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Record of a Living Being: Racism?

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    Vili Maunula

    Japan and Brazil have for the last century or so had surprisingly close ties, as is also evident from Record of a Living Being. In fact, I think that São Paulo, which is where the father is planning to take his family, still today has the largest Japanese community outside of Japan. If I’m not mistaken, this goes back to the late 19th century when Brazil started looking for cheap labour for their coffee plantations, eventually finding it in Japan. By the time of the Second World War, there already existed a sizeable Japanese population in South America.

    I also think that, for various reasons, these Japanese Brazilians have traditionally been looked down upon in Japan. And this brings me to the depiction of the man from Brazil in Record of a Living Being.

    Is it just me, or is this exaggeratedly dark skinned, perpetually smiling farm owner whose Japanese at times seems peasant-like a little bit too close to certain racial stereotypes? Am I the only contemporary viewer who thinks that the way the character is portrayed is somewhat disturbing, taking something away from the film? Whenever I watch the scene where the reel from the Brazilian plantation is played, and the man walks towards the camera, I feel a little uneasy. Not to mention when he tells Nakajima that he wouldn’t know what to do with the foundry, as the only thing he knows how to do is raise cattle, which is also what he intends to do in Japan (note also how he compares Japan to Brazil, and uses western area measurements). This is all the more poignant a remark considering that it is delivered right in front of Mount Fuji, the symbol of Japan. I wonder whether the character was intentionally drawn as a stereotype, or if I am just over-reacting when watching the film today, in an era of political hypercorrectness?

    Record of a Living Being was, of course, originally conceptualised as a satire, and perhaps in that context the “happy peasant-like black man” would have been a perfect fit. But as the rest of the film now is a far more serious story, this character seems out of place. Of course, in a way he is exactly that, out of place, having come all the way from Brazil. But I cannot help but think that the film in his case makes use of the prevailing racism and contemporary stereotypes.

    Obviously, we must also keep in mind that this was the early 1950s, and racism still wasn’t that big an issue in the west, let alone in Japan, which I felt was fairly racist still ten years ago when I lived there.

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    Ugetsu

    I found the characters sun blackened face quite comical (it took me a little while to realise thats why he looked so odd).

    There is undoubtedly a lot of racism in Japan aimed at Japanese-Brazilians – there has been quite a few NYTimes articles about this. I wonder though if this was strongly felt at the time, as there would not have been so many in Japan then, it would only have been in later decades when many came ‘home’ for work.

    Given what we know of Kurosawa, in particular his exploration of buraku in High and Low, I doubt if there was any racism there. I think he is more of a fairly benign comic stereotype. Maybe not quite ‘politically correct’ in todays terms, but in the 1950’s context, quite harmless. Its worth noting of course that Najakima thought very highly of the man, insisting on his honesty.

    I think that if you see the character in the context of other Kurosawa films (for example, No Regrets for our Youth) , there is an occasional tendency to show farm work as ‘honest’ labour, and so the people who do it as more decent (if simple) than businessmen, etc., so perhaps the character should be seen in this context.

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    Jeremy

    Vili Maunula Of course, in a way he is exactly that, out of place, having come all the way from Brazil.

    I think this is the key. If lighter skinned, more “Japanese” looking person was used, even if in reality Brazilians really don’t look a great deal different then Japanese, there is no audience realized separation between Brazil and Japan. It’s important to maintain the-man-from-a-far-off-place. Especially if the roles in which these man play are small, but used as a plot point.

    Stereotypes or even slight exaggerations of real-life, can be effective, in that they convey lots of information without actually doing so. Any film where the foreign person is not a key character, but used a plot point in signalizing a great difference, making this character much different from the viewing audience characteristics are a must. Otherwise you’ll risk not conveying the person correctly, or having to slow the film so to explain. Also there are certain audience expectations that someone from a far off country is different, as typically they are.

    For example, if I made a film were some some random African needs to appear, there is an expectation by and large as Africans being dark skinned. If I instead toss in a white South African, all I’ve done is required the audience to think into an area(whites are in Africa) that distracts from the main point. Even if I throw in a light completion, Beyonce Knowles-like black or even a more traditional American black, like Will Smith-it still offers the risk of not quickly conveying- this is the African character- requiring the audience to think it out, or worse require the movie to explain-this black person, while not stereotypically dark enough to be consider African, is indeed an African.

    Ideally, I would choose a more quickly recognized African-dark skinned, and wide nosed- being the more obvious features stereotyped. Key in a Djimon Hounsou- like character. Right away I can move the story on, and never have to explain this character. Something rather important as in Record, giving it’s not so much the character that is important, but what they represent.

    I used blacks for ease, but my Chinese character in a Japanese filled audience would be really Chinese, my Mexicans in a Italian film would really have to be Mexicany. Of course one can’t get carried away, otherwise you cheapen, and truly do stereotype. I wouldn’t pick a tall, pale skinned, blond hair guy(Vili 😛 ) to represent whites in a black filled audience, even if such person do exist, it can create too great a separation.

    I don’t however think Kurosawa put this much thought into it, he simply needed a Brazilian, and got someone that look like a Brazilian.

    A person from X country, that looks like they are from X country is not racism, it’s truth. If it you call it stereotype, well, where the hell did the stereotype first come from?-often again truth.

    Kurosawa could of made him a transsexual, in a bikini, running with a football, instead he only made him a darker then typical Japanese-or Brazilian.

    Also while it’s great and all to break stereotypes, in situations like this is creates a great deal of problems. And obvious stereotype breaking, becomes true racism at times.

    If you have a 7′ tall, skinny, dark skinned Kenyan, writing formulas for Quantum electrodynamics, and you’re film is not about a 7′ tall, skinny, dark skinned Kenyan, who knows QED. You just made not only a stupid movie, but have a lot of explaining to do, and in some degree create a racist element.

    Have the guy run and win a marathon instead, call it stereotypical, but it find where it’s not far more realistic, but this ever suggest the guy can’t know GED, you’re simply summing minor characters quickly, and effectively.

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    Jeremy

    but this ever suggest the guy can’t know GED

    This was intended as “but this never suggest the guy can’t know QED”.

    Watching Bill O’ Reilly while typing causes me trouble.

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    Vili Maunula

    Good points from both of you.

    I must say, however, that if the film’s aim was to not have me over-think the Brazilian, as Jeremy suggests, it has clearly failed. 😛 I am, of course, not the intended target audience. In any case, you are absolutely right about that stereotypes play an important part — not only in film making, but in our everyday lives.

    Perhaps calling it racism was taking it a bit too far. I guess what I was more interested in was how conscious about the stereotype, and its possible pejorative connotations, the film makers were when crafting the character. Ugetsu may well be correct in suggesting that they were aware of it, but considered it harmless within the wider context of the film and the character.

    Another possibility is that they manipulated the negative stereotypes on purpose to quickly deal with a part of the story that they didn’t want to spend time on. Apart from one “the foundry is our home” argument, we are never really told why most of the family is so strongly against moving to Brazil as not to even consider it. Of course, this is not something that necessarily needs much more dwelling on, as most people tend to be quite deeply rooted to the area where they live, and wouldn’t move elsewhere without a good reason.

    The short film from Brazil is something that Nakajima thinks will give the family that good reason. But instead of seeing the idyllic setting and beautiful scenery which Nakajima sees, they probably see what I see, which is a level of strangeness, and an odd black man waving and walking towards the camera — all the more uneasy considering that the man is in the same room watching the film with them.

    What I’m trying to say is that if the film makers knew that the contemporary audience’s reaction to the Brazilian man would by default be negative, perhaps the only thing they needed to do was make sure that he was indeed negatively stereotyped at least in the beginning, and the audience would feel what the family feels — repulsion towards the idea of moving where the man came from. This way, no additional explanation would be needed.

    Maybe this is also why he is introduced like he is — he just drops into the story, and neither the family nor we know who or what he is. He just walks in and starts to set up his projector, without even asking permission. I guess most people’s initial reaction to his appearance would be negative.

    Of course, as Ugetsu mentions, later on in the film the man is at least somewhat redeemed, showing that he is an honest gentleman after all.

    Somewhat unrelated, I must say that the scene in front of Mount Fuji still won’t let go of me. It’s an interesting choice of location for that particular part of the film.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili:

    The short film from Brazil is something that Nakajima thinks will give the family that good reason. But instead of seeing the idyllic setting and beautiful scenery which Nakajima sees, they probably see what I see, which is a level of strangeness, and an odd black man waving and walking towards the camera — all the more uneasy considering that the man is in the same room watching the film with them.

    When I was first thinking of this I assumed the ‘blackface’ of the actor was just intended to represent a man who’d worked in tropical sunshine for most of his life. But are you suggesting that he was supposed to be ethnically part black Brazilian like those kids in the NYTimes article? I suppose that wouldn’t have been so surprising at time (especially as contemporary Hollywood movies were frequently using white actors to play Asian parts – even famous actors like Mickey Rooney and John Wayne).

    I did wonder a lot about that scene – I wasn’t sure how to react to it when I first saw it, but now I think it was meant to show the families excruciating embarrassment at their fathers behaviour – I guess the Brazilian would have seemed completely unacceptably rough and unmannerly to the average Japanese at the time – and his ethnic background would mean he wouldn’t have been excused his rudeness in the way a white person would be.

    Vili:

    Somewhat unrelated, I must say that the scene in front of Mount Fuji still won’t let go of me. It’s an interesting choice of location for that particular part of the film.

    I suppose that it is a shorthand for showing clearly just what Nakajima and the family would be missing. I would guess that given the culture and history the thought of emigrating is even more spiritually wrenching for a Japanese person than for most others. But it is a strangly blunt visual image by Kurosawa’s standard.

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