Media Action Network for Asian Americans issued the following statement on Dec. 17.

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Due to the casual racism found in the movie “Licorice Pizza,” the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) believes that Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is not deserving of nominations in the categories of Best Picture, Best Director, or Best Original Screenplay, and is asking other film critic associations to pass over it this awards season. 

To shower it with nominations and awards would normalize more egregious mocking of Asians in this country, sending the message that it’s OK to make fun of them, even during a time when Asian Americans are afraid to go out on the streets because of the unprecedented levels of violence from fellow Americans blaming them for COVID-19.

The cringeworthy scenes in “Licorice Pizza,” which takes place in 1973, do not advance the plot in any way and are included simply for cheap laughs, reinforcing the notion that Asian Americans are “less than” and perpetual foreigners.

Yumi Mizui

According to sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen, “It’s irresponsible to use racism against Asians as a running gag…  it (the plot) is not even about Asians or race, and what it does is normalize this violence, this casual anti-Asian racism.” 

According to filmmaker, author, and media critic Anita Sarkeesian, “Just showing racism isn’t a critique of racism, it is actually doing racism… It is irresponsible to throw that (the racist scenes) in as an aside without actually signaling that this is both currently AND was always bad.”

In the first of two such scenes, which lasts about two minutes, restaurant owner Jerry Frick (John Michael Higgins) and his wife Mioko (Yumi Mizui) are talking with a representative of the local newspaper about an ad for their Japanese restaurant. When asked about the ad content, in an extremely racist, mocking accent, Frick asks Mioko, “Whoa, Mioko, how you tink of this? What you think of item for newspaper?” while Mioko responds in Japanese, without any subtitles. 

Frick then responds to the newspaper ad rep in plain English as if he were translating Mioko’s words. When Mioko responds, he says in the same racist voice, “Ohhh, oh Yoko-san.” When the ad rep asks another question, Frick turns to Mioko and asks in the same racist, stereotypical accent, “What you think of that?” Mioko once again responds in Japanese, and Frick “translates” into English. The scene ends with Frick saying a long “Ohhhh” in the same stereotypical accent.

In the second such scene about a half hour later in the film — which lasts just over one minute — the main characters, Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and Alana Kane (Alana Haim), go to see Frick and his new wife Kimiko, played by Megumi Anjo, to discuss placing ads for Gary’s waterbed business on the tables of Frick’s restaurant.

Megumi Anjo

When they meet, Gary instinctively turns to Kimiko and says, “Hi Mioko,” as if the wife were the same person as in the previous scene with the newspaper rep. Frick immediately replies, “No, no, no, Mioko’s gone. This is my new wife, Kimiko.” The four then sit down at a booth in the restaurant. 

When discussing the ad, Frick squints his eyes and once again, in the racist accent, asks, “Kimiko, what you think of this waterbed?” Kimiko responds in Japanese, once again without any subtitles. “What did she just say?” asks Kane. Frick responds, “It’s hard to tell, I don’t speak Japanese.”

Once again, it’s a scene played for laughs where Asians and faux Asian accents are used as comic relief to encourage audiences to laugh. Neither scene contributes to the plot of the movie.

These scenes are problematic for several reasons. First, there is no character to the Japanese women; they do not appear anywhere else in the movie and are merely present to provide comic relief as the recipients of Frick’s flippant racist attitude. 

In addition, the fact that Frick has two different Japanese wives that Gary can’t tell apart in two different scenes, and Frick nonchalantly says, “Mioko’s gone, this is my new wife Kimiko” shows how interchangeable and expendable Asian women are in Paul Thomas Anderson’s mind. Love, feelings, and individuality are absent as Asian women are apparently as interchangeable as one’s clothes. 

A white man who doesn’t understand Japanese can discard one Japanese woman and find love and marriage with another Japanese woman almost immediately. And he gets no comeuppance for his charade and his mocking attitude in pretending to understand Japanese.

Also concerning is the audience reaction to these scenes. Though the scenes make Frick look like an insensitive buffoon, the audience laughs with Frick, not at him.

In an interview with director Anderson, Kyle Buchanan of **The New York Times** told the director that “the audience was so uncomfortable [with the questionable scenes] that they actually gasp.” Anderson countered with, “I think it would be a mistake to tell a period film through the eyes of 2021. You can’t have a crystal ball, you have to be honest to that time. Not that it wouldn’t happen right now, by the way. My mother-in-law’s Japanese and my father-in-law is white, so seeing people speak English to her in a Japanese accent is something that happens all the time. I don’t think they even know they’re doing it.”

MANAA Founding President Guy Aoki says, “In order to assess whether something is offensive, use ‘The Substitution Test.’ For example, Anderson talks about ‘Licorice Pizza’ being a period piece and includes racism toward Asian Americans from that time.  He certainly would have known about the racism that African Americans faced too.  Would he even have dared to include a similar stereotypical scene that insulted African Americans and encouraged the audience to laugh? Absolutely not, because the blowback would have been swift, harsh, fierce, and his film would have been shut down. 

“But because Asian Americans serve as the punching bag, Anderson (perhaps subconsciously, hopefully not consciously) figured no one would care, and judging by the acclaim his movie’s getting, he may be right.”

The American Film Institute’s and New York Film Critics Online named “Licorice Pizza” one of the Top 10 Movies of the Year; it won Best Screenplay from the New York Film Critics Circle, and Best Film and Best Director from the National Board of Review.

“Licorice Pizza” has been announced as a nominee for Best Picture and Best Screenplay for the Golden Globes, and is likely to earn a nomination for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, among other categories, for the Oscars. 

According to reporter Jana Monji, Frick’s character is based on Jerome Frick, the proprietor of the Mikado Hotel. He was married to two Japanese women, Yoko and subsequently, Hiroko. The divorce proceedings with Hiroko in 1983 mentioned, “The court found Hiroko to be a person of above-average intelligence and good health with a fluency in two languages – English and Japanese.” So if Anderson is rationalizing that this scene was based on actual people, by speaking in the mock Japanese accent, Frick is demeaning the real-life Hiroko, who speaks fluent English. And in the film, if Frick spoke to Kimiko (his second wife) in English (albeit accented), she would be able to respond in English, not only in Japanese.

A similar incident happened this past May on Los Angeles radio station KFI AM 640’s “Tim Conway Jr., Show.” Conway pretended to interview Yuko Sakamoto, the wife of Vic “the Brick” Jacobs — and producer Sheron Bellio spoke in a mock Japanese accent, throwing in random martial arts noises such as “Hiya!” “Heeya!” and “Heeyo!” even though Bellio had met the real Sakamoto and knew she does not speak with an accent. MANAA demanded that KFI suspend Conway and Bellio without pay for a week; they were gone for two weeks.

KFI subsequently made amends by producing a series of PSAs about anti-Asian hate and a special, “Stopping the Hate,” highlighting the role the media played in feeding Asian hate.

In conclusion, MANAA strongly urges voting members of the Academy and other film critic associations not to reward Anderson for the racist portrayals of Asians in his film.

Founded in 1992, MANAA is an all-volunteer 501c(3) nonprofit organization that has discussed problematic content with movie studios, newspapers, and radio stations. Since 1999, as part of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition (APAMC), MANAA has met annually with the top four television networks, pushing for more inclusion of Asian Americans. In 2015, it also promoted that vision with talent agencies ICM Partners, WME, Paradigm, and CAA. In March 2021, MANAA got Jay Leno to apologize for making jokes for decades about Koreans and Chinese eating dogs.

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