INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Vietnam to Superheroes — Stuff to Watch on TV

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By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON

If there were one upcoming program that will be on TV in the coming months that I felt compelled to watch above all else, it would be “The Vietnam War,” the latest documentary from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.

While the title pretty much says what the 10-part, 18-hour-long documentary’s subject matter will be when it premieres on Sunday, Sept. 17, on PBS, reading pre-release news articles about “The Vietnam War” really has me intrigued and in a state of anticipation.

While Novick is no doubt a vital member of the production partnership, of the two filmmakers, Burns is the better known, even though their association goes back to when he first became prominent from 1990’s “The Civil War,” the documentary series that had America revisiting that war and putting it back into the national conversation more than a century after it ended.

(“The Civil War” even begat a camera move called the Ken Burns Effect — a slow movement on a still photo — that probably resulted from the need to show motion when motion picture footage didn’t yet exist.)

In “The Vietnam War,” however, the Ken Burns effect will likely be less prominent, since there were countless hours of news and archival footage to use. From what I’ve read, this documentary is 10 years in the making and it includes not only interviews with Americans who fought over there, but also with the people they fought against, still-living members of the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army.

Like “The Civil War” did in the early 1990s, “The Vietnam War” will likely also move that war and that era back into the national conversation, not that it ever really left, as evidenced by the president awarding the Medal of Honor to Vietnam War veteran James McCloughan just the other day. There is still so much turmoil, controversy and bad blood that lingers today in the background from the Vietnam War, much like it did from my childhood recollections from that time.

And, while “The Civil War” made “Ashokan Farewell” famous, “The Vietnam War” promises to at least include a soundtrack of great pop music that was also in the background when U.S. troops were “in country.”

When I was growing up, my understanding of the Vietnam War was limited, but that war was always lurking, part of the zeitgeist via network news shows like NBC’s “The Huntley-Brinkley Report” and the weekly delivery of Life Magazine. Growing up in a military family, I knew kids whose fathers served in Vietnam and later remember people wearing shiny metal P.O.W. bracelets.

Other impressions from that time include the assassinations of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, Neil Armstrong as the first human to walk on the moon, anti-war protests, the rise of the counter-culture and hippies, drug overdoses, the Kent State shootings when my family lived in Ohio — talk about “may you live in interesting times!”

With maturity came some understanding for the reasons why the United States felt justified in spending millions of dollars and sending young men thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean to fight in Southeast Asia — although I have to admit, I’m still as baffled by that as I am by the decision decades later to send young Americans to fight in Iraq.

Another reason I’m interested in watching “The Vietnam War” is because one of those interviewed is Vincent Okamoto, who served in the Army. When Burns made “The War,” he included the story of the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team. Credit him, then, with also including the presence of a highly decorated Japanese American who fought in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam. (See the trailer for this documentary at http://tinyurl.com/y9gnlwag)

Now a judge here in Los Angeles County, Okamoto’s presence and inclusion in this documentary is important as it is necessary — different people had different reasons for serving in that war, whether it was a sense of duty, getting drafted or being given the choice between serving or going to prison.

For an American of Asian ancestry, however, there was always that added layer of “What if my fellow Americans mistake me for the enemy and try to kill me?”

But if the Vietnam War is too heavy to watch, Netflix has a couple of new series coming in the next few weeks and months. First, on Friday, Aug. 25, is “Death Note,” based on a popular Japanese comic book. The conceit of this supernatural tale is that a high school student comes into possession of a notebook that can cause the death of anyone whose name is written into it. The lead character initially tries to use the notebook’s power for good, by offing criminals, but he is soon corrupted by its powers.

In the wake of the casting controversy of the movie “Ghost in the Shell” (and to a lesser degree, the axing of two popular Asian American actors in CBS’ “Hawaii 5-0”), characters this property has also had some controversy because there are no Asian Americans/Asians in the lead roles. In the original Japanese comic book, it’s set in Japan, the lead character is Japanese and his name is Light Yagami. Pretty Japanese, yes?

But with this Netflix adaptation, it’s set in America. As far as I’m concerned, the producers of this adaptation can do whatever they want with the casting since they paid the money for the rights to make it, even if it’s a dumb decision — and if they choose to make the leads white Americans (or black Americans, for that matter), so be it.

But one of its stars (and a producer) is Masi Oka, who has been criticized in social media for his somewhat clumsy explanations as to why it was cast that way, including: “Our casting directors did an extensive search to get Asian actors, but we couldn’t find the right person, the actors we did go to didn’t speak the perfect English … and the characters had been rewritten.”

Hmm. Sounds a bit shaky, but I have to admit that “Death Note” is not high on my watch list, so I’ll reserve judgment if and when I ever see it.

The other upcoming Netflix offering actually sounds more interesting to me, and that is a show titled “Stretch Armstrong & the Flex Fighters.” It’s inspired by the Stretch Armstrong toy from the 1970s and it’s from Hasbro Studios, which right there tells you that selling toys is a big part of why this show exists.

That aside, from what I’ve gathered, this show has very little in common with the 1970s-era shirtless stretchy action figure other than the name. It’s actually about a “superhero team” of three teenage friends — Jake Armstrong (aka Stretch), Nathan Park and Ricardo Perez — who gain stretchy superpowers that manifest in different ways in each young man.

From the perspective of this column, what is most interesting is that the Nathan Park character, who is known as Wingspan, is explicitly Asian American, in this case Korean American.

Quick question: Can you name a well-known American superhero who is of Asian ancestry? Or, for that matter, any American superhero/supervillain/costumed adventurer who is of Asian Pacific ancestry that doesn’t have some sort of Asian ethnic/cultural aspect to his or her name? Suicide Squad’s Katana? Kato from “The Green Hornet”? Green Lantern’s buddy Pieface? The Blackhawk’s Chop Chop? Ugh.

It’s kind of like when Marvel and DC started introducing superheroes who were black, “black” became part of the character’s name, like Black Panther and Black Lightning. Batman was not White Bat. Green Lantern was not Black Lantern. Captain America was not Captain Black America. But I digress …

In this case, Wingspan is simply Wingspan. He’s not Korean Wingspan, nor Asian Wingspan. He can stretch his body and fly like a flying squirrel, hence the name Wingspan. OK, maybe that’s not up there with an ability like telekinesis or super speed. But it’s progress, and I’ll take it.

Look for “Stretch Armstrong & the Flex Fighters” to appear on Netflix before the end of the year.

Clarification Dept.: In my July 6 column, I wrote about “Never Give Up! Minoru Yasui and the Fight for Justice (Part 1),” which screened at JANM over the weekend. I also referenced another documentary, titled “Unfinished Business,” which was directed by the great Steven Okazaki, who also produced it.

I got an email from an old friend, Jane Kaihatsu, afterward. She wanted some clarification. I wrote: “In 1985, filmmaker Steven Okazaki was Oscar nominated for the documentary feature ‘Unfinished Business,’ which he directed, produced (with Jane Kaihatsu) …”

She wanted to make it clear that she was not a co-producer but, rather, the associate producer.

Kaihatsu wrote: “On this project my role of associate producer was more like a production manager in terms of responsibilities.”

Glad to clarify that bit of unfinished business!

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2017 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.

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