Chureito Pagoda at Fuji Mountain

Japanese Cinema and Asian Representation Shine at the Oscars


In a watershed moment for Japanese cinema at Hollywood’s biggest night, Studio Ghibli’s The Boy and the Heron and Toho Studios’ Godzilla Minus One each won an Oscar. These films represent the latest in a long history of growing recognition and celebration of Asian actors, films, and narratives in Hollywood.

The Oscars – one of the biggest nights of the year for film – has traditionally been a platform where mostly American-made major blockbusters and feature-length pictures earn recognition for their contributions to the film industry. This year’s Academy Awards seemed no different, with films like Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer and Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things each garnering dozens of nominations and taking home multiple awards. However, among the most award-winning films of the night were two Japanese films that have built upon a wave of Asian successes on the silver screen: Studio Ghibli’s The Boy and the Heron won the Academy Award for Best Animated Picture, while Toho Studios’ Godzilla Minus One won Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. These wins showcase a monumental shift in representation and recognition of Asians and Asian Americans in Hollywood as well as the differing perspectives and depictions that these stories bring to international audiences.

Asian Representation in Hollywood

Asian representation in the American film industry, much less at awards ceremonies, has been lacking historically. The first Asian to be nominated for any category at the Oscars was Merle Oberon, who was nominated for Best Actress in 1936 for her performance in the coming-of-age film The Dark Angel. The Indian-born actress, who was of mixed race, did not promote her Asian heritage and often portrayed white women in films.

Asian actresses were purportedly appropriately represented for the first time in the film adaptation of Paul S. Buck’s The Good Earth (1937), but only for minor roles: the female lead, a Chinese servant named O-Lan, was portrayed by Luise Rainer, a German-British-American actress. Anna May Wong, the most prominent Chinese American actress of her era, was mostly offered supporting character roles that were often sexualized and villainized. Originally cast as the lead in The Good Earth, Wong was later replaced by Rainer. Buck had wanted an all-Chinese cast, but the film’s producers thought that such a decision wouldn’t appeal to American audiences. Decisions like these highlighted the intolerance of Asian representation in Hollywood and often led to overdramatized, often stereotyped, and flat-out racist depictions of Asians – it was these decisions that, in turn, influenced American audiences and limited the kinds of stories that were told.

However, in recent years, Oscars award-winning films like Everything Everywhere All At Once, Minari, and Parasite have illuminated the diverse breadth of Asian and Asian American experiences that are resonating with audiences around the world, promoting cultural diversity. Over eight decades after Oberon’s nomination, Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh has said that she wants to be seen as a role model for Asian women everywhere. During her acceptance speech for Best Actress at the 95th Academy Awards on March 12th, 2023, she said, “For all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight, this is a beacon of hope and possibilities. This is proof that ... dream big, and dreams do come true. And ladies, don’t let anybody tell you [that] you are ever past your prime. Never give up.” Films like these, while objectively well produced, discuss topics that are often absent from American cinema.

The Boy and the Heron

Studio Ghibli’s latest release had been in development for years, with storyboarding beginning in 2016. Hayao Miyazaki, the visionary director behind some of Studio Ghibli’s animated showpieces like Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Princess Mononoke, has on multiple occasions announced his retirement, only to later become inspired once again and start a new project, pulling him back out of retirement. The film follows the story of a young man, Mahito Maki, who is guided by an anthropomorphized heron into another world as he tries to locate his missing stepmom. The film is both a sobering character drama about a boy coping with the loss of his mother as well as a fantastical odyssey about the fate of the world and our place within it.

The film features two primary sets of voice actors: one tailored for the Japanese viewership and another for the American audience. The American cast features Asian-English actress Gemma Chan and Asian-American actress Karen Fukuhara, both of which have gained greater recognition in Hollywood film productions in recent years. Studio Ghibli’s casting voice actors of Asian descent shows fostering diversity and celebrating talent from various ethnicities within the entertainment industry and is something that should be applauded.

The Boy and the Heron is largely self-reflective, paralleling elements and memories of Miyazaki’s life as an artist. The death of Mahito’s mother in the hospital mirrors Miyazaki’s loss of his own mother, who was often cited as an inspiration for strong female characters in his many films. Miyazaki experienced the horrors of war as a three-year-old, and his family was forced in the wake of the United States’ Tokyo bombings during the latter years of World War II. Mahito’s decision to return to his world symbolizes both Miyazaki’s coming to terms with a world characterized by strife and loss and, further, the capacity of Japanese people to overcome the atrocities of war.

Godzilla Minus One

Godzilla Minus One has likewise significantly heightened the profile of the already popular Godzilla franchise. It secured the prestigious Best Visual Effects award, a remarkable achievement considering its modest budget of $15 million, standing in stark contrast to recent American-made Godzilla films, the budgets of which have averaged $150 million over the past decade. Despite this discrepancy, Godzilla Minus One’s box office earnings of USD $112.8 million underscore its remarkable international success, yielding a tenfold return on investment. The film's production journey, which began in 2019, faced hurdles due to the COVID-19 pandemic and contractual disputes with Legendary Pictures, who were concurrently producing their own Godzilla projects. Nevertheless, Godzilla Minus One’s global acclaim elicited both admiration and envy for its superb cinematic craftsmanship and meticulously crafted narrative.

Set in post-World War II Japan, the movie tracks the journey of kamikaze pilot Kōichi Shikishima as he confronts Godzilla and seeks redemption. Throughout the film, themes of guilt, redemption, and the consequences of war are explored, with Godzilla symbolizing the destructive power of nuclear weapons. The period depicted reflects Japan's profound turmoil, devastation, and collective trauma, providing a rich historical context for Godzilla's emergence as a symbol of fear and destruction.

Godzilla Minus One presents an all-Japanese cast, in stark contrast to American iterations featuring almost exclusively American actors. Interestingly, there appears minimal crossover in terms of Asian-American representation in cinematic productions of both countries. Unlike The Boy and the Heron, which requires audio dubbing for the American market, Godzilla movies are typically live-action and thus limit opportunities for Asian-American actors, especially in Japanese domestic production. Moreover, with the film set in the Shōwa era (1926-1989), director Takashi Yamazaki’s casting drew inspiration from previous Godzilla films with a preference for actors experienced in period roles. Future American-made Godzilla movies, which are often contemporarily based, might do well to emphasize greater Asian-American representation overall.

Cinematic Importance

Despite differences in casting and plot, The Boy and the Heron and Godzilla Minus One, share a thematic core centered on the profound impact of loss and strife, especially in the face of war. Set in the 1940s, both films depict a war-afflicted Japan. Whether through personal loss or the grief of the entire nation, both films humanize the collective memory of societal suffering brought about by World War II—a dimension that many viewers felt was lacking from Oppenheimer, which capped off the Oscars with more awards than any other film.

Asian films like The Boy and the Heron and Godzilla Minus One deserve recognition on the global stage; they serve as a testament to the fact that hefty budgets are not prerequisites for creating visually stunning and profoundly beautiful cinematic experiences. As they continue to break barriers and challenge conventions, these films pave the way for greater diversity and representation in the film industry, inspiring future generations of filmmakers to pursue their creative visions.

Rocco Cartusciello is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington, DC. He is a graduate student at Georgetown University Walsh School of Foreign Service, enrolled in the Master of Arts in Asian Studies program.

Vincent Zhang is a Spring 2024 Young Professional at the East-West Center in Washington. He is a senior at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, pursuing a B.S.F.S. in International Politics with a concentration in Foreign Policy.