Last year, a New York Times headline asked pertly, “Why won’t Hollywood cast Asian actors?” Part of the controversy was the recent blockbuster “Doctor Strange,” which was accused of “whitewashing” — i.e., changing an Asian character to a Caucasian.

The debate may continue this week with the Japanese release of “Ghost in the Shell,” a manga adaptation starring Scarlett Johansson as the — originally Japanese — Maj. Motoko Kusanagi. Having denied claims it attempted to make Johansson look Asian through digital effects, the studio opted to change her character into “Major” — a cyborg that looks Caucasian-ish.

With this background, there was, naturally, little fanfare last year for the 60-year anniversary of “The Teahouse of the August Moon,” a comedy in which Marlon Brando plays Sakini, an interpreter for the U.S. Occupation forces in Okinawa. Brando’s casting is a notorious example of “yellowface,” where a Caucasian in makeup plays an Asian character.

The worst offender in this once-common practice is Mickey Rooney, who, in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” from 1961, played the cartoonish Mr. Yunioshi. To witness changing sensitivities: The New York Times wrote back then that Rooney’s “bucktoothed, myopic Japanese is broadly exotic.”

An icon in the pantheon of the arts, Brando has been attacked, especially by Asian-Americans, for what they see as offensive slapstick, the disdain of a white man putting on a disguise — a disguise not only transparent but preposterous — for a role that, rightly, should have gone to a Japanese.

But the movie and Brando’s performance deserve a fresh look, both from a historical and contemporary perspective, as its merits are easily overlooked.

“Teahouse” was based on the 1951 satirical novel by Vern Sneider. It portrays the U.S. Occupation of Okinawa as naive, tasked with establishing a Western-style society in a war-torn village. The natives have other plans: They want kimonos and geisha entertainment, not a Women’s League for Democratic Action.

It’s Okinawa in 1946, and the aims for the village of Tobiki include building a Pentagon-shaped schoolhouse and teaching children how to sing “God Bless America.” Colonel Purdy, a pompous simpleton, vows despairingly that the natives will learn democracy “if I have to shoot every one of them,” assuring his staff there’s no need to learn the local language because, hey, “We won the war.” The jabs on imperialism land — and even harder today, with their shades of Vietnam and Iraq.

We first see Brando in the lotus position. Wearing a wig, rubber lids around the eyes and thick layers of yellowish greasepaint, he addresses the audience directly, introducing himself as “interpreter by profession, Okinawan by whim of gods.”

The sight is surreal, a puzzle demanding “What on Earth were they thinking?” As for Sakini’s English learning — “education by ancient dictionary” — the script nails a Japanese reality. But otherwise, evidently — evident as in “not fooled for a second, won’t pass in a million years” — this freakazoid interpreter is Marlon Brando, thespian by profession, Okinawan by whim of make-up.

The reviews were harsh, even in the 1950s. The New York Times dismissed Sakini as “a calculated clown,” and Brando biographer Richard Schickel, writing in 1991, commented on the performance that “one is conscious only of technique. His Sakini is a kind of parlor trick, an impression of a foreigner, not a true performance as one.”

So then, indeed, why Brando as an Okinawan? What on Earth were they thinking?

In Brando’s take, Sakini is the guide to a foreign world. The movie starts with Okinawan music, as three sets of sliding doors open. Brando appears, breaking the fourth wall as he explains the setting and introduces the army men by opening the windows of barracks. Clearly, he is the liaison, the interpreter who knows both worlds.

In the 1940s and ’50s, this kind of character was common in movies — the local sidekick abroad, making an inroad for the Americans — yet Brando elevates it to a mirror. Sakini both respects and subverts the soldiery, gaming the Occupation to the natives’ advantage.

One overlooked merit of “Teahouse” is how it makes audiences see Americans as they are seen by the Okinawans. It is humbling, like the best of cross-cultural interaction. Sakini had to be “safe” as he shows up the Americans as bumblers, assuring the audience that the movie, while it skewers paternalism, isn’t anti-American. Thus, when the captain asserts the Occupation has come as friends, Sakini, who knows Okinawan history, responds with a sly Brando smile: “When friends come, we hide everything quick as Dickens.”

Beyond Brando’s box office appeal, the fact is that in 1956 — 11 years after the war and the internment in America of all people of Japanese descent — there was no Japanese or Japanese-American actor who could have achieved this subversive effect, or evoked similar sympathy. “The movie doesn’t feel offensive,” concluded a group of Japanese people attending a screening in Tokyo. “The American characters look stupider than the Japanese.”

Still, Asians and Asian-Americans are entitled to be offended. “Teahouse” is too uneven, too juvenile in its slapstick, to be called a forgotten gem. It’s the fact that Brando offends that signifies what still matters: intent and perception through racial lenses. Ironically, at a time when white males are increasingly asked — some say expected — to empathize with minorities, a white movie star from the 1950s is scorned for attempting just that.

At the height of his fame, Brando badly wanted to be Sakini. He campaigned for the role and had script and director approval, speaking publicly of his desire to make movies with a social message, to build bridges between cultures. Soon after the “Teahouse” premiere, Brando returned to Japan to shoot “Sayonara” — a pioneer paean to Japanese-American love and marriages — announcing he would someday like to live there.

Brando was serious about making Sakini real. Refusing that his Japanese parts be dubbed, he spent two months recording a Japanese friend and shadowing his pronunciation. He lost about 13 kilos on a diet, studied Japanese posture and mannerisms, and practiced sitting in the lotus position before consulting with studio technicians on his look.

So this was no careless spectacle of the other. If the results failed spectacularly, it was not for want of effort.

The takeaway might be this: As part of the white majority culture, one can mean well and proceed with care, and still be misguided. It isn’t yours to decide what minorities find offensive.

Responding to accusations of whitewashing, Scott Derrickson, the director of “Doctor Strange,” admitted to this kind of ignorance: “I didn’t really understand the level of pain that’s out there, for people who grew up with movies like I did but didn’t see their own faces up there.”

As for “Ghost in the Shell”, Johansson stated she would “never presume to play another race of a person.” And thus — by whim of the studio gods — Maj. Motoko Kusanagi turned non-Japanese.

Nicolas Gattig is a writer and communication coach (coachgattig@yahoo.com). His story “A Human Accident” will be published in Eastlit magazine on April 8. Foreign Agenda is a forum for opinion on issues related to life in Japan. Comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.