Weber: The Contemporary WestHome , Archives , Reading Room , Search , Editorial Info , Books , Subscribe ,  West Links

Winter 2009, Volume 25.2



Delia Caparoso KonzettPhoto of Delia Caparoso Konzett.

Yellowface and Racial Mimicry in World War II B Film

Delia Caparoso Konzett (Ph.D., U of Chicago) is Assistant Professor of English and Cinema/American/Women’s Studies at University of New Hampshire, Durham. She has published on modernist writers, race/ethnicity, and cinema. She is the author of Ethnic Modernisms: Anzia Yezierska, Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Rhys, and the Aesthetics of Dislocation (Palgrave MacMillan, 2002) and is presently at work on her new book project entitled Imagining a Multicultural America: Orientalism and Hollywood WWII Film. Her teaching interests include the history, theory, and aesthetics of cinema, modernism, ethnic writing, and the representation of race and gender in film and literature. Her favorite films include The Big Parade, Nosferatu, The Searchers, Seven Samurai, Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, Lost in Translation, and Bamboozled. Her favorite directors include John Ford, Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Maya Deren, F. W. Murnau, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, and Spike Jonze.


Ten days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, FDR appointed a coordinator of government films to establish a liaison with Hollywood and the government, citing in his executive order that "motion pictures could be one of the most effective tools in ‘informing’ the public."1 This act would lead to the creation of the Office of War Information (OWI) in June 1942, upholding a liberal New Deal perspective as it worked with Hollywood on the delicate mix of propaganda and entertainment (HGW 57-58). This perspective was defined in its manual, outlining to Hollywood what it expected in a war film. As Thomas Doherty argues, the government’s unprecedented enlistment of Hollywood "as an active agent in the Second World War" is a turning point in American film history, signaling a change in the national perception of film.2 Prior to the war, notes Doherty, "American movies were mainly considered an amusement or an investment." However, during the war films would be "recalibrated as a weapon of war" by the government, an acknowledgment of Hollywood’s considerable ability to educate and persuade a national audience as well as accurately articulate its culture, politics, and values (PW 5).

Through a variety of strategic maneuvers, including the significant threat to halt film distribution to foreign markets, the OWI influenced and pressured Hollywood studios into a form of acceptance of its manual. This tacit censorship centered on two major goals of the OWI: to harness the potential of Hollywood as a government mouthpiece and to curb the blatant racism depicted in the shallow and often grotesque representations of racial and ethnic others, especially in popular B film. The OWI reviewed scripts of every major studio (with the exception of a stubborn Paramount that nevertheless closely followed the manual) and consulted with powerful studio executives, pressuring them to change or discard objectionable material. Studios were often forced to reshoot scenes and the OWI itself often rewrote key speeches. By fall of 1942, note Koppes and Black, the OWI had firm control over the industry "whether through script review or application of the manual" (HGW 95).

This control, however, pertained mainly to big budget films that were globally distributed. Indeed the A-list World War II film followed for the most part the OWI manual, which represented a "comprehensive statement of OWI’s vision of America, the war, and the world" (HGW 65). Of particular importance to the left-leaning war office was the representation of democracy as an ideal of the average person, one that transcended race, class, religion, and gender. To this end, the manual called for a ban on Hollywood’s typical treatment of blacks, Asians, and women who should now be depicted as loyal and productive citizens or resident immigrants ready to support the national cause. World War II, proclaimed the OWI manual, was "a people’s war [that] everyone had a stake in, regardless of class, ethnic, or religious identification" (HGW 67). Accordingly, studios were encouraged to "show democracy at work" and national enemies should not be depicted as racial groups but as misguided people who wrongly advocate fascist values (HGW 67). Thus prominent or A-list war/combat films such as Bataan, 30 Seconds over Tokyo, and Back to Bataan depict imaginary democratic scenarios such as multiethnic combat teams. This democratic utopia, while standing at radical odds with a sexist, segregated, and pre-Civil Rights America, would not only establish significant genre conventions but would create a visual national myth to sustain an America at war both abroad and at home, a nation struggling to come to terms with its new role as the leader of the free world and its most powerful economic force. This essay will analyze the rhetoric of race in representative A- and B-list World War II films, focusing on the example of yellowface. Typically, Hollywood’s long-standing tradition of racial masquerade or mimicry as given especially in blackface and yellowface is most often associated with the social management and regulation of racial and ethnic others; however, as critics have argued, mimicry’s racist rhetoric is at bottom unstable and ambivalent, disrupting its own authority and calling into question the hierarchy of race and culture.

If the A-list war film articulated the visionary ideals of nation and democracy, the B film of this genre reflected the national underbelly à la film noir, particularly America’s continued problematic history of race. The term B picture originally referred to a Hollywood film made during the Studio Era that was designed to fill the "lower half" of a double-feature. A low-budget commercial product, B film is typically a genre film (i.e., Western, gangster, sci-fi, horror, or thriller) filled with lesser-known B actors. As the foil to the prestige A picture, B film is associated with inferior production, shocking plots, and lurid character portrayals. In the Depression Era, B film prevailed, making up approximately 75 percent of Hollywood’s overall production.3 While Westerns proved to be the most popular, horror, mystery, and thriller films also did well, including the well-liked Fu Manchu series. The latter, starring either Boris Karloff or Warner Oland as the fiendish Oriental genius Dr. Fu Manchu whose ambition is to take over the world, would help create the paradigmatic "Yellow Peril" Hollywood stereotype. With the start of World War II, studios rushed to use the war as a sensational backdrop especially in the various types of B film, depicting national enemies in grotesque and racist caricatures. B films such as Universal’s Menace of the Rising Sun (1942)4 and RKO’s Hitler’s Children (1942)5 exploited the war, viscerally portraying America’s foes, especially its Asian enemy Japan, in blatantly racist terms. Indeed, it is in the B film where the repressed unconscious of race returns to the surface, though not without its own censorship and distortion. The widespread practice of yellowface in B film, for example, stands out as a conspicuous feature in which the Asian other can be at once represented and contained. Indeed, the World War II B film accommodates the fear of and fascination with the Asian other without recourse to democratic models, revealing a brute stance of domination of what is perceived as a potentially rivaling and invasive civilization, "the Yellow Peril." However, through its crude and primitive rhetoric, the B film ironically exposes the system of racial management concealed or glossed over in the sophisticated A film.

Michael Rogin has provocatively argued that America’s national culture is founded on the spiritual miscegenation of two American icons: Uncle Sam and the black mammy.6 As the first popular form of American mass culture, blackface minstrelsy functioned to define norms of whiteness and nationhood. The Jazz Singer, argues Rogin, thus depicts the national melodrama of assimilation in which a Jewish immigrant blacks up to become a legitimate white American. The widespread practice of Hollywood yellowface also performs a racial and national drama. Unlike blackface, however, yellowface has been significantly shaped by its European inheritance, namely the extensive heritage of European Orientalism. Traditional European yellowface of the 19th and early 20th centuries as given in the high art forms of theater and opera typically depicted the Asian other for Europeans who had never been in the presence of Asians. In the U.S., yellowface, like blackface, is articulated via the popular art forms of vaudeville and low comedy, pursuing a different goal than that of a European aesthetic typification of exotic and fetishized Asians in faraway lands and colonies. Since Asian immigrants lived among Americans, their representation was not one of remoteness and mythical distance but speaks directly to the fears of the national collective. Fearsome images of miscegenation, rape, and labor market invasions were associated with Asians, especially Asian immigrants so as to forestall their naturalization into legitimate citizens. Exclusionary labor and citizenship laws further kept Asian Americans at the periphery of society similar to Jim Crow legislation that deprived African Americans of civil rights.7 The fear of the Yellow Peril was intensified with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which was seen as "a stab in the back" bearing the trademarks of Asian wiliness and sneakiness.

The routine of yellowface becomes more complicated in the World War II era and does not simply result in the expected Orientalist representations of a hostile and base Asian enemy. Rather racial mimicry takes on the more subtle tone of colonial management as described by Homi Bhabha: "If colonialism takes power in the name of history, it repeatedly exercises its authority through the figures of farce…. In this comic turn from the high ideals of colonial imagination to its low mimetic literary effects mimicry emerges as one of the most elusive and effective strategies of colonial power and knowledge."8 Accordingly, as an extension of American World War II Orientalism and its colonial imagination, the discourse of mimicry becomes ripe with farcical and ironic elements, revealing what Bhabha calls the double vision of mimicry, the area between mimicry and mockery, in which the dominant power simultaneously asserts and disrupts its own authority. In World War II A film, the farce, namely a tone of exaggerated and non-realistic high seriousness, presents itself in various images of democracy, particularly that of a multicultural combat team fighting side by side in spite of the reality of segregated armed forces and instituted racism in the form of Jim Crow laws.

Consider, for example, the famous roll call scene from Bataan (1943 MGM),9 an A-list movie that film historian Jeanine Basinger refers to as the first seminal combat film.10 A motley crew of 13 men is assembled in Bataan to fight the Japanese, representing not only the many branches of the armed forces but America’s various ethnicities, races, religions, regions, and classes. Ranging from an Irish American cook, a Latino American mechanic, a Jewish soldier, and a naïve Midwestern youth to an African American demolition expert, a Polish American engineer, two Filipino scouts/soldiers and a white criminal, Bataan presents us with a cross-section of America and its territories. A similar scene of America as melting pot is found in the opening scene of Guadalcanal Diary (1943 Twentieth Century Fox) in which the men (a Mexican American, a Jewish soldier, a tough guy from Brooklyn, a priest, etc.) are relaxing on ship before battle, talking, and singing.11 The Latino American soldier, Pvt. Jesus "Soose" Alvarez (Anthony Quinn), rests his dark head against the chest of a blonde fair soldier while reminiscing about his señoritas at home. A version of international multiculturalism is found in Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (1944 MGM) when a group of Chinese children aiding the American raid of Tokyo (the historical Doolittle mission) serenade the American soldiers with "The Star Spangled Banner" sung in Chinese.12 In scenes such as these, the farce is obscured, hidden under the films’ patriotic agenda of democracy in action. This agenda is stated clearly up front in the opening dedications of Bataan and Guadalcanal: Bataan dedicates the film "To those immortal dead, who heroically stayed the wave of barbaric conquest," and Guadalcanal Diary, based on the memoirs of a war correspondent, refers to itself as "A new chapter in the history of America: by the correspondent who landed on Guadalcanal with the first detachment of U.S. Marines." Both films, revealing the close relation between combat film and news reels, present their stories as realistic in spite of their imaginary scenarios of a multicultural combat team. Similarly, Thirty Seconds over Tokyo maintained realism by working and consulting with actual Doolittle raiders, including the Captain who is the hero of the story, and filming on location at the military base where the Doolittle raiders trained.

However, it is in the formulaic, low-budget B film that the discourse of the farce becomes significant not merely as hyperbolic and grotesque rhetoric but in its decisive treatment of the farce as farce. Unlike the A film’s utopian and progressive agenda set forth in the liberal guidelines of the OWI, the B film does not approach its subject matter with the ethical broadminded belief in liberty and mass enlightenment. Instead, the genre takes a primitive approach, playing on mass anxiety and exhibiting a scopic fascination with the Asian other. Consider, for example, two RKO B films Behind the Rising Sun (1943)13 and The First Yank into Tokyo (1945), which can be seen as paradigmatic of the B genre during wartime.14 Both films use the same lead B star, Tom Neal, who dresses up in yellowface to represent the Japanese enemy soldier. The first film, Behind the Rising Sun, is an ambitious work directed by the young rising star Edward Dmytryk, who would later become known for his A-list films (Crossfire, Back to Bataan, The Caine Mutiny, The Young Lions). Released in 1943, Dmytryk’s controversial film boldly addresses an issue at the top of the OWI list and, like the sensational B film that started Dmytryk’s career, Hitler’s Children, was meant to examine fascist culture. Dmytryk claimed Rising Sun would be the first to penetrate the isolated society of Imperial Japan, demonstrating how the Japanese military, and not the Japanese people, went astray. The OWI, which had high hopes for Dmytryk’s film, flatly refused to grant it an export license upon viewing the final cut, calling it racist propaganda. Rising Sun tells the story of Taro Seki, a young Japanese man educated at Cornell who transforms from a liberal, selfless, and international individual upon joining the Japanese Imperial Army into a ruthless and cold-blooded murderer of babies and women. The second film, First Yank into Tokyo, is a more traditional B picture, directed by Gordon Douglas, who also directed the Spanky and Our Gang comedy shorts with its minstrel stereotypes. In First Yank, the hero is a handsome all-American college football star who was partially raised in Japan and is now a captain in the U.S. Army. Able to speak Japanese fluently, he undergoes irreversible cosmetic facial surgery to infiltrate the Japanese Empire and rescue a U.S. atomic scientist held as a prisoner of war captured in Bataan along with the football star’s beloved fiancée, an Army nurse. With their aggressive and grotesque depiction of Asians and fantastic plots, both films celebrate unapologetically America’s enmity of Japan and depict the Japanese as a race of corrupt and irredeemable people.

In Behind the Rising Sun, offscreen but highly suggestive scenes of torture, rape, and murder add to the lurid and sensational treatment of Imperial Japan. Of interest here is the outlandish and memorable fight scene, a battle between two men representing the East and West, in which a gigantic 6 foot 5 Japanese Judo/Karate wrestler (played by Mike Mazurki in yellowface) competes against a slim and trim American boxer. The fantastic contest is a pure spectacle of strength and masculinity that cannot be taken seriously but presents itself transparently simply as a cathartic outlet. Similarly, the unadorned minstrelsy in First Yank into Tokyo reflects the deep unrepentant racism of America. The hero’s facial surgery is irreversible and he knows that his fiancée will never be able to love or marry him with his Asian face. As such it reveals the deep fear of contamination resulting from America’s World War II campaign in the East. The fact that its hero, Major Steve Ross, cannot return from Japan and instead must sacrifice himself exposes the fear that America has forever been changed by its contact with Japan. Steve has been contaminated not merely by the surgery but by his early stay in Japan and by his Japanese college roommate (who later becomes the ruthless Japanese military leader responsible for kidnapping the scientist and his fiancée). The film’s final image, an explosion of the A-bomb (actual news reel images of Japan’s bombing), can thus been seen as an attempt to annihilate this unwanted relationship as well as the outside world encroaching upon America.

As Benedict Anderson has argued, nationalism cannot be properly expressed in succinct analytical concepts.15 It is not an ideology but an irrational and powerful affective force of national imaginings that articulate community, culture, and values. Akin to family and religion, nationalism defines a people and also demands in times of crisis the ultimate sacrifice. As the visceral expression of a mass mentality, the World War II B film radically levels such ethical and lofty national ideals as set forth in A films such as Bataan, Guadalcanal Diary, and Thirty Seconds over Tokyo. With its emphasis on mass production, cheap entertainment, and surface-level expression, B film is the paradigmatic model of what Siegfried Kracauer calls the mass ornament with its aesthetics of distraction. Like the gaudy and ornate movie palaces of the early 20th century that stimulate the senses "with such rapidity that there is no room left… for even the slightest contemplation," B film bombards viewers with clichéd plots, bad acting, sensational content, and outlandish and blatantly racist impersonations of ethnic and enemy others.16 However, its one redeeming and most significant feature is that it radically challenges A film’s paternalizing claims of cultural intervention and its emancipatory visions. Kracauer writes: the mass ornament with its "emphasis on the external has the advantage of being sincere." In short, the mass ornament does not lie; it does not adumbrate a given historical situation but simply reflects it in unmediated and crude fashion. "It is not externality," argues Kracauer, "that poses a threat to truth. Truth is only threatened by the naïve affirmation of cultural values that have become unreal" (MO 326). In this context, B film exposes the real, if vulgar, underlying racial fears of American democracy. And if, as Kracauer claims, the mass ornament is an antidote to bourgeois fantasies, B film can be construed as the remedy to the A film’s self-congratulatory liberal fantasies of a raceless, classless society.

In the A-list war film, mimicry is associated particularly with racial or ethnic minorities who assimilate to or mimic the dominant culture, hoping to gain acceptance and the promised accompanying rewards (i.e. social mobility, financial gain, middle-class compensations such as respectability). Films such as Bataan heavily promote this perspective in their depiction of the multicultural combat team, working for the common good of a nation. However in the B film, the farcical mimicry of yellowface articulates the absolute inability of the Asian other to assimilate. Yellowface thus mocks not simply the Asian other but most significantly assimilationist and national rhetoric. It exposes the farce as farce in its abandonment of any serious national pretext, undermining official political and national agendas of benevolent intervention with its usual empty promises extended to minorities. Yellowface instead reveals the nation’s desire to remain stubbornly provincial and shamelessly shallow, exposing selfish doubts and suspicion toward government authority demanding sacrifice for the sake of the elusive ideals of democracy and global power. The point of this essay is not to revel in or enjoy the symptomatic racism of yellowface and mimicry but to argue that A- and B-list film need to be placed in critical dialogue with one another. In doing so, we can then begin to appreciate properly Bataan’s utopian image of a multicultural combat team as a yet to be fulfilled historical project, a visual and historical ideal of national narration.



1 Clayton Koppes and Gregory Black, Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies (New York: The Free Press, 1987) 56. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the essay as HGW.

2 Thomas Doherty, Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993) 5. Hereafter cited parenthetically in essay as PW.

3 Brian Taves, "The B Film: Hollywood’s Other Half," Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise, 1930-1939 (History of the American Cinema, No. 5), Tino Balio (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) 313. According to Taves, 50% of films produced in the 1930s by major Hollywood studios (Big 8) can be classified as B film. Combined with smaller studios (Poverty Row), the output of B film in the decade climbed to 75% or a little over 4,000 films.

4 Menace of the Rising Sun, Producers Thomas Mead and Joseph O’Brien, Universal Pictures, 1942.

5 Hitler’s Children, Dir. Edward Dmytryk, RKO, 1943.

6 Michael Rogin, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Imigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996) 3-18.

7 See Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996) 1-36.

8 Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994) 85.

9 Bataan, Dir. Tay Garnett, MGM, 1943.

10 Jeanine Basinger, The World War II Combat Film (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003) 56-57.

11 Guadalcanal Diary, Dir. Lewis Seiler, Twentieth Century Fox, 1943.

12 Thirty Seconds over Tokyo, Dir. Mervyn LeRoy, MGM, 1944.

13 Behind the Rising Sun, Dir. Edward Dmytryk, RKO, 1943.

14 First Yank into Tokyo, Dir. Gordon Douglas, RKO, 1945.

15 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1992) 5.

16 Siegfried Kracauer, The Mass Ornament (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995) 326. Hereafter cited in the essay as MO.


Back to Top