The nominees for the 94th Academy Awards were announced on Feb. 8. In the wake of the breakout win by “Parasite” for Best Picture two years ago, perhaps it wasn’t so surprising to see “Drive My Car,” a Japanese film, be nominated this year.
More expected still was the nomination for “Licorice Pizza.” It probably would have been more of a surprise had the movie not been nominated. And yet, it probably should not have been, and its appearance being considered next to a Japanese made movie is even more problematic once some of the content of “Licorice Pizza” is understood.
First, I want to make clear that I have not seen the whole movie, only the relevant sections, so I am basing my criticism only on the offensive material and in the context of reviews that share the plot of the movie and establish that there is pretty much zero value to the overall plot to include these scenes.
In addition to significant mentions on the internet, the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) also issued an extensive press release highlighting the problematic scenes and why the movie should not be considered Academy Award material.
The scenes involve the portrayal of real-life restaurateur Jerry Frick, who did have two different Japanese wives. In the first scene, Jerry and his wife, Mioko, are reviewing promotional copy about their restaurant, written by the main protagonist’s mother as he sits in the room in the background.
Jerry turns to Mioko and asks what she thinks, with the most offensively caricatured accent possible. She responds in Japanese that since it is a restaurant, the description should mention the food.
The Japanese is not subtitled, but Jerry then does provide a rough translation that there should be some mention of the food and some language is added to respond.
In a second scene at the restaurant, Gary, the main character, addresses Jerry’s wife as Mioko, with Jerry quickly replying that Mioko is gone and this is his new wife, Kimiko.
There is again an exchange where Jerry asks Kimiko’s opinion with another unsubtitled response in Japanese, but this time, he states he has no idea what she said because he doesn’t speak Japanese. From what I could find, the real Jerry Frick had lived in Japan for 15 years and spoke at least some Japanese.
It is clear that Jerry’s character is portrayed as over-the-top racist, probably to insulate writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson so he could say it was clearly intended to mock the racist behavior itself.
And yet we see Gary, the main character, his mother, and Alana, the woman that he as a 15-year-old boy is pursuing, engage in all these interactions without flinching. In a New York Times interview, Anderson states that he wanted to portray the behavior just as it might have happened at the time.
But by extension, he demonstrates that such over-the-top racism is accepted by the main protagonist. It is that same acceptance that allows Anderson the “creative freedom” to include a scene like this without any further context and to make it even more exaggerated than it probably needed to be.
I, and probably most others who lived any part through the 1970s, can attest that this type of racism did exist, and we all know that even worse forms of racism persist today. But the question is whether it was necessary to further the plot or main character development.
There is no development of the Japanese wives who are mere props, their only speaking parts in Japanese, and they’re clearly interchangeable to the point where Gary does not realize the change in women.
We don’t see any growth in the main characters because of these interactions, and perhaps might even find them less appealing because of the supposed close friendship between Gary and Jerry.
Anderson tries to further justify this portrayal by noting that his mother-in-law is Japanese and had and continues to experience reactions from people similar to this. If he wishes to portray that story, he should take the time and put in the effort to do so.
We do not see if the wives experience any pain from their husband’s treatment. Is the relationship an abusive one? Although Anderson does not want to look through a modern lens at this story, any current reading of this spousal relationship would indicate that it is to some degree.
Ultimately, this is a story Anderson has no right to portray, and that in itself is racist. That he has the arrogance to believe that he can tell this story the way he wants to because he believes he is telling the truth stinks of white privilege, and the Academy should not reward that with any sort of award.
David Inoue is executive director of the JACL. He is based in the organization’s Washington, D.C., office.