Spoilers for Frankenweenie below
I am positively crushed, folks. When I was younger, Tim Burton was one of my idols. Big Fish came into my life at a time when I was grieving over the recent death of my father, and comforted me more than grief counselling ever did. Edward Scissorhands was my emotional companion throughout the ups and downs of my teen years. I met both of my most serious relationships through a Tim Burton forum.
I defended him when he went through an artistic slump, starting at Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and lasting up until Alice in Wonderland (which was irredeemably awful) convinced that he would overcome recent less-than-stellar films and come out with something truly great. I laughed quite a bit at Dark Shadows, but I thought Frankenweenie would be his big comeback, even though it suffered from two weak spots: Being a remake of an earlier film of his, and being created by Disney, who were behind the abhorrent Alice. And in many ways, it was a great Tim Burton film. There was a great cast, the film itself was gorgeous, and the story was a great expansion on the original idea. There was one problem with it though, which made it impossible for me to enjoy Frankenweenie or welcome it with open arms as the return of my idol, and its name was Toshiaki.
Toshiaki is something of an antagonist in the movie, even though there aren’t any real bad guys in the film, but Toshiaki is an enemy of sorts of Victor, the main character. He is competing with Victor for the school Science fair’s first prize. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with him competing with Victor, or being a sort-of villain in the film. But there is a problem with the way that he is portrayed in the film: He’s a soft-spoken, conniving, callous type who speaks in a mix of eloquent mad scientist and broken Engrish. In other words, he’s a yellow peril stereotype straight out of a U.S propaganda film.
You can’t even excuse that by saying the film is supposed to take place in the 1950s-60s, a reference is made to Pluto no longer being classified as a planet, which is decidedly modern, so it presumably takes place in that same mix of 1950s and modernity that many of Tim Burton’s films reside in. The most cringe-worthy part for me, apart from Toshiaki’s language and behaviour, is when he tries to resurrect his pet turtle, which ends up warping into a gigantic -surprise- Godzilla monster. He even films the monster rampaging through the suburb.
Apart from a black woman with no spoken lines who shows up in the foreground of a scene at a PTA meeting, Toshiaki is the only character of colour in the film. The other time that a character of colour has played a prominent role in a Suburbia-land Burton movie that I recall is the police officer in Edward Scissorhands, who is the only one of the townsfolk to sympathize with Edward as an obvious outsider, who tries to assist him by giving him a chance to flee the angry suburban mob. Why the great steps backwards in showing a character of colour, Tim Burton?
I want to repeat, I don’t have a problem with Toshiaki competing with Victor for the science fair prize, or for being one of the villain-type characters. I have a problem with him being portrayed the way he was, mixing up his Ls and Rs, speaking random Japanese, having his pet transform into a Godzilla, and behaving in a shadowy, utterly unempathetic, and untrustworthy manner. Casual racism like this is unacceptable, and it ruins otherwise quality films by making me cringe every time I am confronted with it.
If that kind of stuff doesn’t make you uncomfortable, then you should ask yourself, honestly, why. It’s not cute, not funny, and most definitely not harmless. There is no such thing as harmless racism. Every bit of casual racism is a brick in the wall of a huge power structure which degrades people of colour and justifies them being seen and treated as less than human. I am not calling for a boycott of Frankenweenie, only expressing my disappointment that this was considered a legitimate way of expressing Burton’s love for old Japanese science fiction movies, and probably didn’t phase a single executive at Disney. We cringe now at Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, we should know that this isn’t acceptable either.