Paul Thomas Anderson arriving at the 90th Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon at The Beverly Hilton in 2018. (Associated Press)

“Licorice Pizza,” written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is a coming-of-age story set in Hollywood in 1973. It has received widespread acclaim.

But it has also received criticism from Media Action Network for Asian Americans and others who point to two scenes involving a minor character, Jerry Frick, played by John Michael Higgins. In one scene, he talks to his Japanese wife Mioko (Yumi Mizui) in an exaggerated fake Japanese accent; in a later scene, he is married to a different Japanese woman, Kimiko (Megumi Anjo), and talks to her the same way. In both scenes, the women speak in Japanese without subtitles and Jerry doesn’t know what they are saying.

MANAA, which called the scenes “cringeworthy” and a source of “cheap laughs,” said that praise for the film could “normalize more egregious mocking of Asians in this country, sending the message that it’s okay 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.”

MANAA also observed, “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.”

When asked about the scenes in a New York Times interview in December, Anderson responded, “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 with a Japanese accent is something that happens all the time. I don’t think they even know they’re doing it.”

When the subject came up in a recent IndieWire interview, the director said, “It’s funny because it’s hard for me to relate to. I don’t know. I’m lost when it comes to that. To me, I’m not sure what they — you know, what is the problem? The problem is that he was an idiot saying stupid s—?”

When the interviewer said audiences might be laughing with the character rather than at him, Anderson replied, “Right. Well, I don’t know, maybe that’s a possibility. I’m certainly capable of missing the mark, but on the other hand, I guess I’m not sure how to separate what my intentions were from how they landed.”

The criticism hasn’t affected the critical praise for “Licorice Pizza,” which has been nominated for the Academy Awards for best picture, best directing and best original screenplay, and has also been nominated for BAFTA, Screen Actors Guild, Golden Globe and Critics Choice awards, among many others.

Anderson’s other films include “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia,” “Punch-Drunk Love,” “There Will Be Blood,” “The Master,” “Inherent Vice” and “Phantom Thread.” He has been nominated for 11 Academy Awards and eight BAFTA Awards, and won a Best Director Award at Cannes.

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