Licorice PizzaA coming-of-age comedy in the 1970s Los Angeles has received criticism for controversial scenes where a white character attempts to imitate his Japanese spouse with a racist accent. Since the release of the movie in November 2021, critics and viewers have debated the authenticity of the scenes. After Paul Thomas Anderson was awarded both a BAFTA as well as a Critics Choice Award, this issue was resurrected in March 2022. A clip of Anderson’s scenes appeared on YouTube. viral on Twitter.
This clip features two scenes taken from Licorice PizzaThe story centers around high school freshman Gary Valentine, played by Cooper Hoffman, and his magnetic, almost platonic friendship to Alana Kane, a wayward, 25-year old (Alana Haim). With its colorful clothes and dreamy soundtrack, the movie captures the vibe of the ‘70s—and also incorporates the era’s politics, which includes an abundance of misogyny, racism, and homophobia. The universe of Licorice PizzaIt is not unusual for two young teens to hang out with each other (another choice in plot that has caused debate over the movie).
But there’s a difference between depicting the politics of the time period, and using the politics of the time period to depict racist views. This distinction has been scrutinized ahead of the 2022 Oscars, which will take place on March 27, when Licorice PizzaIs up for three Academy Awards. Here’s what to know.
Licorice Pizza’sControversial scenes
Gary, an actor, high school student, and actor, has helped his mother manage an advertising agency. One of their clients was Jerry Frick, (John Michael Higgins). He is the owner of The Mikado a Japanese restaurant owned by his wife Mioko (Yumi Mizui), a Japanese-speaking woman.
Two scenes from the film are at the root of the controversy. First, Jerry and Mioko are at the movie’s advertising office discussing potential restaurant ads. Jerry uses an imitative Japanese accent when speaking to Mioko. It is as though Mioko cannot understand English, so he pretends he can. He and his wife seem uncomfortable, as do the others in the scene.
Later, in a scene at The Mikado, Jerry introduces his “new wife,” Kimiko (Megumi Anjo), who is also Japanese. He again speaks to her with a fake Japanese accent. Alana questions Kimiko about what Kimiko said when she replies in Japanese to him. “It’s hard to tell. I don’t speak Japanese,” Jerry says.
Anderson doesn’t include any sexual acts that were acceptable in America during 1970s America. It would be absurd for Anderson to do so. A casting director remarks on her “Jewish” nose. Local politician is tracked down to find out about his gay secret. This landscape was known for its anti-Asian racism. And part of the story is based in reality—many of the people and places are based on the real San Fernando Valley, and Jerry Frick, the real owner of the Mikado, had two wives of Japanese descent.
But the debate over Anderson’s scenes stems not from the depiction of racism in the first place, but in the way he does it.
Paul Thomas Anderson responds to critics
As soon as this scene was revealed, controversy erupted. Licorice Pizza The film was released in large quantities on November 20,21. Almost immediately journalists began asking Paul Thomas Anderson questions about Higgins’ scenes. Interview with the New York Times, Anderson says of the scene “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.”
He also makes a point to note that his mother-in-law is Japanese and his father-in-law is white, so he’s seen this kind of scene play out often. (Anderson’s partner is Maya Rudolph, who’s father Richard is married to retired Japanese jazz singer Kimiko Kasai.)
After further scrutiny of the scene by the public, Anderson responded again to critics, specifically those laughing at the racist scene in a Feb 2022 interview. “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 Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) released a statement condemning the film’s scene and calling for it to be removed from consideration for awards. “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,” wrote MANAA in their statement.
Thus far, the movie’s cast members have not commented on the criticism.
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Anti-Asian racism is not only depicted in this way. Licorice Pizza
Licorice PizzaIt isn’t the first movie that depicts anti-Asian racism controversially. Recent research found that 43% of Asian American characters were used as punchlines in the top-grossing films between 2010 and 2019. That’s part of what makes the scenes between Jerry and his wives so divisive: some viewers see her as the butt of the joke, mocked for her accent, and others see him embarrassing himself with buffoonish behavior.
A similar controversy arose in 2019 with Quentin Tarantino’s film Hollywood: Once Upon A Time. Set in late ‘60s Hollywood, the film follows an actor and his stunt double as they journey through Hollywood, encountering people and events both real and fictional. In one scene, Brad Pitt’s character Cliff Booth, a stunt double, encounters Bruce Lee (played by Mike Moh) on set, and the two challenge each other to a physical fight. Lee knocks out Cliff in the first round, then Cliff throws Lee’s body into a car, then the fight gets broken up.
Many viewers, including the late Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, found the scene to be a disrespectful portrayal of her father, who at the time was one of the only Asian movie stars working in Hollywood. Lee explained to the Los Angeles Times that she felt Tarantino “seems to have gone out of the way to make fun of my father and to portray him as kind of a buffoon,” adding that “I feel like he was picked on in the way that he was picked on in life by white Hollywood.”
Critics of Licorice Pizza‘s use of a mock Asian accent comes amid a rise in anti-Asian hate and violence. According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, in 2021 there were 339% more anti-Asian hate crimes than in the year prior. March 16 was the first anniversary of the Atlanta Spa Shooting, in which eight people were killed and six women from Asia. After the pandemic began, anti-Asian rhetoric surged, including from President Trump, who referred to COVID-19 as “the Chinese virus.”
Their statement reads: Licorice Pizza, MANAA wrote: “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.”
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