Image by seiho via FlickrMy first reaction to Masi Oka‘s character Hiro Nakamura on the TV show “Heroes,” was, a phrase coined by a dear friend of mine, “ontological embarrassment.” Moreover, although I have only watched three episodes of “Heroes,” as it was only just released on DVD in Japan, I think I can provide a fair analysis of the (as used by a professor at University of Waterloo) “Japanicity” of Hiro Nakamura.
The first point of embarrassment is the overuse of the tropistic Japanese man, the Japanese stereotypes that are brutally confirmed in the character of Hiro Nakamura (and his co-worker/friend, for that matter). On our introduction to these two characters, we see Nakamura’s friend looking at pornography while at work. This is the first point of shame as it portrays the contemporary Japanese worker as pervert and, perhaps preparing us for the image of “otaku.” We then hear the overzealous spoken Japanese of Nakamura and his unabashed otaku-like character (the childlike femininity of his voice is greatly emphasized through how he speaks Japanese). In juxtaposition to all of the other characters (who emanate control and sexual power), we have just been introduced to the “nerdy” Japanese duo. It seems obvious that “Heroes” were trying to lure in the American anime/manga loving collective, but in doing so and judging by the sheer “ontological embarrassment” on my Japanese friend’s face, have completely isolated the Japanese characters from having the same kind of “coolness” exuding from the others and have relegated the Japanicity of the Japanese to an inferior position.
Also, we again see the tropes of the Japanese male as the duo (Nakamura and his friend), too afraid to talk to women at the bar (enforcing the shyness of the Japanese man in social situations), and converse about comics and science fiction (“maniaku,” “otaku”). When Nakamura’s friend briefly leaves the table, Nakamura, fantasizing about the woman across the bar (or about entering the women’s bathroom) teleports himself into the women’s bathroom (again, Japanese man as pervert). Not only that, but upon getting thrown out of the bar, he is gleeful at having gained access to the bathroom (perversion). We are confused: is his glee from having teleported or from having teleported into his perversity?
We then see Nakamura on a train where there is a poster of New York City conveniently located in front of him. We see in this scene America (more aptly the trope of NYC as being equal to the USA in the eyes of the Japanese) as the fantasy of the Japanese man. He gazes at the poster amid the dreary Tokyo train wishing he could escape his drab life by teleporting to the ultimate symbol of power and freedom: New York City. Well, he does teleport there. Upon arriving, he can be seen as the bumbling perma-grin Japanese tourist shouting out basic textbook English expressions and saying “hello” to random strangers. Moreover, in contrast to every other character, it is only the Japanese character who cannot speak good English. He appears completely silly and, again, is obviously catering to a much overused stereotype of the Japanese man as nerd. When he finds the comic book painted by the character, Isaac of which he is the main character, we are again back in “otaku” territory. We see the Japanese man as infantile in his love of comic books. Instead of him finding a comic book, why not him teleporting to a museum and gazing upon a fine piece of art?) This is even pushed further as he steals the comic book and flees like a rebellious teenager.
It was interesting to watch “Heroes,” which it should be noted I actually quite enjoy thus far despite this criticism, with a Japanese friend. Every time Hiro Nakamura appeared on screen, she cringed. Listening to his Japanese was painful to her and at times it was hard for her to even look at this heavily stereotyped depiction of a Japanese person (Nakamura, through the frame of this show) without a heavy dose of ontological embarrassment. “They are making him out to be some kind of goofy comic book character,” was her reaction.
I am not sure how they will work to change his character as he is developed in the coming episodes, but I think it should be noted that the initial set-up of his character through the first three episodes heavily layers him in stereotypes and, I think, relegates the Japanicity of his character to a kind of cartoonized flat image devoid of authenticity. So, I have a suggestion for the creators of “Heroes.” I think Nakamura’s character should be quickly alleviated, written-out, teleported to a different planet. Then, I think a new Japanese character should be introduced and my proposal is the prolific Tadanobu Asano (actor, musician, model). It seems that Asano would fit much better in the general “Heroes” aesthetic of dark dramatics and give the Americanized version of the Japanese image a much needed make over. Moreover, I see it necessary to completely disconnect Asano from the tropes of Nakamura and actually give him the same depth and cool stylization as other characters seem to receive. Restore the angle of the Japanese character with the same level of intensity given to the others and at least present him as a character who can speak English. By the way, here is a picture of my suggestion for a new Hiro Nakamura, Tadanobu Asano:
If the DVD sales of “Heroes” declines in Japan, it is not because “Heroes” is a bad show, but it is because of the embarrassing portrayal of the contemporary Japanese man.