The latest of Karen Tei Yamashita’s works, Anime Wong, is a truly avant garde collection of performances that explores the variations and politics of Asian American identity, focusing primarily on Japanese American culture. With each drop of the curtain, Yamashita shatters social constructs of race, gender, and culture and reassembles them into spectacles that dazzle, confound, and ultimately shed new light upon Asian America.
What ties this collection of performances together—besides their common themes and occasional intertextuality—is Yamashita’s use of postmodern theatrical techniques. In addition to drawing on standard postmodern conventions, including audience participation and other ruptures of the proverbial fourth wall, Yamashita creates an avant garde style that is uniquely hers through visual effects and stylistic hybridization. Certain objects recur as key symbols throughout Yamashita’s work and her use of theatrical props make her metaphors all the more dynamic. The stage presence of TV’s, giant foam sushi, and rubber phalluses bring the symbolism she has imparted to these objects to the foreground of the audience’s attention. It’s hard to ignore the eroticism and ethnic fetishization Yamashita assigns to sushi, for example, while watching a love scene between two people garbed in foam sushi costumes.
In the background, but no less significant, are multimedia compilations that begin—and very often run through—her performances. Photo collages and video montages show fragments of history, television, pop culture, news, and advertising in dizzyingly allusive combinations. Not only does Yamashita’s use of multimedia add more postmodern texture to her performances, but they also highlight her media-dominated worldview and vision of a complex intersectionality between what we, as a society, create, witness, experience, and consume. Adding to her consciously crafted multiplicity is her hybridized style. Yamashita adeptly blends east and west, past and present, incorporating traditional Japanese theatre, American musical, popular American science fiction, and Japanese manga to create Asian American theatre that, much like many Asian Americans, is both Asian and American and neither.
Though every work in this collection stands out, subverting our expectations in its own way, the performance that most immediately caught my interest was Gilarex (Or Godzilla Comes to Little Tokyo): A Musical, an irreverent musical that juggles backstory, biting political satire, and racial identity with songs ranging from the sociopolitical and collective—“The Reality on TV,” “The Dollar versus the Yen,” and “Homogenous Collective Culture”—to the intimately personal—“Harbor Freeway Loving” and “The Monster in Me.” Of particular interest was Yamashita’s choice to revisit younger versions of Emi and Manzanar, characters I first encountered in her novel Tropic of Orange. Here Emi is, perhaps predictably, a rebellious fifteen year old who has run away from home and who, not so predictably, is taught a lesson about managing life and its monsters from Manzanar and his zen of freeway conducting. The main monster in question here is the Gilarex. Half Gila monster and half Tyrannosaurus Rex, the Gilarex is dubbed by Emi’s archeologist father Gary Yamane as “a sort of Asian American dinosaur,” making it a wry metaphor for an identity that has grown monstrous in its ambiguity. Yamashita plays with the language of archeology to discuss the fossils of a sociocultural past. The citizens of LA are forced to grapple with all that the Gilarex represents as it tears through the comfortable bedrock of the present in the form of a fossil reanimated by radioactivity.
Other works from this collection worth highlighting are LA Carmen vs. Tokyo Carmen and Hannah Kusoh: An American Butoh. LA Carmen vs. Tokyo Carmen consists of two reinterpretations of Bizet’s original opera, featuring a Japanese couple that has relocated to LA and a Caucasian American couple that has relocated to Tokyo. With few differences aside from setting and ethnicity, the two ill-fated couple’s stories are laid parallel to one another. Their lines alternate and sometimes converge altogether. The Yakuza and television play a decisive role in both. The intersections between their personal dramas—and their two nations of origin—are visually underscored by slides juxtaposing images of Japan and the United States and two televisions playing American and Japanese TV in the background.
Presenting another unique experiment in style is Hannah Kusoh: An American Butoh, a piece that explores Asian American identity through six senses, the usual five plus the illusive “sense of intuition.” The physical aspect of theatre takes on a particularly central role as disembodied noses, eyes, and ears storm the stage, candied almonds are distributed to the audience, and the scents of hibachi, teriyaki, and marijuana waft out from the stage. In this work, Yamashita utilizes both the literal and metaphorical implications of the senses. In the act dedicated to sight, for example, she remixes technical excerpts on “Westernizing” cosmetic eye surgery and literary quotes on the soulfulness of eyes with politicized questions of sight such as, “Is life more enjoyable with Caucasian eyes? Is visibility greater?”
Finally, there is the titular piece and the most enigmatic of all (an impressive feat in a collection that includes a dance performance concept comprising slides on lizard evolution and E. Coli): Anime Wong. This performance consists of 6 acts or mangas with a commercial interlude for the I-Toto, an intelligent toilet that “feeds” on dualities and cash, and takes place in Cyber Asia/Cyber Asian America. Featured are Asian cyborgs or CyberAsians and the heroine Anime Wong whose nature, whether human or cyborg, is as unclear as her motivations. The only thing we really know about Anime Wong are her fantastical origins: she leaps out of the belly of the Goddess of Democracy—whose face switches from that of Maya Angelou’s to that of Hillary Clinton’s to an Asian face hybridized from the features of various people—“looking like some kind of androgynous Asian Barbie.” From this mystifying birth, she goes on a series of equally puzzling adventures, sometimes as active participant, other times as witness. Among other bizarre sights, she encounters cyborg sirens and “muhood,” a conception of strategically constructed masculinity based on Disney’s Mulan.
In a particularly incisive act/manga, Anime Wong verbally spars with a cyborg who insists on his authenticity, exclaiming “I’m the real thing! Completely synthetic! I’m Cyber Asian down to my last emotion chip.” This act ingeniously uses cyborgs as a wry commentary on model minorities, stereotypes as prototypes, and cultural “programming.” When the cyborg explains that “only a minority of us were modeled in this particular hue,” Anime Wong sardonically retorts, “A model minority. How quaint.” Clashes continue as Anime Wong culminates in two final battles, one between Anime Wong and her copy, and the other between two Iron “Chefs” of culture, both deciding who is to be the sole representative and propagator of Asian American culture. The first ends in an explosion—or implosion—and the second is left open-ended. In both cases, we are led to question the choice to pit different elements of a variegated culture against one another with the aim of making it easier to grasp. Reductionism is a battle, Yamashita suggests, that can only end in implosion and annihilation. The answer to understanding Asian American culture perhaps lies then in adopting an inclusive view as voraciously all-encompassing as Yamashita’s theatrical style.
Karen Tei Yamashita is the author of Through the Arc of the Rain Forest, Brazil-Maru, Tropic of Orange, Circle K Cycles, and I Hotel, all published by Coffee House Press. I Hotel was selected as a finalist for the National Book Award and awarded the California Book Award, the American Book Award, the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association Award, and the Association for Asian American Studies Book Award. She has been a US Artists Ford Foundation Fellow and is currently Professor of Literature and Creative Writing and the co-holder of the University of California Presidential Chair for Feminist & Critical Race & Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Yamashita is the recipient of an American Book Award and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Award. A California native who has also lived in Brazil and Japan, she teaches at the University of California-Santa Cruz, where she received the Chancellor’s Award for Diversity in 2009. (Bio from Coffee House Press).