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‘Licorice Pizza’ director’s justification of anti-Asian scenes misses mark, critics say

Critics say director Paul Thomas Anderson's supposed well-meaning intentions are insufficient when it comes to representing marginalized communities in a responsible way.
Image: Licorice Pizza
Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman in "Licorice Pizza."Paul Thomas Anderson / MGM

Alongside buzz during this year’s awards season, director Paul Thomas Anderson’s film “Licorice Pizza” continues to draw accusations of anti-Asian racism. And critics and advocates say his explanations for the controversial scenes in questions have missed the mark. 

Anderson, whose film is up for best picture, best original screenplay and best director Oscars, has remained relatively silent on the subject, having briefly spoke to Indiewire earlier this year about the uproar. Asian Americans have taken issue with the scenes in which white Japanese restaurant owner Jerry Frick, played by John Michael Higgins, launches into a slow, mock Asian accent, while speaking to his love interests, two separate Japanese women. The director, who claimed the joke was on Frick, the “idiot saying stupid sh–t,” said he was “lost” in understanding the backlash. 

“I’m certainly capable of missing the mark,” Anderson told the outlet. “But on the other hand, I guess I’m not sure how to separate what my intentions were from how they landed.” 

Anderson did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment.

But viewers and commentators are speaking out, saying that well-meaning intent is insufficient when it comes to representing marginalized communities in a responsible way. Works like “Licorice Pizza,” they say, cannot be examined independently from a history of racist depictions of Asian Americans, and the impact these images have had on the community across decades. 

As the film continues to spark debate before Sunday's awards ceremony, experts say it’s time for Anderson to start listening. 

“Great art has never been apolitical. Art has always actually existed in a political realm,” said Jennifer Ho, a professor of Asian American studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. 

She added: “Those images exist within a milieu of anti-Asian racism.”

Historians and critics say that even if Anderson’s words are taken at face value, the scenes still align with a larger Hollywood tradition of exoticizing, fetishizing and reducing Asian women to objects — a narrative spun through the lens of a white male experience, that the film never challenged. In the movie, Frick, who said he lived in Japan for 15 years, switches to heavily accented English when communicating with his wife, Mioko, played by Yumi Mizui, who only speaks Japanese. In another scene, main character Gary Valentine, portrayed by Cooper Hoffman, mistakes Frick’s “new” Japanese wife, Kimiko, for Mioko. And when Kimiko, played by Megumi Anjo, speaks in Japanese, Frick admits to having no grasp of the language. 

Director Paul Thomas Anderson, right, with camera operator Colin Anderson on the set of "Licorice Pizza."
Director Paul Thomas Anderson, right, with camera operator Colin Anderson on the set of "Licorice Pizza."Melinda Sue Gordon / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Though Anderson has previously claimed that the scenes are based on real-life behavior he’s witnessed before, experts say it’s perhaps most significant that neither of the women are given English subtitles when responding to Frick’s offensive dialogue. The creative decision essentially rendered the only Asians in the film as “voiceless,” interchangeable “props” to a primarily English-speaking audience, Miya Sommers, a member of the Nikkei Resisters, a Bay Area-based coalition of Japanese American activists, said. They have little agency, and are given no elements that humanize their points of view.  

“Racism is not only just about interpersonal experiences, but how it reflects power imbalances or access to power,” Sommers said. 

Hollywood has long been criticized for depictions of Asian women as a hypersexualized lotus blossom archetype. Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociologist focused on Asian American media representation, previously explained that these images grew alongside U.S. imperialism and occupation of Asia and the Pacific. Asian women were seen as “the spoils of war and Asian men were seen as threats,” heightened in part by American military men taking part in sex trafficking overseas. Sommers said the images are particularly problematic when examined against Japan’s own painful history with American imperialism.

Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence, a feminist group, collected numerous accounts of widespread rape that occurred during the U.S. occupation of Okinawa following World War II. 

“These victims had nowhere to report the crime even if they had wished to do so, the Japanese police system of Okinawa having completely collapsed during the battle,” author Yuki Tanaka wrote.

Ho said that Anderson could have easily written the scenes in a way that would cast Frick, and his problematic behavior, as the punchline. Rather than silencing them and removing the subtitles from their speech, Ho said, the Japanese characters could be in on the joke, and given lines that would expose Frick’s ignorance to the audience while showing the women’s own self-awareness. 

And if Anderson truly intends to make a statement on the casual racism displayed at Asian Americans at the time, Sommers said, then he needs to be open “to apologize and take accountability,” rather than resigning himself to confusion over the controversy. Ho added that a good first step for the director to take, would be to “understand that his images, and those scenes are part of a larger discourse” that has connections to white supremacy. 

And with the movie generating buzz across awards season, Anderson could still use his platform in productive ways by centering and uplifting people from minority communities, Sommers said. 

“I really think he could have made a commitment to being like, ‘I’ve totally messed up. And I actually want to now support the advancement of telling the stories,” Sommers said. “I think that would have been one response, that would be a lot better and actually show a willingness to learn and create alternatives to his really terrible narrative that he created.”