By Jana Monji, AsAmNews Arts & Entertainment Reporter
Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” isn’t the cat’s meow I was hoping it would be. My husband and I left barking mad. We are decidedly more on the side of dogs versus cats and this story is about a dog in the land of cats, but this is a land that seems to be very Japanese as seen through the wrong glass prescription.
Let’s start with the obvious. Japan has dogs. Japan has only one native cat breed. I don’t know why this film decided to use all non-native breeds of cats and dogs, much in the same way as Wes Anderson did in his Isle of Dogs. You might accuse me of being dogmatic, but I have to ask: Why set it in Japan? Oh, right. The writers, Ed Stone and Nate Hopper, who based this on Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, wanted to use ninja and samurai.
The story follows Hank (voiced by Michael Cera), a beagle–a breed that originated in 16th Century England– leaving the more modern (like 1957) island (it has electricity) with West Side Story-like gangs of cats and dogs for a chance to become a samurai on this island of cats that is stuck in Tokugawa era Japan. How he learned about samurai in the cartoon world’s equivalent of the NYC West Side will be revealed later. Dogs are not welcome in this island of cats and are supposed to be either driven out or put to death.
The evil Somali cat Ika Chu (voiced by Ricky Gervais) is preparing for a visit from the Shogun (Mel Brooks) who is a British shorthair cat. The leader of his army, Ohga (George Takei), is a large Manx cat and the target of much of Ika Chu’s anger. Ika Chu decides to destroy the small village of Kakamucho (Spanish for poop plus much). His army successfully drives the first samurai away, but then Ika Chu decides to appoint Hank as the samurai of Kakamucho instead of putting him to death.
Hank barely knows how to put on his sword, something quickly noted by the little Persian kitten Emiko (Kylie Kuioka). Emiko, one of Kakamucho’s kittens, wants to become a samurai; that’s not really how things worked in Japan. Hank finds a reluctant mentor, Jimbo (Samuel L. Jackson), a tuxedo cat. And Hank also finds a friend in the giant ginger cat, Sumo (Dijon Hounsou), who comes into Kakamucho to scare Hank away under Ika Chu’s orders.
What’s good about this film is: The animation characterizations of the non-Asian cats is fun. Besides West Side Story there’s also a reference to Godzilla.
This is supposed to be a Japan run by cats, but some of the cats were kimonos and there are others that wear qipao. The food display is Chinese and not Japanese.
We seem to be in pan-Asia. Is that supposed to be an anachronism or a tribute to the old films where this was often done? I don’t think so. The anachronisms and references to racism in the original Blazing Saddles, do not work here. The racial conversation put forward by Blazing Saddles worked in part because of the presence of a Black actor (Cleavon Little) in the lead role and a prominent Black comedian as a writer (Richard Pryor).
Paws of Fury is about cats and dogs, but it added the element of a foreign land because no one from Japan was involved in the writing or direction.
Paws of Fury has three directors: Chris Baily, Mark Koetsier and Rob Minkoff. Chris Bailey is White and directed Kim Possible. Mark Koetsier is White was an animator (story artist) on Big Hero 6. Rob Minkoff is Jewish and co-directed (with Roger Allers) the 1994 The Lion King. Lessons learned from The Lion King were not transferred into Paws of Fury in terms of cast. When Disney had a remake of The Lion King it made sure that the lead roles were given to Black actors even through the characters were animals. I have a full discussion on voice actors and race/ethnicity in the full review on my blog Age of the Geek.
The credits for Paws of Fury name the people who wrote Blazing Saddles as writers (Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor and Alan Uger) as well as Ed Stone and Nate Hopper. My information on these men is sketchy, but none of them seem to be of Asian descent and none seem to be Japanese American. Their previous work also doesn’t suggest that they have knowledge of Japan and its culture.
The title comes from the Hong Kong film Fist of Fury. The Bruce Lee vehicle was a martial arts film set in 1910, with Lee playing a student, Chen Zhen, who must defend the honor of the Chinese during a time of Japanese colonialism. Zhen must bring to justice the people who were responsible for his master’s death and there’s no happy ending.
Blazing Saddles is a 1974 film that took on racism in a way that erased the actual racism in the United States. Taking place in an unnamed state in the West in 1874, the film begins as the foreman of a new railroad that is under construction is making requests of his workers. While there are a couple of Chinese workers, the main group is Black because this is about the racism faced by Black people. Blazing Saddles works best if you aren’t aware of the history of the railroads built in the West. For a longer discussion on the erasure of Asian Americans in this film and a similar instance in a recent TV series, visit the links below.
- ‘Blazing Saddles’: What a Difference a few Decades Makes
- ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ and the Erasure of East Asians and Native American in the Wild West
The real question is was in the casting.
For Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank, they were barking up the wrong tree with casting. The main characters are Hank and Jimbo. Hank is voiced by Michael Cera who is part Italian (via his father), but not East Asian and not Japanese. Jimbo is voiced by Samuel L. Jackson who is African American and not East Asian. You might say: Who cares? This is animation. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. You can’t see color in cartoons, but if it is important to cast Black voices for sub-Saharan characters and for Black characters, then it should be important to cast Japanese voices for Japanese characters and East Asian voices for East Asian characters.
The film posters for Paws of Fury lists the names at the top in this order: Michael Cera, Ricky Gervais, George Takei, Gabriel Iglesias, Michelle Yeoh and Samuel L. Jackson. The protagonist is Hank; his teacher is Jimbo. The casting of the two main characters is very much supporting a diversity binary of Black and White. Then main antagonist, Ika Chu, is also White. His hench-cat is Ohga, which is the first person of East Asian descent, Japanese American George Takei. The character Chuck (played by Iglesias) is not even on the promotional poster. The two smaller cats at the front are Yeoh’s Yuki and Kuioka’s Emiko. Both female and both voiced by women of East Asian descent. While I love the casting of Mel Brooks, I would have loved it more if the leads and the main antagonist was someone of Japanese heritage. I don’t say Chinese because of the issues that surrounded the voice casting of Raya and the Last Dragon.
In the case of Paws of Fury, the Black actors are featured in other ways. In the official trailers, it’s not Cera out front. Look at how this official trailer for Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank uses Samuel L. Jackson to introduce it:
This trailer leads off with Jackson’s voice:
This trailer leads off with the character of Sumo also voiced by a Black person (Dijon Hounsou):
There are video featurettes focusing on a character voiced by a person of East Asian descent are: National Kitten Day: Rise of the Kitties and a character featurette for Emiko. Both focus on Kuioka. There is no featurette for Michelle Yeoh, Iglesias or Takei’s characters despite the billing on both of the posters I was given access to.
In some ways, Paws of Fury is a step backward from the animated feature Mulan which had an East Asian actress (Ming-Na Wen) voice Mulan, but her side kick voiced by Eddie Murphy.
Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank falters in its storyline, its humor is muted in comparison with the original because its kiddy (not kitty) focus which meant it lost the advantage of the adult humor of the original and then there’s the catastrophically questionable casting. Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank had its world premiere on 10 July 2022 in Los Angeles and released on 15 July 2022 by Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies.
For my full review, visit AgeOfTheGeek.org.
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