by Kelly Kanayama 

Star Wars: Rogue One is a rare thing in mainstream media: a movie about revolution that actually tries to be revolutionary.

Taking place right before the original Star Wars movie, Rogue One centres on a band of scrappy misfits who unite to save the galaxy from the evil Empire by stealing the blueprints for the Death Star. On the surface it’s a basic story about fighting fascism (embodied by the Nazi Germany-inspired regime and aesthetic of the Empire) — an ideal that has once again become painfully relevant given recent sociopolitical developments here on Earth — with the standard ingredients of a Star Wars movie. These include an indomitable white woman with dark brown hair, lightsabres, inexplicable technology, sentient robots with a knack for saying the exact wrong thing at the exact right time, and names just this side of goofy to remind viewers that we’re in a galaxy far, far away: Baze Malbus, Saw Gerrera, Chirrut Îmwe, Bodhi Rook.

Yet Rogue One is also something new, because we are in it.

"Aren't you a little short for a stormtrooper?"
“Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?”

And by “we” I mean not only people of colour but Asians specifically, because despite Star Wars drawing heavily on Asian culture and media, people of Asian descent are almost absent from the franchise. One of the primary inspirations for the first Star Wars movies was The Hidden Fortress, Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 period drama set in 16th-century Japan. As the AV Club notes, Kurosawa’s film “involves a [rebel] princess whose kingdom has been destroyed, a dashing rogue who’s trying to protect her, and two bumbling idiots—one tall, one short.” Not far off from Princess Leia, Han Solo, C-3PO and R2-D2, right?

amidala-costumeOther major aspects of Star Wars are similarly derived from East Asian culture. The mystical philosophy/power/religion known as the Force comes from George Lucas’s flawed understanding of Buddhism and Taoism; Jedi robes are modelled on the clothes worn in Kurosawa’s Japanese period dramas, as well as Buddhist monastic robes; Queen Amidala’s elaborate looks in the prequels recall Imperial Chinese, royal Mongolian, and traditional Korean dress and makeup.

Genuinely what these characters looked like
Nute Gunray, leader of the Neimoidians

In all these homages to East Asia, however, actual East Asians are nowhere to be seen. The closest we get is a glimpse of half-Asian actor Jessica Henwick as a Rebel pilot with a few seconds of screen time in The Force Awakens, or the Neimoidians with their racist caricatures of Chinese accents in the prequels (fun fact: the actor who voices the lead Neimoidian is a white British guy Doing An Accent).

Thankfully, Rogue One takes a long-overdue step towards remedying this erasure by placing Asian heroes at the core of its struggle for liberation.

Perhaps the most hyped of these is Donnie Yen as Chirrut Îmwe, a blind, Zatoichi-esque warrior/preacher with considerable Force powers. Sounds like almost every East Asian stereotype rolled into one, but Chirrut’s thoughtful yet carefree attitude and un-monastic sass takes him beyond stereotype territory. His companion and foil Baze Malbus, played by Jiang Wen, is a former monk who has lost his faith and now carries a huge machine gun (or a heavy repeater cannon, if you want to get technical); Baze is pessimistic where Chirrut has hope, laden with the pragmatism of someone who’s seen too many good people die. Then there’s Riz Ahmed as Imperial defector and pilot Bodhi Rook — sweetly nervous to the point of being a bit hapless, but ultimately capable and willing to risk everything to fight against oppression. Good thing, too, since he becomes instrumental in alerting the Rebels to the existence of the Death Star in the first place.

Three Asian heroes, three distinct personalities, three amazing actors who make three amazing contributions to the Star Wars saga. The only shame is that we took so long to get here.

Granted, Rogue One still isn’t perfect with regard to racial representation. While it does feature Asian actors in major roles, its emotional core revolves around Jyn Erso, a white brunette woman; Asians may finally be able to do things in Star Wars, but having feelings is still reserved for white people.

Then there’s the extremism problem, or rather the problem of who gets to throw around the “extremism” label. The most prominent freedom fighters in Rogue One are Saw Gerrera, played by Forest Whitaker, and his followers, disparaged by the overwhelmingly white Rebel Alliance leadership as “extremists” whose actions are actually detrimental to the Rebellion as a whole. Gerrera and his followers maintain a base on the moon of Jedha, which is pronounced exactly like “Jeddah,” the city in Saudi Arabia. To drive the point home, Gerrera’s soldiers wear face and head coverings that resemble Orientalist 19th-century European paintings of Middle Eastern life. In short, the pretend Arab extremists from Jeddah (sorry, “Jedha”) led by a black man are doing revolution wrong…[1]

…except they’re not.

Confused white moderates
Confused white moderates

The organisation that disparages Gerrera’s faction as “extremists” is, largely, the same organisation that’s unwilling to fight when the existence of the Death Star is revealed. Rogue One‘s heroes of colour must take up Gerrera’s struggle, extreme as some might perceive it to be, in order to take any real steps toward saving the galaxy and advancing the cause of revolution. Isn’t there something wrong when a so-called revolutionary group backs down once it discovers a weapon built to enable oppression on a heretofore unseen scale? You’d think so. I’d think so, too. But according to a distressing number of real-life “liberal” voices, we shouldn’t fight; we should meet them halfway, go low when they go high, and employ other tactics that at best won’t work and at worst will allow innocent people to be killed. By portraying moderation as an enabler of fascism, Rogue One emphasises the ideological flaws in such false liberalism.

To sum up, Rogue One foregrounds Asian visibility in a) a story about how there are no half measures when it comes to standing up against oppression and b) a franchise which has previously failed to provide any sort of remuneration for its appropriation from Asian cultures. Although the movie is a very recent addition to the Star Wars canon, its position in the franchise’s narrative timeline means we have always been part of that galaxy far, far away. At a time when we cannot afford to ignore issues of race and the civil liberties of the marginalised, this matters a great deal.

It also matters, at least to me, that this all happens in Star Wars as opposed to another multibillion-dollar pop culture juggernaut.

In early 1997, my mother made me see Star Wars: The Special Edition with her in the cinema. Initially I didn’t even really want to go, but she kept insisting that it was so important and that you can’t imagine how amazing it was, so I went, and I fell in love, because Star Wars is awesome. I’d never experienced anything like it; besides Batman movies and the occasional comic when I could get it, geek media hadn’t made its way onto my radar yet. The Special Edition hurled geekiness — an aspect of identity that gave a name to, and thus suggested a purpose for, not fitting in — into my life like a fleet of X-Wings screaming through what once was an empty, dark void.

Star Wars quickly became “our thing” between my mother and me. We suffered through the prequels. We rewatched the originals during the last days of VHS. We read as many spin-off novels as we could, even the remarkably stupid ones where Lando Calrissian, General of the Galactic Republic and former Baron-Administrator of Cloud City, got far too excited about barely sentient blobs racing each other or Luke Skywalker, the galaxy’s most powerful Jedi Master, fell in love with a computer.

We who cared so much for these stories looked like this:

me-and-mom

The characters on screen and in our books, however, continued to look like this:

For years I thought there was no hope of ever seeing Asians in official Star Wars narratives, since we had no idea the sequels or Rogue One would make it to film someday. To make up for this invisibility I turned to fandom, which offered avenues to share, develop and personalise love of pop culture within a (mostly) supportive community. On forums, fanfiction webrings [2] and parody sites, I discovered ways to make the stories I loved my own.

Meanwhile, spurred on by the joy of Star Wars, I was delving into other geeky narratives to see what other worlds lay out there. That’s where comics found me, where eventually I learned to apply these passions and skills toward a PhD programme that so far has taken me places I never dared to dream of. If it weren’t for Star Wars, which propelled me into a life where stories could be claimed, shaped, critiqued, and pursued, maybe I’d still be searching for my passion.

That’s why seeing Yen, Wang and Ahmed laying out stormtroopers on the big screen is so important. Through their roles in Rogue One, it’s as though Star Wars has said to us: You were there all along. Let’s make up for that absence. The Rebellion needs you. And after almost two decades — double that, for my mother — of being excluded from a story we love, to finally see ourselves reflected in that story is its own revolution.

 

 

[1] For a closer look at this representation fail, see Zainab Akhtar’s thoughts on the Jedha scenes.

[2] Remember webrings?

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Kelly Kanayama is the Arts and Culture Editor at Media Diversified. Originally from Hawaii, she now lives in Scotland and carries out PhD research into contemporary transatlantic comics. She has written on comics and related media for SciFiNow, NPR: Code Switch, Bitch, Paste, and more. Her poetry on comics and pop culture has been published in the award-winning Lighthouse Literary Journal, Room Magazine, and Ink Sweat & Tears. Other writing can be found on the intersectional feminist geek culture site Women Write About Comics and on Mindless Ones. Find her on Twitter at @KellyKanayama.

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3 thoughts on “Star Wars: Rogue One places Asian heroes at the core of its revolution

  1. American action movies are always fascinating yet distant to me. Before the immersion of Rogue One, I enjoyed watching these movies, but at the same time subconsciously feeling a tinge of disappointment as it’s a world we asians can never be included. A feeling which says it’s too cool for us. Not only does this article made me realized that I had been feeling this way all along, it also proved to me that we asians had played a part in this fascinating universe, and I am so proud of that. Thank you Rogue One 🙂

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  2. Something more: Jyn inspires “her” team to fight until the end with a quote by Saw Gerrera. No apologies, that’s where she comes from, that’s part of what she brings into the fight.

    I put “her” in quotes because the military lead is still Captain Andor’s, a proud Latino in charge who doesn’t need to justify himself or to be “the best”. And that’s something else that you see in Bodhi Rook, Saw Gerrera, Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus: nobody needs to be “the best”, always right (or in agreement), invested with powers, or even have faith: you just fight.

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  3. I was thinking tonight about how Pat Morita’s two most notable roles, the Karate Kid and Arnold from Happy Days. In both he had an accent, yet he spoke perfect English off stage. Kind of sad when you think why this is so.

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