lot about the questioner: an old white man who could no longer do sports asked if Chris could swing a golf club like Tiger Woods; an older white woman with a dying husband asked if the stereotypes were true about the big black penis … So when the Asian man asked Chris, ‘Is the African American experience an advantage or disadvantage?’ he wasn’t just making small talk, he was wrestling with the decision of whether or not it would be better to trade bodies with Chris and experience anti-blackness or stay the same and live life as an Asian man in America and experience xenophobia …

“As Asians, we should feel shitty about Jordan Peele inserting us into his movie. He didn’t add a Latino character, or an indigenous woman, or a Muslim American. He added an Asian. He wrote this character into the script, sent out a casting call, hired an Asian actor, and gave him lines to read. The Asian character wasn’t added on accident. He served a purpose.

“Now it’s our job, as Asians, to recognize our complacency under the canopy of white supremacy and realize that like black folks, we have nothing to gain by siding with whiteness.”

Olivia Truffaut-Wong, entertainment writer for Bustle: “The man’s presence in ‘Get Out’ accomplishes a few things. Most notably, it widens the scope of the film to include more than just black and white America. The fact that the character is foreign points to a larger epidemic of racism, thus broadening the discussion in the film to international race relations …

“‘Get Out’ is an extremely detailed and well-thought-out film, and the decision to have an East Asian man in the group — not a South Asian man or a Latinx, not a Middle Eastern man or a European — is a specific one. But, no matter the intent, I wonder whether or not Peele thought specifically about how American audiences would view this character.

“One of the biggest stereotypes faced by Asian Americans is the ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ stereotype, the idea that all Asians are foreigners. And unfortunately, it’s a stereotype that Peele perhaps unwittingly plays into with this character if he did intend for the man to represent the global reach of Rose’s parents’ evil network …

“East Asians are sometimes seen as the minority closest to the white experience for a variety of reasons (percentage with college degrees, upward mobility, etc.) and racism against Asians and Asian Americans is either considered firmly in the past or entirely forgotten. I have no doubt that, regardless of intent, some audiences will interpret the Asian character in ‘Get Out’ as a confirmation that the Asian experience is the same as white Americans.

“And the fact that this message is seen on film, a medium that routinely excludes Asians from their own narratives and continues to lack Asian representation, is incredibly ironic.

“It’s important for all non-black people to see ‘Get Out’ and reflect on their contributions to systemic racism. Just because one belongs to a fellow minority group does not give one a free pass. For reminding me of that, I thank Peele for his inclusion of an Asian character. However, I also think that the inclusion of such an individual in this particular context trivializes the Asian experience. The discussion of race relations between Asians and African Americans is an important one, and it deserves more than a throwaway line and a few short scenes.”

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