Pet Please #92: Accurate Japanese in American Movies

wolverine-hugh-jackman_1000x667It’s all Beyonce’s fault.

Jump back to the summer of 2002. I was in a packed theater for the movie Austin Powers in Goldmember with my friend Josh. We believed the hype–we were there to see the funniest movie of all time.

Needless to say, that’s not what we got. I honestly think that Josh went home from the movie and punched his life-size cardboard cutout of Austin Powers in the mouth, but he’ll have to verify the accuracy of all parts of that statement.

I mention it here because there is a certain point in the movie when Beyonce has to speak Japanese. It’s just a few lines. I’d like to think that anyone could memorize and repeat a few lines in a phonetically correct manner to sound like the language.

Beyonce butchers her Japanese lines. Absolutely butchers them. I haven’t been attracted to her since. (Actually, that’s a lie. Single Ladies made me mildly interested. I’m a red-blooded man, after all.)

Why do I care about correct Japanese in movies? I studied Japanese for 10 years and lived abroad there on 3 separate occasions. The people, language, culture, and country are very important to me. And when they’re misrepresented in movies…yeah, I don’t like that.

The other big transgression that comes to mind was the casting for the movie Memoirs of a Geisha. I loved the book, especially since parts of it are set in Kyoto, where I spent my junior year of college.

I was looking forward to some lesser-known Japanese or Japanese-American actors to be cast in the movie. But much to my dismay, Ziyi Zhang was cast as the protagonist. Don’t get me wrong, Ziyi won me over in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But she’s not Japanese. She’s Chinese. You might say that she looks Japanese, but that’s probably because you’re not Japanese. It’s a movie set in Japan–the actors and actresses should be Japanese.

So I was pretty nervous tonight as I got in line to see The Wolverine. I didn’t know much about the movie except (a) it has the Wolverine in it, and (b) it’s set in Japan.

It’s a solid movie. Definitely entertaining. Good action. Hugh Jackman remains perfectly cast as Wolverine, and just as ageless as the character.

But most importantly, almost all of the Japanese characters are played by Japanese actors! I think there’s only one notable exception. All of the actors spoke brilliant, fluid, proper Japanese. It was like music to my ears. I tried to ignore the English subtitles, but I’m way too rusty for that. I could tell that certain parts of the movie were shot in Japan as well, not a soundstage in Hollywood made to look like what Americans think Japan looks like.

I think the only part that seemed a little off was that the movie made it seem like ninjas are a part of everyday life in Japan. Unfortunately I’ll have to debunk that rumor–when I was living in Kyoto, I saw swarms of ninjas on rooftops at most once a week. At most.

Are you a stickler about anything like this in movies? What has Beyonce done to you? (Sorry ‘Yonce! No hard feelings.)