My husband and I went to this preview screening hoping that we would be cheered up after a particularly disheartening week, but Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” isn’t the cat’s pajamas I was hoping it would be. I think that we might have laughed once or twice but it was paw-sitively hard to get past the bold red letters of the phrase: cultural appropriation. We were barking mad. Yes, we must also confess that we are decidedly more on the side of dogs versus cats and this story is about a dog in the land of cats.
But this is a land that seems to be very Japanese. Both my husband and I have been to Japan. In my case, I have spent extended periods in Japan as an exchange student.
There’s so much to unpack here, and it’s hard not to get catty while letting the cat out of the bag. Let’s start with the obvious. Japan has dogs. Japan has only one native cat breed. I don’t know why this film decided to use all non-native breeds of cats and dogs, much in the same way as Wes Anderson did in his “Isle of Dogs.” You might accuse me of being dogmatic, but I have to ask: Why set it in Japan? Oh, right. The writers, Ed Stone and Nate Hopper, who based this on Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles,” wanted to use ninja and samurai.
The story has a beagle named Hank (Michael Cera) leaving the more modern (like 1957) island (it has electricity) with West Side Story-like gangs of cats and dogs for a chance to become a samurai on this island of cats that is stuck in Tokugawa era Japan. How he learned about samurai in the cartoon world’s equivalent of the NYC West Side will be revealed later. Dogs are not welcome in this island of cats and are supposed to be either driven out or put to death.
The evil Somali cat Ika Chu (voiced by Ricky Gervais) is preparing for a visit from the Shogun (Mel Brooks) who is a British shorthair cat. The leader of his army, Ohga (George Takei), is a large Manx cat and the target of much of Ika Chu’s anger. Ika Chu decides to destroy the small village of Kakamucho (Spanish for poop plus much). His army successfully drives the first samurai away, but then Ika Chu decides to appoint an incompetent samurai to replace him. Instead of putting Hank to death, he’ll appoint Hank as the samurai of Kakamucho.
Hank barely knows how to put on his sword, something quickly noted by the little Persian kitten Emiko (Kylie Kuioka). Emiko wants to become a samurai; that’s not really how things worked in Japan. Hank finds a mentor, Jimbo (Samuel L. Jackson), a tuxedo cat and reluctant teacher. And Hank also finds a friend in the giant ginger cat, Sumo (Dijon Hounsou), who comes into Kakamucho to scare Hank away under Ika Chu’s orders.
What’s good about this film is: The animation characterizations of the non-Asian cats is fun. Besides “West Side Story” there’s also a reference to Godzilla.
The stylistic switches are well done in a way that’s similar to what we saw in “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” but remember that animated feature also infantilized the Japanese character: Peni Parker. Infantilization is a type of racism and misogyny, but what happens in “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” is different and there is so much that is cringeworthy.
There is no reference to a (Shinto) shrine or Buddhist temple in “Paws of Fury.” The kind of gate that serves as an entry point to a city or castle would generally be different from a torii.
People who love knives and samurai swords might wince when you see how the sword is displayed, too.
Now, let’s move on to something that might get more screen time than East Asian faces: Chinese food: Think a certain episode of “This Is Us” and Thor’s frat boy “What If…” Can you distinguish Chinese food from Japanese food? See the screenshot of a scene below. Yes, in Japan, you can get Chinese food, but that doesn’t make it Japanese food except that it is food served in Japan. There are more typically Japanese meals that do use chopsticks and I think cats would more naturally be seen eating (and I have lived in a Japanese house that did have a cat).
Most of the cats are dressed in something like a kimono. Then there’s the scene where the female cats are giving Ika Chu a mani-pedi. The manicurist cats are dressed in Chinese-style clothing (qipao or cheongsam). You can see women in Japan wearing Chinese clothes, especially in a Chinatown like in Yokohama. That is true, but this isn’t what is happening is it?
So we really didn’t have to be in Japan after all or we’ve just reached a pan-East Asia imaginary country. But if we’re in pan-East Asia, then why not actually include Asian cats like the Siamese (Thailand), Turkish Angora (Ankara), Bengals, Korat (Thailand), Dragon Li (China), Burmese (Burma), Oriental Shorthair, etc. Japan has several native dog breeds including the Akita, Shiba Inu, Japanese Chin and the Tosa Inu yet for some reason, Hank is supposed to be a beagle.
This is more like transporting an Anglo-American notions and fur friends to Japan without really respecting Japan or the rest of East Asia. From what I could read on the contract between Hank and Jimbo, I know that some research was done to include Japanese kanji (Chinese characters) but I don’t think the characters were particularly well done.
I should also mention that there is a derogatory term used for the Japanese that is slipped into the dialogue of “Paws of Fury.” But instead of taking a turn into the weather, it is used as a shortened version of “catnip.” Merriam-Webster doesn’t carry the term I am thinking about, but don’t feel free to use it.
The phrase is also problematic in British English. I posted a video about this last month which I included at the bottom of this post.
“Paws of Fury” is “Blazing Saddles” that the cat dragged in that has little life left in it. It’s more like finding a hairball on a dead mouse (and this isn’t a reference to Mickey although there will be Disney references below).
“Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” was originally meant to be called “Blazing Samurai,” but someone doused that flaming reference in favor of a nonsensical nod to the 1972 Hong Kong Bruce Lee film “Fist of Fury.”
The Bruce Lee vehicle was a martial arts film set in 1910, with Lee playing a student, Chen Zhen, who must defend the honor of the Chinese during a time of Japanese colonialism. Zhen must bring to justice the people who were responsible for his master’s death and there’s no happy ending. But don’t worry. In “Paws of Fury,” no dogs die.
Mel Brooks has produced a few cinematic dogs, but every dog has its day and for Brooks, “Blazing Saddles” was one of them.
“Blazing Saddles” is a 1974 film that took on racism in a way that erased the actual racism in the United States. Taking place in an unnamed state in the West in 1874, the film begins as the foreman of a new railroad that is under construction is making requests of his workers. While there are a couple of Chinese workers, the main group is Black because this is about the racism faced by Black people. “Blazing Saddles” works best if you aren’t aware of the history of the railroads built in the West. In the below link, I detail the references I had to minorities and the railroads in contrast to the portrayal of “Blazing Saddles.” It’s particularly notable because something similar was done by a more recent BBC production of a French classic.
- ‘Blazing Saddles’: What a Difference a few Decades Makes
- ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ and the Erasure of East Asians and Native American in the Wild West
“Paws of Fury” has three directors: Chris Baily, Mark Koetsier and Rob Minkoff. Chris Bailey is White and directed “Kim Possible.” Mark Koetsier is White was an animator (story artist) on “Big Hero 6.” Rob Minkoff is Jewish and co-directed (with Roger Allers) the 1994 “The Lion King.” Lessons learned from “The Lion King” were not transferred into “Paws of Fury” in terms of cast.
The credits for “Paws of Fury” name the people who wrote “Blazing Saddles” as writers (Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor and Alan Uger) as well as Ed Stone and Nate Hopper. My information on these men is sketchy, but none of them seem to be of Asian descent and none seem to be Japanese American. Their previous work also doesn’t suggest that they have knowledge of Japan and its culture. Minkoff is married to Crystal Kung Minkoff who is of Chinese descent and appears on a soundbite from the Family Day campaign for this film.
Some of what worked for “Blazing Saddles,” was the adult humor. Without the references to sex and sexual innuendo, the humor in “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” descends into fart and toilet humor. The transition in animation style to portray a “West Side Story” inspired land allows one to draw a comparison between a technologically advanced culture of an urban dog-eat-dog United States and a feudal culture of Japan. Both places have threats of violence but a lone samurai makes a difference. This contrast between a place with electricity (NYC) and Japan is problematic in a way that wasn’t apparent in the anachronism in “Blazing Saddles” because that film took place in the US and switched to other places in the US (e.g. Hollywood movie studio). In the context of “Paws of Fury,” there can be an interpretation of a contrast between the superior White culture and the inferior but “noble savage” culture. This interpretation is bolstered by the careless pan-East Asian approach to Japan. The development team didn’t care enough about Japanese culture to do research.
Diversity in Casting
For “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank,” they were barking up the wrong tree with casting. The main characters are Hank and Jimbo. Hank is voiced by Michael Cera who is part Italian (via his father), but not East Asian and not Japanese. Jimbo is voiced by Samuel L. Jackson who is African American and not East Asian. You might say: Who cares? This is animation. There’s more than one way to skin a cat.
After all, Phil LaMarr voiced “Samurai Jack.” LaMarr is Black and “Samurai Jack” is a young prince in feudal Japan. During the run of that series (2001-2004, 2017), Sab Shimono voiced the emperor, but a lot of the roles were voiced by White actors.
In the 2009 Disney Animation “The Princess and the Frog,” the “princess,” Tiana, was voiced by Anika Noni Rose who is African American. The Frog was voiced by Brazilian American Bruno Campos. There was criticism that Campos was “white,” although he is Latin American or Hispanic and the character he voices is supposed to be from the Middle East. For the record, the US Census Bureau considers people from North Africa and West Africa White. Dr. Facilier, also known as the Shadow Man is played by African American actor Keith David. The trumpet-playing alligator Louis is played by African American actor Michael-Leon Wooley.
While the 1994 animated film, “The Lion King,” featured Matthew Broderick as Simba and Jonathan Taylor Thomas as young Simba (Joseph Williams and Jason Weaver provided the singing voices of adult and young Simba, respectively), Jeremy Irons as Scar and Moira Kelly as Nala, the 2019 film has African American and African British actors voicing the main roles (names in bold are Black or African American or African British):
- Simba: Donald Glover
- Scar: Chiwetel Ejiofor
- Sarabi: Alfre Woodard
- Rafiki: John Kani
- Nala: Beyoncé Knowles-Carter
- Mufasa: James Earl Jones
Featured actors included:
- Timon: Billy Eichner
- Pumbaa: Seth Rogen
- Zazu: John Oliver
The 1994 Animation (names in bold are Black or African American or African British):
- Simba: Matthew Broderick
- Scar: Jeremy Irons
- Sarabi: Madge Sinclair (Black Jamaican)
- Rafiki: Robert Guillaume
- Nala: Moira Kelly
- Mufasa: James Earl Jones
The featured characters:
- Timon: Nathan Lane
- Pumbaa: Ernie Sabella
- Zazu: Rowan Atkinson
Let’s compare this to the matching of ethnicity for “Paws of Fury”:
- Hank: Michael Cera
- Jimbo: Samuel L. Jackson
- Ika Chu: Ricky Gervais
- Shogun: Mel Brooks
- Ohga: George Takei
- Chuck: Gabriel Iglesias
- Sumo: Dijon Hounsou
- Yuki: Michelle Yeoh
- Emiko: Kylie Kuioka
- Ichiro: Aasif Mandvi
- Little Mama: Cathy Shim
Bold lettered names are those who are of East Asian descent.
Michelle Yeoh does have an accent and it isn’t a Japanese one. Shim is also not Japanese. She is South Korean American and born in Seoul. Visually, they could pass for Japanese. The same cannot be said for Indian Asian Aasif Mandvi.
The film posters for “Paws of Fury” lists the names at the top in this order: Michael Cera, Ricky Gervais, George Takei, Gabriel Iglesias, Michelle Yeoh and Samuel L. Jackson. The protagonist is Hank; his teacher is Jimbo. The casting of the two main characters is very much supporting a diversity binary of Black and White. Then main antagonist, Ika Chu, is also White. His hench-cat is Ohga, which is the first person of East Asian descent, Japanese American George Takei. The character Chuck (played by Iglesias) is not even on the promotional poster. The two smaller cats at the front are Yeoh’s Yuki and Kuioka’s Emiko. Both female and both voiced by women of East Asian descent. While I love the casting of Mel Brooks, I would have loved it more if the leads and the main antagonist was someone of Japanese heritage. I don’t say Chinese because of the casting decisions behind “Memoirs of a Geisha” and the issues that surrounded the voice casting of “Raya and the Last Dragon.”
In 2021, there was an issue about “Raya and the Last Dragon” because of the lack of Southeast Asian voice actors.
- ‘Raya And The Last Dragon’ Criticized For Lack Of Southeast Asian Actors
In “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank,” there were instances when characters besides Michelle Yeoh spoke with an accent (and it wasn’t George Takei’s Ohga) so besides the Japanese American actors who could have been cast, there are Japanese actors who could have been cast because they could speak English with a Japanese accent. Yeoh’s Malaysian accent has been noted in certain films elsewhere.
You might think that I’m being like dog with a bone, but these are issues that have been raised by others. The issue of casting White people for voice roles has been raised previously in anime.
Writing for The Mary Sue, Princess Weeks wrote in 2020:
I’ve spoken about race in anime before, and while the issue of hair color and eye color always comes into play, my rule of thumb is using the standards that have been set in anime. There’s plenty of anime in which there are white characters and more diverse casts, like Fullmetal Alchemist, Carole and Tuesday, Attack on Titian, etc. However, most of the time, a lot of these characters Japanese in name, cultural signifiers, and other markers, despite the fictional setting.
Yet doing better on casting has also been an issue in 2020 for US adult animation series “Central Park” (Apple TV+) and “Big Mouth” (Netflix).
Slate said, “At the start of the show, I reasoned with myself that it was permissible for me to play ‘Missy’ because her mom is Jewish and White — as am I. But ‘Missy’ is also Black, and Black characters on an animated show should be played by Black people.”
Last year, Hank Azaria stepped down from voicing Asian Indian American Abu on “The Simpsons.”
But a year before that, Azaria was replaced as the voice of an African American character, Carl Carlson.
“The Simpsons” went further:
On television and on the big screen, casting voice characters has become more sensitive, but that isn’t what happened with “Paws of Fury.”
Whitewashing and Blackouts
There had already been the issue of whitewashing when an animated TV series became a live-action 2010 feature film: “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this kind of whitewashing in the voice actors is problematic. But we also have to look beyond whitewashing. There’s also a blackout of people of Asian descent. We have to look at how there’s both a reaction against and support for Black people taking away roles from people descent as in the case of Kimberley Anne Campbell voicing Nagatoro.
- Amplifying Black Voice Actors in Anime
Hayase Nagatoro (長瀞 早瀬) is one of the main character of the manga series “Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro.” The character was born in Hayama, Kanazawa. Kimberley Anne Campbell was born in New York and she is Black.
Of course, Samuel L. Jackson voices Afro Samurai, but I wonder if people, including Black people, would have objected to an East Asian person voicing this role.
John Eric Bentley voices Morio Sonoda for the Netflix anime “Baki.” Sonoda is a Japanese police inspector and the likelihood of a Japanese police inspector being African American are very low. Bently also voices Kusunoki in the “Ghost in the Shell SAC_2045” TV series. He’s done other anime such as “Yashiahime: Princess Half-Demon” and “Viva: Fluorite Eye’s Song”and video games (“Yakuza: Like a Dragon” as Yosuke Tendo). That seems like he’s taking away opportunities for East Asian American voice actors.
Amanda C. Miller voices the main protagonist of the series “Boruto: Naruto Next Generations.” Boruto (うずまきボルト) is the first child of Naruto and Hinata Uzumaki. Boruto is a shinobi (忍) or ninja (忍者). Miller is also represented in an Anime News Network article: “Amplifying Black Voice Actors in Anime.” So having Black voice actors in anime is a good thing?
There are other questions about casting of voices in terms of using women for young boys.
But that’s not really pertinent to “Paws of Fury.” It’s just something to think about in terms of how something sounds. Do men sound like young boys to American ears? And do Black actors have a distinctive Black voice that makes it imperative that they voice Black characters. And if they do have a distinctive Black voice, then why allow them to voice characters that are not Black? If it’s a matter of opportunity, then why allow Black actors to take away opportunities from Asian and Asian American voice actors?
What we should question is why there’s a move toward casting Black people for the voices of characters that are either Black or from Sub-Saharan Africa (“The Lion King,” 1994) as well as voices for characters who are specifically East Asian. Why are Black people given prominent roles in animated features set in Japan or China? In 1998, Eddie Murphy was cast as the dragon Mushu in “Mulan.” Mulan also featured the voice talents of Harvey Fierstein (Yao), Donny Osmond (Li Shang), Miguel Ferrer (Shan Yu) and Miriam Margolyes (The Matchmaker). That was different in the live-action feature of Mulan, of course, but even when we can’t see the actors in a remake “live-action” film like “The Lion King,” there was a move to make main animal characters in Sub-Saharan Africa voiced by Black people.
In the case of “Paws of Fury,” the Black actors are featured in other ways. In the official trailers, it’s not Cera out front. Look at how this official trailer for “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” uses Samuel L. Jackson to introduce it:
This trailer leads off with Jackson’s voice:
This trailer leads off with the character of Sumo also voiced by a Black person (Dijon Hounsou):
There are video featurettes focusing on a character voiced by a person of East Asian descent are: “National Kitten Day: Rise of the Kitties” and a character featurette for Emiko. Both focus on Kuioka. There is no featurette for Michelle Yeoh, Iglesias or Takei’s characters despite the billing on both of the posters I was given access to. That makes the poster billing seem like a dog and pony show.
After the success of “The Joy Luck Club,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Shang-Li: The Legend of the Ten Rings” and after the move toward color-coordination in casting of Black or Sub-Saharan characters, why is that not appropriate for East Asian characters? If you instantly think of casting Taika Waititi or Dwayne Johnson or even Dave Bautista for an animated feature set in Japan, you’re still off the mark because Johnson is part Black. Waititi could pass for Black and Bautista is part Greek and part Filipino, but neither Waititi nor Bautista could not pass for Japanese. Johnson also could not pass for Japanese. If representation matters for Black people, then it also matters for people of East Asian descent, including Japanese people.
“Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” falters in its storyline, its humor is muted in comparison with the original because its kiddy (not kitty) focus and then there’s the catastrophically questionable casting. It’s enough to give a dog a bad name. This looks more like something the cats dragged in with a hairball on top. If you want to have Samuel L. Jackson, then riff off of the MCU’s “Black Panther” or Osamu Tezuka’s “Kimba” or find an African island and go with a Sub-Saharan African culture and make it into a Western. Although I wasn’t happy with “Kubo and the Two Strings” either, the research behind that film was much better. I love dogs and I love animation. I did not love “Paws of Fury” and you’re more likely to leave this film either sad as a hound dog’s eyes or mad as a wet cat after it was raining cats and dogs than happy like a dog with two tails. “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” had its world premiere on 10 July 2022 in Los Angeles and will be theatrically released on 15 July 2022 by Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies.