Analysis: A Close Reading of ‘Licorice Pizza’s’ Japanese Wife Scenes

Paul Thomas Anderson's 1970s-set awards contender has been accused of racist content.

Licorice Pizza, the 1970s San Fernando Valley-set coming-of-age comedy from Paul Thomas Anderson, one of today’s most respected and versatile auteurs, is already a fixture in this season’s awards race, including landing eight Critics Choice nominations, accolades from critics groups and a best film win from the National Board of Review. That makes the movie a prime target for rival campaigns looking to seize on two of its perceived points of scandal: the 10-year age gap between central “couple” Alana (Alana Haim) and Gary (Cooper Hoffman), and the inclusion of a white character who repeatedly breaks into an exaggerated caricature of a Japanese accent.

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The age gap discourse is inevitably baked into the film’s central premise, but the latter controversy feels like an unforced error. Two scenes, which make up a sliver of Licorice Pizza‘s 133-minute runtime, have marred many of its otherwise rave reviews (the film has a 92 percent freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes) and resulted in the watchdog group Media Action Network for Asian Americans decrying any awards recognition for the movie. The scenes do not appear to be integral to advancing the plot, as MANAA noted, and serve mostly as “color” to flesh out the film’s hyperspecific, historically inspired setting — as well as to play into the well-worn trope of deploying casual anti-Asian racism in the name of art.

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The scenes in question both involve side character Jerry Frick, the real-life owner of Mikado, the first Japanese restaurant in the San Fernando Valley. Played by John Michael Higgins, Jerry is first introduced with his wife Mioko (Yumi Mizui) in the offices of Gary’s mother Anita (Mary Elizabeth Ellis), a publicist working on promotional copy for the restaurant. After Anita reads the copy, Jerry turns to Mioko and asks for her opinion in a jarring, unnatural accent. Mioko responds sternly in Japanese, which is not subtitled.

Later, Jerry appears again when Alana and Gary go to Mikado to ask about placing ads for their waterbed business on the restaurant’s tables. Gary greets the woman standing next to Jerry as Mioko, but Jerry responds, “No, no, no, Mioko’s gone. This is my new wife, Kimiko.” As before, Jerry uses the same accent to ask his wife for her opinion about the business proposition, and Kimiko (Megumi Anjo) responds in un-subtitled Japanese. But this time, Alana asks for a translation, to which Jerry shrugs: “It’s hard to tell, I don’t speak Japanese.”

As tedious and undermining as it is to attempt to explain comedy, it’s clear that Jerry’s final line of dialogue is intended to be the punchline, the payoff for the vignette sketched by the two scenes. It’s slightly less clear who is intended to be the butt of the joke, but there’s no doubt that Jerry remains the most buffoonish presence in the room, so he is certainly a candidate. Jerry’s wives are presented as disapproving straight men, and it’s ambiguous whether they are in on the joke.

Yet regardless of whether the audience is laughing with or at Jerry (or, as some viewers have reported, sitting in stunned discomfort), Jerry’s accent is identical to the syntax and tone used to mock and demean Japanese, Chinese and other Asian people across the U.S. for the past two centuries. The accent is undeniably grotesque, and its mere presence in a film that takes a rose-colored view of the old days is triggering for some viewers.

Some Licorice Pizza defenders have interpreted the scenes’ inclusion as “tell it like it was” social critique, and Anderson told The New York Times that his intention was “to be honest to that time,” adding that he has witnessed people speak English to his own Japanese mother-in-law in such a way.

Regardless of whether one finds the Mikado scenes offensive, they serve as the latest evidence that the portrayal of anti-Asian expression remains a go-to creative device for American auteurs. Two awards seasons ago, it was Quentin Tarantino’s usage of Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) as a foolish foil for his fictional hero Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Tarantino has since continued to double down on his characterization of the real-life Asian American icon, insisting simultaneously that he was deploying narrative license and that Lee was an egomaniac. Also in 2019, Guy Ritchie’s gangster comedy The Gentlemen lobbed racist barbs at its Asian antagonists (repeatedly referred to as “Chinamen”), the old-fashioned yellow peril excused as part of Ritchie’s signature shock dialogue and true to the movie’s criminal lowlife characters.

These three films have all incorporated Asian signifiers to serve different means, but what they have in common is a disinterest in exploring the interiority of those characters themselves as well as a blindness to the real-world context of the audience receiving their stories.

Not much has been written about Frick’s real-life wives. His first, Yoko, sued him for divorce in 1968, a year after he began dating his future second wife, Hiroko, who also was married at the time. Jerry and Hiroko were wed in 1971 and separated a decade later, after which they spent the next several years tied up in court disputes over division of property and spousal support.

A much richer vein of material exists in the public domain about Anderson’s Japanese mother-in-law, whom he referenced when talking about the scenes with the Times. Kimiko Kasai is a retired jazz singer who began performing in Tokyo clubs at age 16. Signed to Sony Music Japan in 1972, she moved to the United States in 1978 and has recorded with such jazz legends as Herbie Hancock, Gil Evans and Paulinho Da Costa. After 30 years, she stopped performing for the simple reason of needing a life change. “In Japan there is a phrase, owari no bigaku, which means ‘beautiful end,'” she said in a 2018 interview. “Quietly, I put a ‘full stop’ to all my musical activities.”

The fascinating lives of the two Mrs. Fricks and Kasai — excerpted for a gag in Licorice Pizza — merit narratives of their own, whether they’re told by Anderson, who as a filmmaker has the prerogative to tell whatever stories resonate with him. Ultimately, an industry — which includes studio gatekeepers, financiers and the elite critical class — interested in putting its avowed principles of inclusion into practice ought to consider whether it has elevated all possible voices to the level of auteurship, with all the resources and creative freedom such a designation entails.