Gung Ho (1986)

So…is Gung Ho racist, or what? To be sure, far less sympathetic portraits of the Japanese have cropped up in American cinema over the years. This certainly isn’t the not-so-subtle Neimoidian race of The Phantom Menace or the not-even-attempting-to-be-subtle Mr. Yunioshi of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. At the very least Gung Ho is free of that kind of blatant disregard for cultural sensitivity that makes one wonder, with no shortage of slaps to one’s forehead, how the hell some things get greenlighted at all.

But there is a sneaking suspicion that there’s a cultural illiteracy afoot in Gung Ho, if not a straight-up cultural disregard, and that might be just as bad. Director Ron Howard cast Michael Keaton as the actor rose to fame following Johnny Dangerously and Howard’s own Night Shift, and there’s little blame to place on Keaton here. He’s the lovable doofus that he usually is. Gung Ho sees Keaton’s everyman Hunt Stevenson fighting to save his little Rust Belt town after a Japanese automobile company takes over the local factory. An army of managerial types swoops in from Tokyo and sets about “correcting” the carefree business practices of the American worker. Culture clash certainly ensues — we’re just not sure it’s the kind of clash that Howard and Co. intended.

Here are the For and Against arguments on racism in Gung Ho, the supporting evidence for both sides of that multiethnic coin, followed by a definitive answer (really!) and, if you’re lucky, a funny video that has nothing to do with anything. Let’s go.

Gung Ho is Poorly-Conceived Racist Rubbish”

  • The Japanese characters are not in fact characters. Moving as a nameless and emotionless horde, no one from the Tokyo Office is developed or depicted with any real care. The only exception is:
  • Gedde Watanabe. He played the foreign exchange student in Sixteen Candles and apparently hasn’t taken issue with portraying a Japanese businessman in a similarly goofy light. He’s more developed, sure, but not in a very satisfying way. Watanabe’s character has some personality traits that Gung Ho suggests are uniquely “American” — such as, oh, individuality — and the film definitely emphasizes these at the end.
  • Japanese-run factories in America exist, which Gung Ho recognizes, but they’re not run the way the Hadleyville auto plant is run. The unrealistic portrayal of this wouldn’t be so offensive if it wasn’t the entire plot of the movie.
  • “Gung Ho” is the anglicized version of gōng hé, words that are translatable individually as “work” and “together”. It’s a sweet idea and all, but gung ho is from a Chinese phrase, not Japanese. Nice try. They must have known that, though, right? Right?

Gung Ho is Culturally Sensitive and Anti-Racist”

  • The American characters are drawn just as lazily as the Japanese characters, mostly inhabiting checklist-able stereotypes. They, too, seem to move in a horde. Why is everyone in this town always together? Why you roll so deep, Hadleyville?
  • Gedde Watanabe. Yep, he’s in the plus column for Gung Ho as well as the negative. Despite any faults in the writing of his character, Watanabe is one of the few redeeming factors for the film. He’s an underrated actor and his scenes with Keaton are entertaining as hell.
  • Keaton’s Hunt is really the only one in the film who lies or deceives anyone else, and so an argument could be made for a less flattering portrait of the Americans than of the Japanese. If you note that everyone is kind of ignorant at one point or another in Gung Ho, it’s hard to then turn around and claim the film is racist.
  • The underlying message, man. Unity prevails at the end, as unity is wont to do in mid-’80s smalltown Americana flicks. The cars that the workers made together are the ones that count, even if they hit some speedbumps along the way. How’s that for a metaphor?

So there are valid arguments for both sides. What’s the definitive answer? Did I promise you a definitive answer? I did? You shouldn’t believe everything you read, you know. I promised you a funny video, too, and that shit ain’t happening. But okay, fine: a definitive answer. Is Gung Ho racist, or not?

Verdict: It really, truly, genuinely doesn’t matter.

Seriously. That sound like a cop-out, but it’s not. Don’t get me wrong — racism itself matters, and should be called out as such when it arises. It’s partly a matter of perception, and it’s evident that there are enough elements of cultural illiteracy here to at least warrant the conversation. If you’re offended by anything in this film, then I feel for you. But I say it doesn’t matter because Gung Ho has other problems, story problems, and those are in fact more glaring than the treatment of the Japanese or the treatment of the Americans. Why is the tone of this thing all over the place? Why is the comedy grounded in one moment and cartoonish in the next? Why are we rooting for this guy Hunt at all, other than the fact that Keaton’s playing him in a lovable way?

Most importantly — or least, depending on your vantage — Gung Ho is colossally predictable. Really the only thing that sets this smalltown courage story apart from a jillion other smalltown courage stories is the culture clash angle, and in that the execution of Gung Ho is doubly disappointing for letting a good premise fall flat. Again, Keaton makes Hunt likable and Watanabe works wonders with simplified complaints about G.I. Joes and Jimmy Dean sausages and Hawaiian Punch and personalized license plates. Lead acting aside, Gung Ho represents a time when a young Ron Howard was still seeking to find his directorial voice.

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