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Asia Puts Some Pop Back Into Culture

Trends: Look around. From movie and video screens to fashion runways, America is going gaga for all things Asian.

June 15, 1997|D. JAMES ROMERO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A rising force is threatening the Western world's lock on pop culture.

Asia.

All of a sudden, it seems, all things Asian are hip. Classic flicks from Hong Kong are touted by Quentin Tarantino and traded on the streets of New York; Japanese animation tapes are collected by suburban teens and twentysomethings; Americans are buying up Tamagotchi, a Japanese digital toy; Japanese musicians and deejays are injecting fresh flavor into pop.

Jeff Yang, a journalist in New York, says "this renaissance of Asian influence in pop culture is not a novelty but the latest wave in a cycle. We've always been a part of world culture.

"Japanese woodcuts influenced the Impressionists. Orientalism influenced classical music," says Yang, who recently co-edited a book called "Eastern Standard Time: A Guide to Asian Influence on American Culture." "Now Hollywood's biting on John Woo's two-fisted, two-gun acrobat style. It sets up a new beginning in the cycle."

Indeed, Asia always has had a say in American postwar pop--the "Astro Boy" and "Speed Racer" animated series of the '60s, the kung fu flicks of the '70s. But there was something half-hearted about it all: "Astro Boy's" Japanese roots were intentionally masked; the kung fu flicks were viewed for laughs.

In the U.S., there used to be "a condescending, Orientalist view of Asian culture," says Darrell Hamamoto, associate professor of Asian American studies at UC Davis. But today, there seems to be a genuine, street-level enthusiasm for Asiana.

"Young people have grown up with 'Kimba' or 'Speed Racer' or 'Gigantor' or other Asian animation and comics and video games, so they're open to Asian pop culture, because it's been part of their early socialization experience," Hamamoto says.

Bootleg copies of such classic kung fu films as "The One-Armed Boxer" and "The Five Deadly Venoms" are being sold for $10 apiece. And this time around, fans are studying the movements and philosophy of the flicks rather than the poor English dubbing.

"We take this genre seriously," says RZA of Wu-Tang Clan, an African American rap group from New York City that samples kung fu movie dialogue and sounds in its music. "We know it as an art form.

"Everything strong," he says, "comes out of Asia."

A strong wave of modern action and drama directors is making its way from Asia, from Woo ("Broken Arrow") to Japan's Shohei Imamura ("The Eel"), co-winner of this year's top prize at Cannes. Zhang Yimou's "Raise the Red Lantern" (1991) and Chen Kaige's "Farewell My Concubine" (1994) also impressed American audiences and critics.

Meanwhile, after the success in 1993 of "The Joy Luck Club," an American production of a film by Wayne Wang, Western cinema is becoming enchanted with Asian themes and players.

TriStar Pictures is producing "Godzilla," based on the classic Japanese monster movie series. Due next year, the project is being supervised by TriStar's new production president, Chris Lee, the highest-ranking Asian American in Hollywood. And the new James Bond babe is none other than Michelle Yeoh, a darling of Hong Kong and action films ("Supercop") who performs her own high-flying stunts.

"The industry realizes there is an audience for this out there," says Norman Wang, a publicist in New York for several directors in Hong Kong. "Not just Asian, but white, black and Hispanic."

There is a danger, as Hollywood's history shows, of Asian film--and other media--becoming a flavor du jour. Latinos were touted as the Next Big Thing in Hollywood in the '80s, but today clearly are not. "We have yet to see our big crossover film on the Asian American experience," one film industry insider notes.

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Japanese animation artists are building strong grass-roots audiences in America and the U.K. with the futuristic, fists-and-kicks style called "anime." The genre grew up in a postwar Japan that couldn't afford the high-priced special effects of Hollywood. So artists started making animated renderings of action film stunts that today are sometimes so realistic and/or fantastic, enthusiasts swear they never could be duplicated on film.

The story lines are psycho-sci-fi, and audiences are mature. Such animated flicks as "Akira" (1989) and "Ghost in the Shell" (1995) have helped anime gross $60 million a year in box office and video sales in the U.S. Mail-order anime is being peddled on MTV.

"The Japanese have taken animated art to a level of sophistication that is not found anywhere else in the world," says journalist Yang. "The stories themselves are being woven out of experience and mythology and legend and tradition and fantasy that is 180 degrees out of phase from what we would expect in the West."

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