Monday evening, I did something I rarely do – I turned on the TV. As much as I used to watch Japanese television when I first arrived here, I eventually found that the more I understood, the less I enjoyed it. The unfunny comedians, the uninformative newscasters, the mediocre singers, the ingratiating presenters, the vast, dense forest of wooden acting, the unrepentant cheesiness of it all (no, cheese is real – the Velveetaness of it all) eventually wore me down. True, the odd quiz show or drama still catches my eye (and I do have an odd fondness for Sazae-san, which shows that I really have been here too long), but they are few and far between. I look at the TV listings now and then for an old movie on NHK-satellite (public television, no commercials) and half-watch it while doing something else. Monday was one of those nights. The ironing board went up, the TV went on.
It’s amazing that up until then, I had never watched – even by accident – Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Audrey Hepburn is revered in Japan like nowhere else and her movies are watched religiously and shown frequently (especially Roman Holiday, a black and white movie from 1954, which is still the favourite movie of most Japanese women). But there it was. Great cast, especially the supporting actors (listen to the voice of Holly Golightly’s stout uncle in the prison scene – Fred Flintstone!). It was very much a period piece – Hollywood’s image of cool New York, c. 1961, and not unpleasant. Except.
Except for Mickey Rooney. Every now and then, this jarring figure, the upstairs neighbour, would stick his head out and complain about the noise. This was Rooney, done up in slant-eyed, buck-toothed yellowface (yes, that is the actual term that make-up artists use), playing a stereotypically short, nearsighted, cranky Japanese photographer, Mr Yunioshi. I was appalled. I had heard about this performance before but watching it in my room in Osaka, Japan, gave me the creeps. Granted, the move was directed by Blake Edwards, who went on to direct the Pink Panther movies, so too much subtlety would be a bit much to ask. But still, 1961 was not 1941 – I couldn’t imagine an American movie getting away with blackface at that late date (the British had The Black and White Minstrel Show around that time and later, but that’s another case-history). Almost more maddening is the fact that Rooney was an excellent physical comedian and there was no reason to make the character faux-Japanese. It’s pretty embarrassing to watch it now. Granted, taste in humour changes, and what one generation finds hilarious, another can be bored or offended by: Eddie Cantor was a huge star before the war, but he’s largeley forgotten – in part because much of his act involved blackface; Jerry Lewis, portraying the lighter side of brain damage, was the hottest comedian of the 50s, but now you have to be very old or very French to like him. Rooney’s comic turn came at the tail end of an era, and he was very much a product of his time. But this is another time.
I wondered – do Japanese audiences just tune the character out? Aren’t they offended, despite Audrey Hepburn there to make it all holy and sweet? I found out, soon enough. At the end of a lesson yesterday ( a group of three intellectually curious, cool women who speak very good English with amazing conversational bandwidth), somebody began talking about old movies. Aha! I thought – now’s my chance. I asked them if they’d ever seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s. One woman had and the other two had only seen clips. I asked the woman what she thought of it.
– Of course, Audrey Hepburn was so beautiful and the story was fun, but that one man, the Japanese, was so strange.
– He wasn’t Japanese. He was a white actor in make-up.
– Eeeeeeeh! Really? I thought he was just a bad old Japanese comedian. Well anyway, he was very distracting.
I was astonished. I thought the make-up was grotesque, but she had been totally convinced. The class over, I scuttled to the computer room, called up YouTube, found the preview for Tiffany’s. Ran back, brought the three women back to the computer room (they are very indulgent of their dear old uncle), and showed the 3-minute clip, pausing at “Mr Yunioshi”. They gasped. I waited for righteous indignation, but…
– He’s a foreign actor? But he looks Japanese!
– You think so?
– Yes, he looks like an old-fashioned Japanese man from the 60s. Same glasses, same pomade in his hair…
– But the buck teeth…?
– Well, he’ s a comedian. (the others matter-of-factly nodded agreement, and anyone who’s seen Japanese comedians – who are not noted for their beauty, even in Japan – would know where they were coming from).
A follower of the Prime Directive, I let the matter drop. Next time I iron some shirts, I think I’ll listen to the radio.