Our Man in Tokyo (The Ballad of Shin Miyata) is my short documentary about the struggles and obsessions of Shin Miyata, a Tokyo-based record label owner and promoter who specializes in the difficult task of distributing Chicano music in Japan.
Shin’s goal has always been to bring authentic and diverse representations of Chicano and Latinx culture to Japan. He has done so with a purity of intention that hasn’t brought him financial gain, but has instead delivered a wealth of understanding that has educated, enlightened, and actually changed the lives of many people.
The documentary was made in conjunction with JANM’s exhibition, Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo. Like the art that was featured in the exhibition, Shin’s work provides a prime example of the intersectionality of Japanese and Latinx cultures and artistic collaborations.
As we were planning our first screening in Tokyo, set for April 7 at an event space called Hare-Mame, Shin was nervous. Not only was he reluctant about promoting a screening of a film about himself, he was also worried that not many people would show up.
He wanted to add more entertainment—more films, maybe even a band. We decided to include Tad Nakamura’s poignant short doc about a little-known slice of Los Angeles’ Crenshaw District, Breakfast at Tak’s, plus a few of Shin’s favorite DJ’s—the Trasmundo crew and DJ Holiday.
Regardless of the additional entertainment, when the night of the event arrived, Hare-Mame was packed to the gills. It was full of Shin’s friends and followers, all eager to watch the documentary about him.
As the film played, the crowd’s reaction was amazing to see. It was much different from audiences in LA and Mexico City, the two cities where the film had previously screened. I don’t know if it was because of cultural differences or personal knowledge of Shin, but the Japanese audience burst into laughter at unexpected moments and actually cheered (!) during a section of the film where other audiences had remained silent.
As the credits rolled, they erupted into a sustained applause—not just for the film, but also for Shin himself, who has impacted their lives in a deeply meaningful way for many years by introducing them to the art, culture, and politics of Chicanos and Latinxs from the US. It was an acknowledgement of all the tireless work he has done for Chicano/Latinx artists and the people of Japan.
Many people thanked me afterwards for telling Shin’s story, but I was just grateful that they had shown up and were open to Shin’s mission of cultural understanding and unity. As I write this, I know that he is already on to a new project—searching for the next band to take to Japan, digging up a long-forgotten album to re-release, or planning another live event. His struggle continues and countless people are better off for it.
On Saturday, March 3, artist Mari Inukai will lead a sold-out kokeshi doll workshop in celebration of Hinamatsuri (Girls’ Day), which takes place that day. It’s no surprise that spots in this workshop went quickly, as the popular artist—whose dreamy paintings and animations often depict and are inspired by the lives of young girls—may be the perfect person to lead a celebration of Girls’ Day.
Born in Nagoya, Japan, Inukai came to the United States in 1995 to study art. After attending Santa Monica Community College, she went on to obtain a BFA in character animation from California Institute of the Arts in 2004. Her short animated film, Blue and Orange (2003), has been an official selection at numerous film festivals, including the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, and was the Japan Grand Prize winner at the Short Shorts Film Festival EXPO 2005. In addition to her animation practice, Inukai regularly exhibits her paintings and drawings. She also designs clothes, toys, and other fun products. She now lives in Beverly Hills with her daughter Sena, who is often a subject of her artworks.
According to her website, Inukai’s paintings are “an expression of her desires, ambitions, and hopes for the future, starting from where she stands now. Like water flowing, seeking its path, [she] channels her direction naturally, finding her importance as she travels forward.” We caught up with Inukai via email to ask her a few questions.
JANM: What inspired you to create this workshop?
Mari Inukai: March 3 is a special day for girls in Japan. Americans may be familiar with Hinamatsuri, but in Japan, that day is also known as Momo No Sekku (桃の節句), the peach harvest festival. The day marks the changing of the seasons, and peach blossoms are said to ward off evil; they also stand for longevity. I thought we should celebrate!
JANM: Why was it important to you to encourage collaboration among participants?
MI: In the past, young Japanese girls would celebrate Hinamatsuri (ひな祭り) together by making dolls, eating sweets, and drinking sweet rice sake. I wanted to recreate that spirit in my workshop, so that we can all inspire and help each other and learn something new together and most of all, have fun!
JANM: What is your own relationship to Hinamatsuri? Was it something you regularly celebrated back in Japan?
MI: I have two sisters, so Hinamatsuri was pretty special when we were small. I remember our mom making chirashizushi (a colorful sushi dish), karaage (fried chicken), or tempura and salad. We would have a cute decorated cake with two dolls on top. There was a lot of laughter. No sake though!
JANM: Looking through your extensive body of work, I see that girls are frequently the subject.
MI: Yes. I paint my daughter Sena most, because she is the most inspiring thing in my life. I paint my friends and their children too. I am really fortunate to have great friends!
JANM: Do you think that Japanese traditions, like Hinamatsuri, have influenced your own artwork?
MI: Absolutely. Not just Hinamatsuri, but all Japanese traditions. In fact, I have curated a special MOMO/桃の節句 group show for Giant Robot that is also opening on March 3. I gathered several talented figurative artists whom I really admire and asked each of them to create their own “Momo No Sekku world.” I am doing a mural in collaboration with Audrey Kawasaki, and perhaps Amy Sol too. Amy has her own solo show opening on the same day at Thinkspace Gallery, so she will be in town. As for myself, I am making paintings with Gansai Japanese water color pigments, so they will look really different from my oil paintings. Please join us for the party!
Born to parents of Japanese and Mexican descent, Shizu Saldamando creates exquisite drawings in which she investigates the variety of social constructs and subcultures seen in Los Angeles’ backyard parties, dance clubs, music shows, hang-out spots, and art receptions. By focusing on the subtle details that define different scenes, she captures the unexpected influences at work in America’s social spaces. Saldamando’s work is currently on view at JANM as part of the exhibition Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo.
This Saturday, December 2, Saldamando will be giving a Members Only Artist Talk as well as leading a craft workshop titled Paper Flowers from the Camp Archives. We sat down with her via email to learn more about her family background, what shaped her practice as an artist, and how she came to develop her paper flowers workshop, which pays tribute to one of the ways that her family—and others—found to deal with the trauma of the World War II Japanese American incarceration.
JANM: I’ve read that your mom is a community organizer and your dad is a human rights lawyer. Your family life must have been filled with social and political awareness and dialogue. Do you think that influenced your artwork?
Shizu Saldamando: Growing up in San Francisco’s Mission District in the 1980s, I was very much influenced by my parents’ work as well as by the Chicano art centers in the area, all of whom were heavily informed by activism, the United Farm Workers, the Central American wars that were happening at that time, and other pressing issues of the day. It was the era of Reaganomics and the Cold War, so a lot of the artwork that was being produced in my neighborhood was heavily loaded and spoke about human rights and issues affecting low-income and immigrant communities—the same issues we are dealing with today.
JANM: The Japanese side of your family was incarcerated during World War II. How did that history influence you growing up?
SS: My mom helped develop a curriculum for the schools in San Francisco that taught about the Japanese American concentration camps, so I was able to make connections between their experience and that of other immigrant communities. I saw the various ways that immigrants and people of color are easily scapegoated and targeted in order to further whatever agenda the current administration is seeking to implement. In my community, I was exposed to artists who used their work to re-contextualize and assert an alternative narrative to what was playing on the news, and that was very influential.
In my own practice now, a lot of my work is not overtly political in that there are not many slogans or protests signs. However, I choose to depict friends and family who occupy a space outside of mainstream circles and who consciously construct their own creative communities. These people are the legacy of many historical struggles; they have, out of the need for survival, created their own supportive spaces.
JANM: Yes, you’ve said that your art is about “subculture and perseverance.” Perseverance, of course, is one of the cornerstone themes of Japanese culture and Japanese American history, as embodied in the popular saying gaman (“bear the unbearable with patience and dignity”). Can you talk some more about your experiences with subcultures?
SS: In the mid-1990s, I moved to Los Angeles to attend UCLA’s art school. There, I was also very influenced by many different musical scenes. Every week, I would go to various punk shows and dance clubs that would be playing anything from gothic industrial music, rock en español, punk, or British pop. Being part of these different scenes in Los Angeles was very special in that most of the people who inhabited them were Chicano/of Mexican descent. There was always a large queer presence as well. Being politically conscious and active was a given within these scenes, especially in the ’90s, so they became very comfortable places for me to inhabit. I made a lot of friends and chose to depict them in my artwork.
I like to think of the community of Japanese Americans who survived the camps as their own subculture as well. They are such a specific group of people, who all went through this awful historical trauma together, and whose descendants carry that weight whether they like to admit it or not. I know for a fact that my own family members who survived the camps all suffer different forms of PTSD in some way or another. Their coping mechanisms differ but I like to recognize one that is always close to my heart: communal crafting.
JANM: Was this the inspiration behind your upcoming workshop on paper flowers?
SS: Yes. Being very influenced by my aunt’s crafting circles and the different projects that she and her friends created, I thought it would be nice to give a nod to her and the communal crafting that happened at the camps. She was only a child when she was incarcerated in the camp at Rohwer, Arkansas, so I’m not sure if she worked with the same flower patterns I’ll be using in my class, but I still think of this workshop as an homage to her and her love of craft.
JANM: I understand that your research on this topic actually stretches back several years. Tell us how it all came about.
SS: One day, I was walking through JANM’s Common Ground exhibition and I heard one of the volunteer docents talking about how, in the photos of funerals at the camps, the funeral wreaths were actually made out of paper. Real flowers were not available at the camps since most of them were located in harsh, remote environments. When people passed away, the community would come together and make paper flowers for the funerals.
Later, I was asked to make an altar for Día de los Muertos and I chose to do a piece in honor of my aunt’s husband, who had been incarcerated at Manzanar and passed away around 2000. I decided to make a paper flower wreath as a nod to camp tradition. I wanted it to be historically accurate, so I made a research appointment with one of the archivists at JANM. The archivist provided me with a huge amount of material. She wheeled in carts of flowers made out of scrap wood, flowers made out of shells, flowers made out of pipe cleaners, you name it, along with several files full of information.
Among those was a book that documented the excavation of the gravesites at Manzanar, providing a complete rundown of all the people who passed away there, how they died, and what was found at their gravesites. There were photos of wire remnants that were once paper flower stems, photos of broken glass jars that once held paper flower bouquets, and photos of people making flowers in the camps. In addition, she found a small catalog insert from an old Woolworth’s catalog that was an instruction manual on how to make paper roses. I made copies of that manual and used it to make the wreath for my altar.
I keep revisiting this project in different forms. When I was invited to participate in the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s CrossLines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality in May 2016, I chose to do an interactive wreath-making workshop to call attention to the anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment that is running rampant with our current administration. Tragically, the paper flower project remains pertinent and timely not only because of the current political climate but because now, so many camp survivors are passing on and taking that history with them. I think it’s important to keep their legacy alive and always in our minds.
There are still a few spaces left for Shizu Saldamando’s flower-making workshop on Saturday, December 2. If you are a JANM member, you can also sign up for the Members Only Artist Talk she is giving earlier that day. Visit janm.org for more info and to RSVP.
Many news items come across the desk of the editor here at the First and Central blog. As busy as we’ve been over the last few months with the opening of JANM’s major new exhibition, Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo, and various other developments, we haven’t had the chance to share as many of these as we’d like. Following, therefore, is a roundup of notable news items from the last few months. If you missed any of them, here’s your chance to catch up!
Little Tokyo Has Been Named a California Cultural District
Our own neighborhood of Little Tokyo was named one of 14 California Cultural Districts by the California Arts Council. A new initiative in its first year of operation, the Cultural District designation is designed to “grow and sustain authentic grassroots arts and cultural opportunities, increas[e] the visibility of local artists and community participation in local arts and culture, and promot[e] socioeconomic and ethnic diversity.” The districts are also intended to play a conscious role in tackling issues of artist displacement.
A Cultural District is defined as a “well-defined geographic area with a high concentration of cultural resources and activities.” The designation comes with benefits, such as technical assistance, peer-to-peer exchanges, and access to branding materials and promotional strategy. Per state legislation, each of the districts will hold the designation for five years.
We couldn’t be prouder of our district, which joins other vibrant cultural centers throughout California such as the Eureka Cultural Arts District and Balboa Park in San Diego. To see the complete list of 14 districts, click here. To read more about the initiative, click here.
Wonder Woman Confronts Japanese American Incarceration in New DC Comic
Wonder Woman is looming large in popular entertainment these days. The blockbuster action movie starring Gal Gadot was a huge hit earlier this year, and a sequel is in the works. A smaller film called Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, which explores the origins of the classic comic book character, was just released last month.
The staff at JANM was thrilled, therefore, to learn that a new digital comic book has come out that imagines Wonder Woman fighting, and even helping to prevent, the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. The series, titled Bombshells United, is written by Marguerite Bennett and illustrated by Marguerite Sauvage. Bennett decided to write the story after noticing that her cousins’ American history textbooks failed to mention the incarceration. Angered by the erasure, she set about doing her research, reading books like Farewell to Manzanar and No-No Boy, and paying visits to JANM (!) and the Manzanar National Historic Site.
The resulting story focuses on a group of ordinary Japanese American girls who hatch a plan to halt one of the trains going to camp. Bennett chooses to make them the heroes of the story, with some help from Wonder Woman. Although the story is a fantasy, many of the details are historically accurate. Bennett plans to continue exploring a variety of WWII and postwar stories in this series, even looking at intergenerational struggles between the Issei and Nisei.
Read an interview with Marguerite Bennett here. Purchase the comic books here.
Another Exclusive Naomi Hirahara Serial Now on Discover Nikkei
Everyone’s favorite JA mystery writer is at it again. Our Discover Nikkei project, which has hosted several exclusive serials by Naomi Hirahara, is especially thrilled this time to serve as the publisher of Trouble on Temple Street, the third installment in the Ellie Rush detective series. This installment, which follows two published book installments, will be published as an online serial, with new chapters coming out monthly.
Ellie, an LAPD bicycle cop who has been on the force for two years, finds herself in the middle of a Little Tokyo murder case that may potentially involve the people she loves most: her family. Will she be able to connect the dots before the killer harms her aunt, who is deputy chief of the LAPD? Where will Ellie’s allegiance fall—to the truth, or to family loyalty? The serial launched on September 4 and will continue through next August. Read the first two chapters now!
Asian American Comic-Con presented a Summit on Art, Action, and the Future at JANM on July 15. Below, JANM summer intern in public programs and media arts Leighton Kotaro Okada contributes a photo recap of the event.
The first Asian American Comic-Con, held in 2009 in New York City, marked the birth of new discussions in Asian Pacific Islander American (APIA) communities. Eight years later, the Comic-Con has returned to address new developments in APIA media production and representation.
On Saturday, July 15, 2017, dozens of artists, comic fans, bloggers, movie lovers, writers, actors, “Trekkies,” and activists gathered at JANM under the common theme of APIA pop culture. Panels and roundtable discussions touched on various hot topics, including diversity, Asian American women in the film industry, and more. Panelists came from all over the country and represented a range of diverse opinions and experiences, each bringing a unique point of view and novel ideas on the future of APIAs in media.
A roundtable titled “Woman Warriors: Reimagining Asian Female Heroes” gathered actresses, writers, and producers to discuss the advancement of APIA women in the film industry. Topics such as dragon lady and martial arts stereotypes, fighting for rich and novel roles, and the difficulties of working as both an APIA and a woman in the industry came up while answering questions such as “What should we expect in a rich, textured, powerful, and provocative APIA heroine?” and “What’s worked, what hasn’t, and why has it taken so damned long?”
A highlight of the event was legendary actor and activist George Takei receiving the first-ever Excelsior Award for Art in the Service of Activism. Takei was especially happy to receive the award in the same building where he was married. He then joined author, culture critic, and New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei curator Jeff Yang and Angry Asian Man founder Phil Yu for a special live recording of a They Call Us Bruce podcast. The three talked about Star Trek, politics, and married life, ending with a discussion of “the good, the bad, and the OH MYYY of being George Takei.” Takei’s infectiously hearty laugh and constant joking kept the crowd roaring with laughter.
Asian American Comic-Con’s Summit on Art, Action, and the Future was organized, emceed, and moderated by Nerds of Color editor-in-chief Keith Chow and Jeff Yang in cooperation with the Japanese American National Museum.
Leighton Kotaro Okada majors in East Asian Languages and Cultures with minors in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) and Songwriting at USC.
New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei, which has been on view for a little over a month now, features a cornucopia of fascinating artifacts from the life of the noted actor, activist, and longtime friend and supporter of the Japanese American National Museum.
The exhibition, whose format was inspired by Takei’s role on the iconic Star Trek television and film series, is divided into five “voyages” exploring the many aspects of Takei’s life: his childhood spent in a World War II incarceration camp; his rise in Hollywood as a pioneering Asian American actor; his civic engagement and community activism; his groundbreaking all-APIA Broadway musical, Allegiance; and his current status as a social media icon.
George and his husband, Brad, have been collecting and organizing their various possessions for years. The 200 artifacts that are currently on view in New Frontiers represent just a small portion of The George & Brad Takei Collection, which was donated to JANM last year and is still being processed as we speak. During a recent Members Only Learning at Lunch event, Collections Manager Maggie Wetherbee regaled an enthusiastic audience with tales of the 300 boxes and nearly 200 framed objects that she and her team collected from the Takei home. The exclusive gathering focused on a selection of objects that did not make it into the exhibition.
These included Boy Scout photos from George’s childhood, a personal scrapbook that George himself put together, samples of fan mail he has received, and a copy of the script for the January 15, 1987, episode of Miami Vice, on which George was a guest star. Wetherbee also shared a number of interesting stories that she heard during the process of reviewing the items at the Takei house.
If you have not yet seen the exhibition, we offer a few highlights in this blog post, along with a bonus image that was taken at the Learning at Lunch event. Note that another Learning at Lunch event will take place on June 3 and will also spotlight items from The George & Brad Takei Collection that did not make it into New Frontiers. If you are not yet a member, click here for information on how to join and enjoy great benefits like this one.
This weekend, JANM opens New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei. Drawing on the George & Brad Takei Collection of personal artifacts, which was recently gifted to the museum, New Frontiers explores the life and career of the pioneering actor, activist, and social media icon. The exhibition begins with Takei’s incarceration at the Rohwer and Tule Lake concentration camps as a child during World War II and moves through his career as a Japanese American actor in Hollywood, his public service appointments, his coming out as a gay man, his activism on behalf of both the Japanese American and LGBTQ communities, and his wild popularity as a social media figure. In the process, New Frontiers provides a unique window onto American history and culture in the 20th and 21st centuries.
New Frontiers is curated by noted author, journalist, and cultural critic Jeff Yang. We sat down with Yang via email to talk about the exhibition and his curatorial process.
JANM: Why George Takei, and why now?
Jeff Yang: George’s life has been extraordinary, and it has placed him at the center of some of the most critical changes in American society and culture: from the injustice of the Japanese American incarceration during WWII, through the fight for marriage equality, the struggle to overcome Hollywood stereotypes, the push to own our creative voice as Asian Americans, and the transformative rise of social media. In many of these circumstances, he wasn’t just a witness but a prime mover. These facts alone would make him an exceptional individual to explore through the lens of history. But, at 79 years old, George has never been more active, more outspoken, or more relevant. The changes we’ve seen over just the past six months have underscored the narratives in George’s life and made it clear that we still have many lessons to learn from the experiences he’s had.
JANM: How did you come to be the curator of this exhibition?
JY: I’ve known George for many years, having written about popular culture and Asian American issues since the late 1980s. I’ve been a fan of his since I was a kid, and since becoming an adult, I’ve had the fortune of befriending him as well. I’d curated another large and complicated pop culture exhibit for JANM in 2013 (Marvels & Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in US Comics, 1942–1986) and I suppose George, and the powers-that-be at JANM, thought my experience and POV were a good fit for this historic show.
JANM: What is your biggest goal for this exhibition?
JY: I want people to get a unique lens on the last 80 years of American history and to learn, especially now, how our rights have been won and protected through the years and why it’s critical to remember how we’ve fought for them. And also to have a great time! Visitors should expect to have an experience that we hope will make them want to come back again—with friends.
JANM: We understand you’ve been combing through a lot of George’s personal possessions. Which ones have you found particularly intriguing, and why?
JY: The process of curation has been exhausting because of the sheer volume of items we have available! George and his husband Brad have donated virtually everything in a lifetime of collecting to the museum—over 100 boxes of amazing stuff, and it has taken a year just to sort through everything. There were personal Takei family memorabilia from the camps; early images from Asian American—or, as they called it then, “Oriental”—Hollywood; behind-the-scenes artifacts and personal notes from Star Trek, the Broadway musical Allegiance, and George’s many other roles and works; intimate correspondence and mementos from Brad and George’s wedding and life together; and iconic merchandise and one-of-a-kind fan art given to George over the years. We are also doing our best to make the exhibition richly interactive and contextual; there’s a ton to learn from it even if you’re not a Star Trek fan.
As for my personal favorite item? I think it’s probably the pocket “casting directory” of Hollywood’s Asian/Pacific actors dating back to the 1950s. It shows some familiar faces and many more obscure ones, all presented with stereotypical one-liners that underscores how Hollywood saw them. Things have certainly changed since then—but not as much as we might have hoped!
JANM: What gave you the idea to produce a comic book in conjunction with the exhibition?
JY: We realized early on that any catalog for an exhibition of George’s unique life would need to be highly visual, and to weave memory and imagination. The graphic novel form was ideal for that! So Excelsior: The Many Lives of George Takei is your guide through the exhibition in comic book format. We’re also putting together a graphic anthology of stories inspired by George’s life and the issues he has engaged throughout it, called (like the exhibition) New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei. The latter is more like a catalog for the exhibition, but done in an eclectic comic book format. Unbound Philanthropy is generously funding that project.
JANM: Has working on New Frontiers changed any of your opinions on popular culture or APIA history?
JY: It’s made me realize how much has changed over the past 80 years—how we as APIAs have moved from the fringes to the center of popular culture, and how popular culture has moved from the fringes to the center of society. And George has been a significant part of that.
Join us on Sunday, March 12, for the public opening ofNew Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei. There will also be an Upper Level Members’ Reception on Saturday, March 11, at 7 p.m., with an opportunity to meet George, Brad, and Jeff personally. For information on becoming an upper level member, please visit this page.
This Saturday, October 22, JANM is offering a Decoden Phone Case Workshop, led by lifestyle personalities Chrissa Sparkles and Jon Brence. Participants will bring their own plain plastic phone cases and make them over with the decoden materials provided. Many of you are old hands at this, but others may be wondering, what is decoden? And where does it come from?
The word decoden is a Japanese portmanteau combining deco, which stands for decoration, and den, which is shorthand for denwa, the Japanese term for “phone” (literally “electric talk”). Decoden culture began to develop almost as soon as cellular phones came into popular usage, around the turn of the century. If you are familiar with the American craft of “bedazzling,” then you can understand decoden, which is basically the same thing—dressing up ordinary objects with sparkly accessories.
At first, decoden was applied specifically to cell phones and cell phone cases. As its popularity grew, however, decoden spread to encompass portable gaming systems, digital cameras, tablets, flash drives, picture frames, and even fingernails. Today, it’s an essential component of Japan’s kawaii (cute) culture.
The decoden aesthetic is cute, playful, and above all, excessive. A huge amount of colorful, decorative trinkets are affixed to the surface of the phone or other ordinary object, turning it into a bright, eye-catching work of art that expresses the personality of its owner. Popular components include thick, fake cake icing; tiny clay figurines of everything from ice cream cones and lollipops to buttons, candies, and Sanrio characters; and plastic pre-manufactured charms, referred to in the decoden world as “cabochons.”
Making the perfect decoden object can be time-consuming, and perhaps not as easy as it looks; it requires patience to come up with good designs, a large number of individual pieces have to be glued on, and there are a variety of methods and materials to choose from. Come to our Decoden Phone Case Workshop this weekend, where our expert kawaii workshop leaders will take you back to the origins of the craft and make sure you get it just right!
On October 2, JANM hosted a staged reading of Quentin Tarantino’s classic crime drama, Reservoir Dogs. Organized by a group called No Shortage of Asian Talent (NSAT), the reading had a unique twist—all of the parts in the macho, all-male, all-Caucasian drama were read by Asian American actresses. Elaine Kao played Mr. Blond; Jully Lee played Mr. Pink; Rosie Narasaki was Nice Guy Eddie; Sharon Omi was ringleader Joe Cabot; Grace Su portrayed Mr. Orange; Tamlyn Tomita stepped in as Mr. White; and Jolene Kim voiced a variety of smaller roles, including the cop in the iconic ear-slicing scene.
According to the organizers, finding a suitable all-female vehicle was difficult, so they decided to choose from the many all-male films in the canon and enact a gender swap. The stripped-down event had each of the actresses reading her part from a script while standing at a lectern. A disembodied narrator’s voice (West Liang, who was also the director) provided the deejay’s lines that open the film, and went on to narrate the action sequences, which, with a few notable exceptions, were not physically acted out by the actresses.
Watching this brutal, expletive-laden drama unfold in the hands of highly capable APIA actresses—who are typically cast by Hollywood as roommates or best friends in romantic comedies, if at all—was a jarring and fascinating experience. The film opens with a casually vulgar chat among the group of criminals, in which they debate the real meaning of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” The actresses bit into this semi-sexist dialogue with gusto, spitting out their lines without hesitation or self-consciousness. They then maintained this level of vigor for the entire reading.
The quality of the acting was excellent throughout, which made the narrative convincing in spite of the gender incongruity at play. Tomita was clearly channeling Harvey Keitel, who played her character in the film, as she deepened her voice and wore a simple white blazer over black pants to enhance her masculine presence. She and Omi were the elders of the group, and they were well cast as the two older men in the film; as Joe Cabot, Omi did a great job emanating the gravitas of an “old mob boss.” In a nice touch, Omi’s own daughter, Rosie Narasaki, played Joe’s son, Nice Guy Eddie.
Perhaps the most intriguing bit of acting, and the best physical realization of a scene, belonged to Elaine Kao as Mr. Blond. With a nice smile and a proper air about her, Kao seems to be the polar opposite of the creepy, psychopathic Michael Madsen character in every way. (In fact, she had a bit role as a blushing soon-to-be-bride in Bridesmaids.) Kao used this dichotomy to her advantage, however, managing to conjure a sinister darkness just below the surface of her sunny smile. The infamous scene in which Mr. Blond tortures and ultimately slices the ear off of Jolene Kim’s hapless cop was the most physically articulated in the entire reading, and both of the actresses played it with relish.
Overall, this staged reading was highly entertaining and stimulating. The gender disconnect between the actors and their characters threw the conventions of masculinity and femininity into high relief. At the same time, the excellence of the acting proved that there is, indeed, “no shortage of Asian talent,” and made a strong case for taking more risks in casting APIA actors. Hollywood, are you listening?
This all-APIA reading was the second organized by No Shortage of Asian Talent (NSAT), a group formed to showcase up-and-coming Asian talent and combat Hollywood’s seeming refusal to give major movie roles to APIA actors. Their first project was an all-APIA reading of Glengarry Glen Ross, which took place last year. Look for more all-APIA readings of iconic films, coming soon from this group.
Dumbfoundead, whose given name is Jonathan Park, is a Korean American rapper. Born in Buenos Aires, “DFD” was raised in LA’s Koreatown. At the age of 10, he got his first exposure to hip hop at a community center in MacArthur Park. He further honed his craft at Project Blowed, an open-mic workshop in Leimert Park. He began to achieve renown after participating in the West Coast division of the rap battle Grind Time Now. Today he has a strong presence on YouTube, where he has over 400,000 followers, and has released three solo albums to date.
Dumbfoundead will be headlining JANM’s outdoor Summer Night Concert on Thursday, August 18, along with other hip hop and electronic music stars. Our summer Getty Multicultural Undergraduate Intern in production, Michael Chang, conducted the following interview with the rapper via email.
Michael Chang: What drew you to music, specifically hip hop and rap, as a way to express yourself creatively?
Dumbfoundead: There was always an “I don’t give a ____” attitude that came with rap music. I feel like I can say whatever I want when I rhyme it over a beat. There’s a lot of power in music. Hip hop as a genre specifically has always been rebellious and DIY, and I like that aspect of it—it makes something out of nothing.
MC: As a creative person, what do you think makes Los Angeles a unique place to work?
DFD: We have so many little neighborhoods, and each one makes you feel like you’re stepping into another country. Being in this city really is the definition of the American experience; I feel like I learn more every day about different cultures and how unique everybody is, which helps me write universal stories and songs.
MC: Do you think LA is more conducive to a thriving scene for artists of color?
DFD: I love that LA is as diverse as it is. The community of AAPI entertainers here is bigger than anywhere else in the world and I definitely do not take that for granted. I think it’s important that we tell the stories of our people with all the outlets we have here. I know when I tour the Midwest I get a lot of AAPI artists coming up to me and talking about the lack of creative outlets in their town.
MC: The music video for your song “Safe” critiques how Hollywood erases and ignores AAPI identities in mainstream media. Do you think executives, directors, and other people in power inside the entertainment/media industry do this with intent or more subconsciously?
DFD: I think it’s a little bit of both. It’s almost a new idea to throw us into leading roles and in some cases they can’t even imagine us playing those characters. In other cases, they aren’t willing to take the chance because they think white actors are a safer bet for box office success. We need more people of color behind the scenes—writers, producers, directors, and executives—pushing our stories forward. We can’t just wait for those roles to come along, or expect them to be written by people who don’t know anything about our experiences. We have to write our own stories.
MC: Looking into the future, are there any other media or disciplines you’d like to explore?
DFD: I would love to write, direct, and act in films. TV and films have always been big passions of mine and there are so many stories that still need to be told. For right now though, I’ll settle for writing treatments for my music videos [laughs].