Great, Matthew Fox Is Set to Be the Latest White Man to Save Japan

Hollywood has a long history of sending white dudes to Japan to A) fall in love with a local hottie and B) somehow save Japan itself, and that irksome trend shows no sign of ending, to my dismay. The latest Caucasian hero set to do so is LOST’s Matthew Fox, who’s signed on to play real-life figure General Bonner Fellers in Peter Webber’s Emperor, a “nail-biting political thriller” about post-World War II diplomacy…and Fellers’ love affair with a Japanese woman. Sigh. Of course.

I’ve got no problem with stories about Americans in Japan, or interesting cinematic studies about cultural exchange or ninjas or whatever. But why, when Hollywood looks to Japan, must it so often come down to a white man immersing himself in Japanese culture, always through the love of an exotic Japanese flower, then becoming the one person upon whom the fate of the Japanese people, their code of honor, etc. rests?

In 1958 said hero was John Wayne – the quintessential icon of American masculinity – playing real life diplomat Townsend Harris in John Huston’s The Barbarian and the Geisha. Harris, appointed Consul-General to Japan in the late 1800s, is known for opening the isolated nation to trade with the U.S., indelibly heralding the onset of modern Japan. Legend has it Harris’s treaty negotiations were greased by the assignment of a teenage geisha to his bed, a rumor dismissed as fabrication that nevertheless figures heavily into the film, because how could it not?

A decade later, even super spy James Bond went native, so to speak, donning “ethnic” make-up to blend in with the Japanese in 1967’s You Only Live Twice. He plays house with Kissy Suzuki, then saves Japan (and, okay, the entire world) from evil Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Fast forward to 1992 for another memorable instance of the Western fish out of water becoming the salvation of the Japanese, albeit in a decidedly different scenario: Mr. Baseball. Tapping into the popularity of America’s pastime in the land of the rising sun, the sports comedy nevertheless reverted to the old formula, with baseball pro Tom Selleck grudgingly learning the ways of life in Japan through the love of his Japanese manager’s daughter, then leading the floundering Chunichi Dragons to the championships.

Which brings us to the best-known instance of a white hero saving the very essence of Japanese historical culture: Tom Cruise and The Last Samurai. As disillusioned Civil War veteran Capt. Nathan Algren, Cruise flits to Japan to train the Imperial Army in using newfangled firearms, where he’s captured by samurai and falls for the winsome widow whose husband he killed in battle. Assimilating with his captors, Algren joins their modest ranks and, when the samurai class is eradicated by a modernizing Japan, he is the one to remind the Emperor never to forget the legacy of bushido. Who’s the last samurai, then? Tom freaking Cruise. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

(Also see: Steven Seagal’s Into the Sun, the 2005 Yakuza actioner about an American hero who cleans up Tokyo because the locals can’t handle it.)

So here comes Matthew Fox with the next in this tiresome subgenre. Described as “an epic story of love and understanding set amidst the tensions and uncertainties of the days immediately following the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II,” Emperor promises more of the same:

"Fox will play the title role of General Bonner Fellers, one of MacArthur's leading Japanese experts, who is charged with reaching a decision of historical importance: should Emperor Hirohito be tried and hanged as a war criminal?

Interwoven with this nail-biting political thriller is the story of Fellers' love affair with Aya, a Japanese exchange student he had met years previously in the U.S. Memories of Aya and his quest to find her in the ravaged post-war landscape help Fellers to discover both his wisdom and his humanity and enable him to come to the momentous decision that changed the course of history and the future of two nations."

A white Western observer/hero in Japan? Check.

Tasked with the “salvation” of Japan (by exonerating the Emperor in order to use his influence to control the Japanese people post-war)? Check.

Romantically involved with a Japanese woman, just because? Ugh. Check.

Female characters are written all the time just to serve the purpose of prompting a hero’s emotional arc, so this is nothing new, if still worrisome. (See: Poor Scarlett Johansson and Elle Fanning in We Bought a Zoo, there just to make the male protagonists feel and give them someone to talk to.) But Fellers’s true story is interesting on its own without leaning on some exotic Japanese love interest as a crutch; the tale of an American propaganda genius who figured out first how to demoralize Japanese troops to win the war, then how to humanize their leader in order to manipulate national sentiment immediately thereafter, should be enough.

And yet it’s not, because Hollywood loves this kind of hero’s tale. We’ll see it again soon even before Emperor hits screens, in Universal’s twist on the Japanese folktale 47 Ronin, a fantasy epic version of the popular myth about a gang of vengeful ex-samurai on a mission… led by Keanu Reeves. Maybe it’ll be great. Heck, it’s possible Emperor will be the this generation’s Shogun. And I’d love to see more Japan-set films featuring Asian actors we rarely see in mainstream Hollywood. (Don’t even mention that abysmal 2005 Rob Marshall abomination. “Memoirs” and “geisha” are my killing words.) Let’s just ditch the oriental fetishism and cinematic imperialism, shall we?


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  • Monique says:

    You're right. The trend of a white leading actor "saving" Japan or any other country of non-whites is troublesome, not to mention the stereotype of Japanese females being subservient. Ugh.

  • M. says:

    "in Universal’s twist on the Japanese folktale 47 Ronin, a fantasy epic version of the popular myth about a gang of vengeful ex-samurai on a mission… led by Keanu Reeves.Maybe it’ll be great."

    Maybe. Maybe not. What's pretty sure, though, is that the gang is led by Hiroyuki Sanada. Reeves is playing a supporting character.

  • KL says:

    Keanu Reeves isn't white. He's not Japanese, but he's of mixed (Chinese and Hawaiian and British) descent.

  • Allan says:

    If this is based on a true story I don't understand the bloggers problem with it. It's just a re-telling of an actual event. Why so mad?

    Fact is, and sorry for stating this out loud, Pre-WW II Japan was a cult that blindly followed a Human emperor that they believed was a god on Earth. That foolish belief led to the slaughter and rape and millions of Chinese by the Japanese and brutal and horrific
    treatment of prisoners of war. So yes, Ms. Yamato, Japan did need to be saved from itself and it's destructive tendencies. Sorry not a lot of Japanese during that time are glorified in American cinema. There was very little to glorify. Unless you think crimes against humanity are worth glorifying in film.

    • Hiro the Eighth Samurai (and 14th Assassin) says:

      You come off as quite naive to the issue because Hollywood only applies the laws of reality to whites. When it comes to minorities, all of a sudden those laws of reality are thrown aside and roles are whitewashed. Yes, even real-life roles.

      Just look at 21 the movie (a movie about real-life MIT students who took Las Vegas casinos to the bank: Asian-American students turned into white ones), and then Extraordinary Measures, a movie about a Chinese-American doctor who found a cure for some disease, and in the movie, he's played by... Harrison Ford? They turned him into a white guy with the very white name of Robert Stonehill.
      Then there's the upcoming Genghis Khan movie starring Mickey Rourke (??)
      Shall I go on? Those are just real-life stories. There's the seemingly endless number of roles that are Asian characters and yet still go to white actors.
      If you're not aware, there are Americans who are of Asian descent. And they know English and act, too! It might shock you, but there are many Asian-Americans who were actually born in America and have lived here all their lives.
      Apply your rules of there being so "little to glorify" to American history. America's imperialistic and savage and brutal ways are glorified. To you, Americans may always be the hero, but who's a hero depends on what side of the fence you're on. In other words, it's subjective. One person's hero is another person's villain, and vice versa.

  • Max Renn says:

    Sean Connery's "disguise" has to be the worst in movie history.

    • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

      Right? I saw YOLT again recently, and it was Cringe City for me. Like, Cringe and Change the Channel City. Oy.

  • TWD says:

    I do understand what you're saying but in movies made in Japan or China countries, aren't the Asian's usually the heroes?

    • Kenia says:

      I think the blogger means why does Hollywood make movies about one white man being the hero that has to save Japan (or another non-white country), especially in an imperialistic way. Of course asian movies have asian hereos but I can't think of a movie where the Asian character saves other countries in that manner.

      • Hiro the Eighth Samurai (and 14th Assassin) says:

        And to add to your point, why is it that "true American" is equated with white American? There are millions of Americans who are not white, and there are plenty of them who are actors as well.
        Hollywood churns out such tripe: time and time again, the white foreigner enters another culture and land and he becomes the center of that world. All gravitate toward him. All hail the white, imperialistic savior.

  • BriL says:

    I can see why you're angry, but isn't it kind of a fair trade off? How many times has Japan, specifically Tokyo, been the birthplace of "the world's savior" in countless films and shows...especially animated ones?

    If Japan is supposed to be the only place that can save the world, it's only fair that someone would one day "reverse" it where only they can save Japan.

    Or maybe, bottom line, both Japanese and White people have huge egos and think they're the world's savior? I dunno...

    • Kenia says:

      lol that's true. But I guess the difference is that in those Asian movies and anime that have that "savior" thing going on in them the asian character is never seen trying to save the world through imperialism or trying to "correct" the ways of another nation perhaps.

      • Hiro the Eighth Samurai (and 14th Assassin) says:

        One main difference is that, in America, the majority still goes out of its way to marginalize minorities. America has a different racial makeup and racial history than Japan.
        Does that mean Japanese people, in general, aren't prejudiced or racist? No.
        But one can't legitimately compare the two countries and just apply one that fits America and drop it atop Japan and expect it to fit like a glove.
        Again, different histories, different cultures, different current makeup. When one has a largely monogamous country, and a cast is all Asian, there are issues of class but not race.
        In these "white savior hovers over foreign peoples" movies, there can not only be issues of class, but race, xenophobia, racial supremacism, imperialism, etc.
        Quite often the message is that the white man can only "save" a people by destroying them and their culture. It's reminiscent of the American ideas during the Vietnam War. Save the people by destroying their villages, and even killing them.
        Over the decades, there are countless movies with the white protagonist entering the foreign and becoming the master of his new domain. It's more than absurd to see drunken outsider Tom Cruise becoming The Man in Last Samurai. That movie is pure white-boy fantasy.
        Somehow, in Hollywood, no matter how absurd the proposition, a white guy is always made the main character, even when the characters are of Asian descent.
        But the opposite pretty much never happens. An Asian-American actor playing a real-life white person? That would be ridiculous!

  • harry says:

    White people and their insecurity. White people are mentally delusional. This is a series of affront to non-white culture that shows how deeply racist white mentality is. This mentality of seeing other as equal has never abated.

  • Sivart says:

    Japanese Code of Honor? LMAO, only someone who has never spent any great amount of time in this country still believes that crap. Same with the idea that Japanese people are all such hard-working people... yeah, that's why I see sales guys and salary men asleep in their car/on trains/in Starbucks during the middle of the day.

  • [...] spending six years playing hero on ABC's LOST, Matthew Fox crossed over to the dark side for role in the James Patterson adaptation Alex Cross, in which he [...]

  • Focus says:

    White guys need to step off their inflated pedestal

  • Kanani Fong says:

    Saw the film today at the Palm Springs Film Festival. Very handsome production and overall, very good. No doubt, this film will cause many to look up the scant information that has been published about BG Bonner Fellers, and also post-war Japan and the role of Gen MacArthur. According to Yoko Narahashi, one of the producers, the love angle was based on a careful reading of Brigadier General Bonner Fellers journals, in which he described his relationship with a Japanese foreign student at a Quaker university in Indiana in the 1930's. Fellers did keep tabs of her before and during the war. It wasn't "generated" to fulfill neither the "oriental fetishism and cinematic imperialism" you've assumed.

  • DB Cooper says:

    White samurai and yakuza. Yup. Also, cut it with that Keanu isn't white, blah blah blah.

  • The original reviewers commentary is both ignorant and arrogant, showing a petulance unsuited to the grand and decisive matter it perverts. She should be ashamed.

    "Emperor" is a reasonable drama concerning the compassion that saved Japan from herself. Bonner Fellers insights, under the diktat of a wise Macarthur, prevented the nascent hatred of an America prone to revenge from a further historical tragedy, the hanging of Hirohito.
    America could not comprehend the peculiar position of the Japanese Emperor. He was seen as a monarch with practical control of his realm, when in truth his position was as a High Priest meant to offer spiritual direction to the factotums of policy. Most of his time was taken up in ceremonial obligations surrounded by a retinue of attendants determined to prevent the sullying of the Imperial Majesty while officiating over the intercourse between the Goddess Kanemitsu to her nation, Japan.
    When The British ended her treaty with Japan, and the Washington Naval Accords discriminated
    against Japan as a world power, anglo-saxon racism was meant with a perverted Code of Bushido that
    promulgated an extreme militarism. Hirohito could not stem the tide.
    When Roosevelt, precisely against the advice of America's ambassador to Japan, initiated economic strictures that would have reduced Japan to impotence and penury, Japan moved to steal those resources she was no longer allowed to buy.
    In other words, Japan did precisely what the United States recently did to secure our oil supplies from the Gulf of Iran. Hirohito's crime was that he was as bad a politician as the George Bush's.
    Bonner Fellers recognized the inherent difficulties of Hirohito's position, and the dubious nature of his his executive control. Taking into account the brave decisiveness and revolutionary act of broadcasting Japans acceptance of America's demand to surrender in a manner contradicting his deified status, and also the american legal ethic of "innocent unless proven guilty", Fellers investigation and empathy allowed Macarthur the crucial evidence he needed to save Hirohito and thus Japan from anarchy and starvation.
    The beautiful friendship and mutual respect between our two countries has it's origin in Bonner Fellers report to Macarthur that instigated the trust between our nation's now.

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