Friday, September 5, 2014

East-Asian Tropes in Urban Fantasy: Yakuza and Kitsune for everyone!

East-Asian people are some of the least commonly represented people in the shows we watched and the books we read. We’ve said repeatedly how damaging erasure is, and how important it is for marginalised people to be present in the media in general and in the genre, because of that it can be very very tempting to become extremely enthusiastic when we find a character that breaks the trend of erasure. Sadly, it can never be that simple, because like any marginalised portrayal, east-Asian characters come dogged with some nigh-mandatory tropes that can quickly send that enthusiasm crashing down.

With east-Asian people, the first trope we have to mention is martial arts. I do not know what Asian countries are like in these writer’s imagination - I can only picture a country where fare dodgers on the subway battle guards in dramatic taekwondo duels, a country where arguing neighbours engage in dramatic katana duels and where irate grandmothers deal with sassy grandkids with perfectly executed kung fu. Sometimes there are oddly bizarre explanations for why these characters can pull out the karate (on Teen Wolf Kira knows how to use a katana because magic. Basically) but often there’s not even that (Satome on the same show) - it’s assumed the character has learned it simply because. It doesn’t need explaining, any more than a western European character would have to explain why they can read.

Sometimes an Asian character will be dropped into a show simply to bring martial arts - Dark Angel had Max fighting through a ship of Korean navy personnel - must of which seemed to know martial arts. Magnificent Devices had a crewman called Yau - who knew martial arts (which was rather the extent of his character). Da Vinci’s Demons had Quon Shan who was there to impress with his martial arts moves (and be inscrutable, another essential Asian trope. All those martial arts battles in the writer’s imaginary east-asia? They’re call caused by communication break down because no-one can communicate with each other - they can only sit opposite each other and be mysterious, occasionally making the odd, cryptic comment),

Part of the problem of these random east-Asian martial artists inserted with little or no justification is that it establishes a trope that even pulls down characters who may have a conceivable reason to know martial arts: like Lily Yu in the World of the Lupi Series (though, really, should “urban fantasy protagonist” and “police woman” really be sufficient to justify a martial arts background?) and Mulan in Once Upon a Time (but even then - yes the original story of Mulan is martial - but the Asian character is the “princess” with martial arts while the non-Asian “princesses” definitely don’t - even Snow White has become less martial) or Catherine on Beauty and the Beast and Russel on The Tomorrow People (there it’s less justified and just part of EVERYONE randomly knowing martial arts for REASONS). The trope shines even when it fits - this is the damage a trope or stereotype causes, it’s so ubiquitous that even when it’s legitimately present it is pulled in as part of the stereotyped whole.

One common display of these martial arts is in the hands of the Yakuza. Yes, these Japanese organised crime syndicates have a presence just about everywhere. Teen Wolf and True Blood have both had them randomly drop in. The Sookie Stackhouse Series had Chow, a random Yakuza member as a bartender and Grimm had a Yakuza agent who may have been tied to the verrat… somehow.

I do question how effective these people can be as a criminal organisation though - one would have thought they’d be easy to detect with them carrying katanas around. All the time. In the 20th and 21st centuries. They’re not exactly easily concealed weapons. And yes, of course they know the martial arts to know how to use the swords. Even at times when a gun may have been more effective (like, say, fighting a vampire who can move faster than you can see), they still love their swords.

Of course, martial arts and Yakuza are not the only Asian tropes to commonly come up - when you need an academic, many casting directors instantly reach for the east-Asian. Supernatural had Kevin, brilliant academic and prophet passing on information in service to the Winchester brothers. Continuum threw in Betty as a computer expert (though behind Alec). As a not-entire coincidence, both of these characters ended up dead - being the sidekick who ends up dead is a trope that clings to POC characters.

And when it comes to a mysterious and inscrutable scientist/CEO with ominous motives the directors have an Asian man cast faster than you can say “sinister mandarin.” Helix and Extant both use this trope - and even use the same actor, Hiroyuki Sanada (and it’s not exactly his first time in the role).

There is also a rather large number of formidable, often older women who Should Not Be Messed with - from Mrs. Tran in Supernatural, to Ancient Mai in the Dresden Files TV Series (a very literal Dragon lady), Lily Yu’s grandmother in The World of the Lupi, and both Noshiko and Satome from Teen Wolf we’re definitely seeing a pattern where if you see a middle aged or older east Asian woman then we can almost guarantee some awesome put downs (and quite likely slap downs) are going to follow. This serves as an excellent example of how a trope doesn’t have to be overtly negative for it still to be a trope and a stereotype (and it’s hard not to be a little impressed by these characters) and, because of that, inherently othering and dehumanising.

Being Urban Fantasy, the tropes also extend to the supernatural - and to culture and mythology; many western writers are looking to various nations to find some shiny supernatural to be original addition to their plot. When it comes to Asia, they’ve seized on kitsune (or huli jing or kumiho) and happily shoe horned them into their story - often devoid of any connection to the actual folklore and usually isolated from any other elements of Japanese (or other east-Asian) mythology, they’re becoming more and more common. Teen Wolf, Lost Girl, Supernatural, H&W Investigations series, The Hollows Series, October Daye Series, Otherworld Series to name but a few. (There are also examples which did provide a nod to their origins which I haven’t listed here because having non-western stories in the genre IS vital, plucking random woo-woo without context or depth is not) Fox spirits are to East Asia what Wendigo are to Native Americans. This looks like a trend that is going to grow rather than shrink.

Erasure is damaging - but so is tokenism and repeated stereotypes. Erasure tells marginalised people they do not belong in these stories, that they do not exist - but stereotyping does something similar, because it’s not people being portrayed, it’s a caricature, a cut out; at best it says there’s only one way to be this person; that every member of this group must conform to this rigid template - at worst it says these characters aren’t people at all just a collection of tropes.