Friday, January 22, 2010

Takezo Kensei is a Gaijin? (Heroes)

When Heroes first aired, I fell in love with it. What a powerful show! Uh, no pun intended. Heroes really seemed to capture this feeling of realism, a part of which was its internationality. You really got the sense that people of all sorts are developing powers all over the world. Since the first season, however, the show’s quality has gone down, and has become increasingly ethnocentric and racist.

In the first season, we were introduced to the world of Heroes from the perspective of Indian scientist Mohinder Suresh. While there were several protagonists, many of them more recognizable to the targeted audience, Mohinder was our guide. We could identify with him as a person without powers, who is just trying to unravel the mystery he finds himself in. Who really killed his father? Who is the man with the horn-rimmed glasses? Who is Sylar? Despite the fact that Mohinder is a person of color and from a foreign country, he becomes the character we identify with because he has more in common with the audience than people with powers. It is very unusual for an American show to do that.
Mohinder isn’t the only foreign character we appreciate. Hiro Nakamura and his friend Ando Masahashi are two Japanese office workers who travel to America to keep an atomic explosion from destroying New York City. The interesting thing about them is that they speak Japanese almost exclusively – very strange for an American show. We appreciate Hiro because he is this cute and lovable geek, who makes all these geeky references, and develops a geeky superpower. What geek in the audience wouldn’t like to bend time and space? Motivated by the legends of swordsman Takezo Kensei, and being named for Hiroshima after his grandfather died from the radiation, Hiro decides to become a hero and travel to a foreign country to save an American city from facing a similar attack. Even though some fun is made of his accent and he was probably only included because of the pun made in English, Hiro is treated as a person who grows to become a hero with honor, devotion to his friend, and skills with an ancient samurai sword. Hiro is respected along with the other characters.
Then in the second season, quality starts to go down all around. In a desperate escape from Sylar, Hiro transports himself to feudal Japan alongside his hero Takezo Kensei. However, when Kensei removes his mask, he’s revealed to be a white guy, named Adam. It turns out Adam’s this British guy who came to Japan to make a living (why?), and he gets better business if he pretends to be Japanese. Now, granted, Hiro makes a fit over it, and Adam turns out to be the villain of the season, so it’s not as bad as it could have been. It still, however, represents a need to turn a figure previously established as Japanese into an English-speaking white guy. I am positive that if Takezo Kensei lived after 1776, Adam would be an American white guy (possibly played by Tom Cruise). I suppose the writers figure that the American audience, for which the majority is white, needs this character to be white and English-speaking or otherwise they lose interest as is the usual excuse. I would have thought that to be disproved by Hiro and Ando (etc.) last season. Couldn’t they just have Kensei be a drunken loser? That would be enough for Hiro to become disillusioned by his hero without him being a gaijin (foreigner).
As season three goes on, the foreign characters get treated less respectfully. We are introduced to Usutu, a wandering shaman in an African desert whose life is devoted to helping white American Matt Parkman – total Magical Negro. Mohinder turns into an evil bug man (or something) because his experimental drug to give people powers had “the dark” instead of “the light”, a glowing thing kept in Claire (worst plot device ever, but never mind). Hiro mentally regresses for a few episodes. An evil arranged marriage in India is stuck in without rhyme or reason. Hiro and Ando become Matt’s babysitters, for which they have silly moments. Hiro’s face is used among a pile of stuffed toys in a parody of E.T., and Ando has to keep a silly face for hours to keep the baby happy.
Then in season four, there’s the whole carnival element. The writers wanted to take this new concept, the carnival, and directly tie it into the Heroes mythology, so what they did was rewrite the established mythology. It was well established that Hiro’s father told him stories of Takezo Kensei when he was a young boy, and that’s what made him decide to be a hero. Now the story is that the Sullivan Bros. Carnival, made up of Westerners, most of them white, came to Japan, and a fortune teller told Hiro that he would be a hero. That, and that a Slushy accident at the carnival is the reason why Kimiko doesn’t like Ando. The writers are erasing the Japanese culture from the show.
What bits of Japan we do see are silly in nature. Hiro and Ando are hired by a little girl to bring down her cat, which climbed to a high place. Hiro tries to save a suicidal guy who keeps losing his job when he photocopies his butt – in 46 timelines – and that’s what causes Hiro to lose control of his power, overuse from trying to save butt guy. Then Hiro gets his brain scrambled and runs around Japan trying to find Sancho to rescue Dr. Watson and defeat the Cylons. Then back in America we get a scene of Mohinder, scrambled Hiro, and drugged Ando trying to escape a mental institution. Hillarity ensues.
In conclusion, Heroes used to be a pretty good show in terms of depicting different races, but has become progressively racist. I’ll take this opportunity to note that I’m white, so if I’m really disappointed with Heroes’ ethnocentrism, then actual persons of color probably hate it by now. I hope the show can improve back to the standard set in the first season, but I sincerely doubt it.

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