Universitas Indonesia Fakultas Ilmu Peng

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Universitas Indonesia

Fakultas Ilmu Pengetahuan Budaya


Perkembangan Industri Perfilman Hollywood


Representations of Asia in Hollywood Cinema

Nadia Safwana Omarali

Student Exchange

  Topik: Representation Asia dalam Film-Film Hollywood

  Pilihan film: The Last Samurai (2003) ATAU 47 Ronin (2013) Pertanyaan:

  3. Diawali dengan pembuatan film The World of Suzie Wong maka Asia nan eksotik mulai ditampilkan demi produksi film-film Hollywood seperti The King and I serta Memoirs of a Geisha. Dua film yang disebutkan di atas juga menampilkan unsur Asia (khususnya Jepang) dalam layar, budaya dan tokoh. Pilihlah salah satu judul film di atas (The Last Samurai ATAU 47 Ronin). Harap mengacu pada film The King and I serta Memoirs of a Geisha sebagai pembanding atau referensi.


  Over the years, particularly since the 1960s, there has been an explosion in literary and historical writing on Asian and Asian American film representation. Representations are combinations of signs that help us make complex abstract concepts significant and understandable (Taylor and Willis, 1999). The representations of Asians are mainly executed through the perspectives of Westerners. Throughout film history, cinematic portrayals of Asians and Asian Americans have shifted in response to world events and US foreign policy on the one hand, and have drawn from a legacy of Western attitudes toward the "Orient" on the other. Traditionally, Hollywood has not offered and presented optimistic images of Asian or Asian-American characters in its movies. In this paper, I will be discussing about the representation of Asians in mass media, by specifically emphasizing on the concept of Orientalism and its relevance and parallel to Hollywood films, particularly the Hollywood film industry, by analyzing The Last Samurai as the chosen film, which involves the concept of East and West, and comparing it to two other films, namely The King and I and Memoirs of a Geisha.

  The theory of Orientalism

  According to Said (1995), Orientalism is a way of coming to terms with the Orient or the East that is based on the Orient’s special plate in Western experience. The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture, thus the Orient has helped to define the West as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience. In other words, Orientalism is a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient. In recent centuries, the rich tradition of Oriental exoticism took a new form as colonial conquest and rule provided the opportunity in the form of readily available girls, and encouraged Europeans and Americans to think of the West as active and masculine and the East as passive and feminine (Wilkinson, 1990). This has affected a large mass of writers, poets, novelists, philosophers, and political theorists to accept the fundamental difference between the East and West in many aspects, such as cultures, norms, epics, social and political descriptions, people and so on. Consequently, it also has an impact on performing arts, particularly how the mass media of the West perceive the East to be. However, to what extent is this statement true?

  Asian Portrayal in Hollywood Films

  The emergence of Asian representation in mass media, especially in Hollywood cinemas can be largely seen as a result of long history of abusive portrayals and stereotypes portraying Asians, Asian Americans, and their cultures. Asians who are known as the Orient have completely contrasting images in terms of how they are represented in Hollywood. For instance, the West is always seen as civilized, strong, a subject, representing masculinity, while the East is discerned as uncivilized, weak, an object, representing femininity. In many Hollywood films throughout the years, Asians are often portrayed as despicable and barbaric, for examples, fear of Asian immigrants, Post World War II, where the Japanese were the evil imperialist, the Chinese were innocent victims and diligent people who worked at the farms, and so on.

  According to Benshoff and Griffin (2004), representation is a “process of presenting an image of something in order to communicate ideas or tell a story”. Asians are often represented as somewhat mysterious, exotic and cunning. It all started from the film directed by Richard Quine in 1960 called The World of Suzie Wong. The film illustrates colonial and post-colonial perspectives of the Orient; what is foreign and unfamiliar is either exotic or ridiculed. This is one of the examples of a Hollywood film, where a Chinese woman plays as its leading character; second, this film describes movies romance between East and West; third, Nancy Kwan as Suzie Wong, a Chinese actress, who undoubtedly had gained certain acknowledgement in Hollywood in a particular period of time. Fundamentally, the film is set in Hong Kong, picturing romance between a Chinese prostitute and American artist who unite across racial and hierarchical differences. This big-budget Hollywood film arranges its elaborate production around the Asian Woman lead, considering her life worthy of narration, with her as both desiring subject and object of desire.

  However, it is doubtless that Asian cultures have recently begun to be fashionable in Western society. Despite the Westerner’s portrayals of Asia and Asians themselves in their production and films as being exotic and unnatural to their world, the differences they have made or transformed can patently be seen on screen. For instance, it often involves the main character regard Asians and their cultures as vicious and uncivilized, but soon he/she will learn to embrace their cultures and their differences, for example, in the film, The Last Samurai (2003).

  The Last Samurai

  The Last Samurai (2003) is an epic warm film, revolving around history, action and drama as its genres, directed and co-produced by Edward Zwick, starring Tom Cruise as Captain Nathan Algren and Ken Watanabe as Lord Moritsugu Katsumoto, playing two of the main leads. The film is set in Japan during the 1870s, telling the story of Captain Algren as a respected American military officer, but becomes a hate-filled alcoholic after

  Emperor of Japan to instruct and train the country's very first army in the art of modern warfare to defeat a samurai insurrection. As the Emperor seeks to eliminate the ancient Imperial Samurai warriors in devising their plans for more Westernized and trade-friendly government policies, Algren finds himself out of left field awed, impressed and swayed by his encounters with the Samurai, which places him at the center of a struggle between two eras and two worlds, with only his own sense of honor to guide him.

  In the film, there is a clear polarity that separates the American and Japanese worlds, particularly foregrounding the culture differences, and of course how significant it is to take note on how the West portrays the East. This leads back to the idea of Orientalism, where the Americans are the strong subject, while the Japanese are the weak object, in which help or assistance is needed from the Americans to train the Japanese with tubular weapons. The idea that the Japanese need help and drilling from the Americans who are equipping gunmen to train an army for the Japanese emperor, who wants to develop Japan into the modern world proves that the Japanese are weak, traditional and reliant on the Americans to make progress in their own country. Therefore, this is an instance on how Asians are the Orient and Westerners are the Occident.

  One of the settings that genuinely highlights the exoticism of the Asian, specifically the Japanese culture, norms and values is the strong accent on how they approach and speak to the Emperor. The Americans are carefully instructed on how to greet the Emperor, with the help of a British translator, when they first arrive in Japan to meet the Emperor. The Japanese are monumentally upholding a loyal and dedicated gesture and manner of high, middle and low statuses because status itself is deemed and viewed as important in the culture; it can be discerned, where the Emperor who holds a high level or rank, sits in a higher position compared to the others, and that those who are below him must show great respect.

  Another exotic and unnatural tradition or practice that is being illustrated in the film is that Japanese or Asians in general are perceived as barbaric and uncivilized by the

  Westerners. For example, the Japanese’s practice of decapitation is regarded as savage by the Westerners, specifically when Algren said, “They don't cut the heads off defeated, kneeling men”, after witnessing a man being beheaded, while he was seized by the samurai, and in which in Lord Katsumoto’s defense, “General Hasegawa asked me to help him end his life. A samurai cannot stand the shame of defeat. I was honored to cut off his head.” This verifies that the perception of the Orient is uncivilized, while the civilized is the Occident. However, in the words of Katsumoto, “Many of our customs seem strange to you. And the same is true of yours.” because although the tradition or practice of the Asians is believed to be strange and unnatural to the Westerners, it does not necessarily mean that it is to the Asians, seeing that it is naturally and assuredly customary to the Asians. The clothing that these characters wear also defines the cultural differences, between the American and Japanese clothes. They dress differently; American with their western clothing and Japanese with their “exotic” kimonos. This extreme difference of the east and the west finds its way into Hollywood films and exerts a powerful and lasting effect on social reality. Westerners often regard that these exotic costumes are what that define the Easterners. This is one of the many features that make us think that although this film aims to be neutral and present reality just as it was, it is actually a representation that has been created according to Western/American patterns based on certain stereotypes. According to Xing (1998), stereotypes generated by the media serve the dual function of satisfying white self-fulfilling fantasies and blaming the victim. This includes gender stereotypes, women in particular. Asian female anatomy in Hollywood films has always been subjected to impose ideals of physical beauty, such as facial features, body shape, and skin fairness. The ideal beauty is proportional to and based on Western standards of – again, exotic beauty. Besides that, Asian women are often portrayed as submissive, obedient and solicitude towards men and children. They are also commonly “put in their place”, in other words, they usually stay home and do housework like a typical housewife. There is only one female character that is and can be credited in the film, in combat. As expected, Taka plays a role that fulfills all the stereotypes of Oriental women; she is passive, shy, delicate, mysterious and loyal to her honor. A segment that proves her submission and passivity is as much as she dislikes having to take care of Algren; she still does because that is an order she receives from her brother. Unlike some of the male characters, Taka does not speak English and only communicates by signals and motions to Algren. Hence, this represents that Japanese women do not have the capability to learn and speak English like some of the men do.

  Regardless of how Asians are typically represented based on stereotypes and perceptions in The Last Samurai by Hollywood, it is not entirely true that the whole film illustrates and complies with the stereotypes. Algren earlier on stated that he is “mostly treated with a kind of mild neglect, as if I were a stray dog, or an unwelcome guest”, but as the film progresses, Algren begins to grow interest in learning about the Japanese culture. He realizes that he is becoming fond of their culture and norms, for instance he finally sees and learns that the Samurai and their families have a simple yet discipline lifestyle. He observes the people, the environment and his surrounding and expresses that “Everyone is polite. Everyone smiles and bows”, giving an idea of the Japanese’s exotic culture. As time goes by, he blends in and assimilates himself in all respects with the Samurai society, acquiring skill in samurai martial masteries and the Japanese language. As for Katsumoto, he is more than willing to have mutual comprehension and appreciation with Algren, and Katsumoto still strongly sustains his belief because he has pledged his life to defending the dying code of the samurai, and that he believes that their revolt is only for the best interest of Japan. This, in which, Algren eventually understands the real meaning and image of a samurai, that besides it being an art of words, bows and martial arts, samurai offers service, discipline, compassion and honor, especially in terms of spirituality.

  In other words, The Last Samurai is about two warriors whose cultures make them aliens, but whose values make them comrades; its power is compromised only by an ending that sheepishly backs away from what the film is really about (Ebert, 2003). It is perceptible represented in the beginning and later in the film, because now Algren views that every soldier or warrior must be loyal to their comrades, there is an honorable and disciplined code of samurai, and last but not least, Japanese people have empathy. Nevertheless, the exoticism, in the perception of the Westerners of the Japanese and Asian cultures in general still remains, and it does not change the reality that the film has fulfilled the image of Orientalism.


Comparison and Contrast between The Last Samurai, The King and I and Memoirs

of a Geisha

  There is no uncertainty that three of these films, The Last Samurai (2003), The King and I (1956) and Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) symbolize exoticism of Asia and Asians from different countries, Japan, Siam (Thailand) and China, and that the concept of Orientalism is patently met and satisfied in the films. One of the similarities that these three films have demonstrated is they give a positive yet different image of Asians and its exoticism.

  The Last Samurai, The King and I, and Memoirs of a Geisha share another thing in common – status is perceived as highly important among the societies, particularly in The Last Samurai and The King and I, where the rank and position of a person can be blatantly distinguished. The Emperor of Japan and King Mongkut of Siam stand as the rulers or the most important persons in their countries. There is a massive and clear gap between the rulers and civilians, for instance the Emperor and King sit at a higher position and are treated with utmost respect and honor. This is also much the same with Memoirs of a Geisha; the higher his/her rank is, the important he/she is. For example, Okasan/Mother is the “mother” or head of the geisha house, played by Kaori Momoi, who has a significant rank among others and is feared by others for her status.

  As mentioned above, three of the films also fulfill all the stereotypes of Oriental women; many of the women are passive, obedient, timid, enigmatic, faithful and of course exotic. and I, and Sayuri in Memoirs of a Geisha. This is different when it comes to Anna Leonowens from The King and I, an English schoolteacher with a strong will from Wales. She has a completely different role and character compared to other women in the film because she is determined, spirited, brave, and is not afraid to go against King Mongkut. Once more, the concept of Orientalism is represented in the film because it shows that women from the east and west are different; Asians women are weak, while Western women are strong. However, it is also pivotal to note that these Asian women are given roles that emphasize on their beauty and exoticism. For example, Taka in The Last Samurai is fairly beautiful and appealing, and geishas in Memoirs of a Geisha like Sayuri and Mameha are the epitome of elegance and beauty.

  Language has indeed been a matter of controversy in these films, but it is a bit realistic with The Last Samurai because Japanese is spoken among the Japanese most of the times and when they speak in English, it is more believable because they have an accent. Although Katsumoto intends to learn and “practice his English” and has a slight accent, he actually speaks English very fluently in real life. The Emperor, for example, needs a translator to translate for him to convey a message in English. The King and I, on the other hand, uses English but the actors and actresses have such unnatural and unconvincing accents. In some of the scenes, the Siamese people are talking in Thai, but it does not sound like Thai language at all – almost as if it is made up, thus it is not very believable in this mark. In Memoirs of a Geisha, it has been argued that the film could have been better if it was presented in Japanese with English subtitles, because of the difficulty in understanding what the characters are trying to say in some scenes; not only is it because of their lack of language skills, but some of the actors and actresses have different accents, which makes it unfathomable to understand. However, proper names in Japanese, such as sakura tree, tatsumora silk, shamisen and so on, are not translated into English, because it gives an exotic flavor to the dialogs. Nonetheless, English is used as the main language because it is an international language, spoken in many countries, both as a native, a second language or a foreign language.

  Ken Watanabe plays in both The Last Samurai and Memoirs of a Geisha, but takes the role of a Chinese man in Memoirs of a Geisha. This has, too, caused casting controversy, especially in Memoirs of a Geisha and The King and I, because some of the most prominent roles like Sayuri, Mameha, Hatsumomo, were not given to Japanese acroles are mainly given to Japanese actors and actresses. It is different to The Last Samurai because Japanese roles or characters are given to Japanese actors and actresses, which gives a more commonsensical yet rational value in the film. It is argued that Hollywood’s orientalist view has once again manifests to be incapable of perceiving the cultural differences in Asia. Nevertheless, these three films delineate the processes of modernization in Asia countries and at the same time, providing positive images of Asian cultures by also incorporating Orientalism and stereotypes constructed by the Westerners. In The Last Samurai, Algren who is an American, who at first finds Japanese despicable, now slowly but surely integrates more into the samurai world and truly understands their norms, culture, people and the real meaning of samurai, while Memoirs of a Geisha represents that geishas are not ridiculed at or insulted, but instead are seen and appreciated for their high-class abilities in doing performances like dance, classical music and games. Sayuri is an example of a geisha, who values and admires the geisha culture because to be a geisha requires so much more than just physical appearance Last but not least, the ending to The King and I depicts a development in the country’s system because Prince Chulalongkorn, the first son of King Mongkut, puts out a declaration that brings an end to slavery and assert that all subjects will no longer bow down to him.


  In   conclusion,   representation   of   Asian   in   many   Hollywood   films   are   based   upon stereotypes and The Last Samurai captures a sense of Orientalism, but the film is tweaked or refined to make it different, untypical and unique, where the culture and people of Japan are immensely embraced and appreciated by the west, although at first, it was hated

  Orientalism is a fabrication of the West, but although stereotypes of Asia and Asians are represented and illustrated in the films, they still manage to break the tradition that the Occident is always superior to Orient. The film represents a positive yet favorable image of Japan, changing the usual depiction of unconventionality and incongruity. Therefore, the challenges and obstacles in terms of cross­cultural differences teach the audience that they can be prevailed over by respecting each other’s customs and trying to have mutual understanding.


Benshoff, H., & Griffin, S. (2004). America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies. Victoria: Blackwell Publishing

  Ebert, R. (2003, December 5). The Last Samurai. Retrieved from http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-last-samurai-2003 Said, E.W. (1995). Orientalism Western Conceptions of the Orient. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

  Wilkinson, E. (1990). Japan versus the West: Image and Reality. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

  Xing, J. (1998). Asian America through the Lens. Oxford: AltaMira Press.

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