James Saito is best known 4 playing Shredder, but he was also in "Farewell to Manzanar." http://t.co/6buhx1aBnk #H50 pic.twitter.com/9RhKaJTq8D
— Hawaii Five-0 (@HawaiiFive0CBS) December 14, 2013
I'm catching up on Hawaii Five-0 and just watched James Saito's masterful performance in Ho'onani Makuakane, where he plays a former internee of the Honouliuli Internment Camp. I was surprised to see that the show had decided to take on this topic for the 72nd anniversary of Pearl Harbor (which was also recreated in a brief scene). Until pretty recently the camps in Hawaii were all but forgotten. I'd learned as a child that the only camps were on the mainland (and my family is from Hawaii) and didn't hear about them until my cousin sent me this article a few years ago.
After watching the episode I was looking around for information about it and stumbled across this piece by actor/director Chris Tashima (born in Cambridge by the way) originally posted to his Facebook page, complaining about Saito's casting as the elderly David Toriyama. ??? Apparently, Tashima thinks that Saito, at age 58, is far too young to be playing an elderly man. I was thinking that Saito was looking far older than I remembered him being (accomplished with old age make up), but personally I was just glad they'd cast a Japanese American actor who looks like a local (even though he didn't sound like one - someone that old would likely speak heavy pidgin). While I agree that where possible it's far better for shows to cast disabled or senior actors for those roles, I don't think that casting able-bodied or non-senior actors is the same as yellowface casting. There's nothing that makes a white actor more qualified for an Asian role so it's just insulting, but depending on how a role is written, it might be too demanding for a disabled or senior actor.
Tashima dedicated his post to senior JA actors who he presumably thought could have taken on the role. Three of them seem not to be active in TV & film:
- Jim Ishida, who according to IMDb hasn't worked since 2005
- Rodney Kageyama, who according to IMDb hasn't worked since 2008
- James Shigeta, who according to IMDb hasn't worked since 2009 (Update 2/3/16: Someone just sent me Shigeta's obituary from 2014. It seems he hadn't been working at the time this episode was filming due to a stroke. :( )
- Sab Shimono has appeared several times as Chin Ho's Uncle Keako
- George Takei has also appeared as one of Chin Ho's uncles (he was hilarious)
I recently watched the extras for Star Trek: Voyager and someone talked about Ray Walston's last appearance as Boothby right before his death at age 86. There was a long walk and talk scene that they were worried he wouldn't be able to do because at that point his memory wasn't what it used to be, but they said he'd nailed it after a few takes. Unusually for a guest role, David Toriyama was the main character of the episode. He had a lot of screen time and a lot of dialogue. They filmed at multiple locations (some of which were probably quite hot) and in the studio. There was voiceover for flashback scenes. Filming days are usually quite long. The role probably would have been a big challenge for someone older than Saito. Not impossible, but it could have been a consideration. Not all seniors are as spry and active as George Takei who still jets around the globe to Star Trek conventions, acts, writes books, makes videos, and has more Facebook friends than you and everyone you know combined. None of my senior relatives get on planes anymore. It might have been harder for the show to find someone closer in age to the character who would get on a plane to Hawaii to film for a week. If they had filmed in LA, maybe they would have had more options.
Given all these factors there was probably only a very small pool of Asian American actors to pick from - smaller still if they wanted to focus on only Japanese American actors. And of course a lot of great actors have already appeared on the show making the pool even smaller. I'd certainly be interested in hearing from Hawaii Five-0's casting people about how Saito ended up in the role rather than an older actor, but I prefer to think they got the best man for the job.
Check out the episode if you have a chance. They handled most of the history poignantly with only a few over-the-top scenes.
For more on Hawaii's camps, check out director Ryan Kawamoto's The Untold Story: Internment of Japanese Americans in Hawaii (trailer). The Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i finally put it out on DVD. Unfortunately, the JCCH gift shop isn't online so it looks like orders have to be mailed or faxed in!
If you don't know about the Japanese American incarceration during WWII, you may find my introductory post helpful.
This post has been crossposted at Discover Nikkei, a multi-lingual Nikkei online community.
From their website: "Discover Nikkei is a community website about Nikkei identity, history and experiences. The goal of this project is to provide an inviting space for the community to share, explore, and connect with each other through diverse Nikkei experiences, culture, and history." Discover Nikkei is coordinated by the Japanese American National Museum and supported by The Nippon Foundation.