Race, Nationality And More Than Promoting Dante's Inferno In Japan

Look how EA is promoting its game Dante's Inferno in Japan, a tipster wrote. If only it was that simple.

The gentleman in the Dante outfit is named... Dante. Dante Carver, actually. EA Japan roping in Dante Carver, a well known TV "talent", to appear at this promotional event for Dante's Inferno is quite clever.

In Japan, television commercials are a big deal. You can tell how popular a celebrity is by the number and types of commercials they appear in. So take fashion model Yuri Ebihara. A few years back she was in ads constantly. Now, she seems to have vanished. So where it be popstar Takuya Kimura or actress Yukie Nakama, celebrities stay in the public eye by selling products. There is even a magazine in Japan devoted to covering commercials.

While Carver appeared at this Dante's Inferno event and even in a Konami stage show at last year's Tokyo Game Show, this kind of work is small potatoes for him. His big break came in 2006 when he began appearing in a series of ads for mobile phone carrier SoftBank. The series of ads to promote SoftBank's "White Plan" discount. As game translator and author Matt Alt points out, "white" is a word all Japanese know and it has pure connotations.

The ads have been running for years and centre around "The White Family". There's the mother (played by elegant actress wife of Earthbound creator Shigesato Itoi, Kanako Higuchi), the daughter (played by extremely popular actress Aya Ueto), the older brother (played by the previously mentioned Carver) and the father (played by a white dog). Carver is the yosougai (unforeseen) element in the ad.

In Japan, the ads have been a hit. And recently, American film director Quentin Tarantino appeared as the kooky uncle. Tarantino's appearance got me think — subconsciously, maybe, about one of the most controversial films about American racism during the 1980s. A film that was viewed as being so risky, that it was shelved by the studio Paramount Pictures. That film was White Dog.

White Dog, released in 1982 in France where Fuller was adored by critics and filmmakers, told the story of a white dog that had been trained by its master to attack black people. Scored by Ennio Morricone and co-written by Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential), White Dog was director Samuel Fuller's look at how racism is breed. But before the film was even released, the buzz was that White Dog was racist. Paramount blinked and then refused to release the picture in the U.S.

The irony being of course that White Dog is not a racist film. Samuel Fuller was one of Hollywood's most progressive director's, unafraid of tackling everything from war to prostitution to, yes, racism in the US. Before coming to Hollywood, Fuller had worked as a crime reporter, a political cartoonist and even landed at D-Day as part of the U.S. infantry. Tarantino was and still is a great admirer of Fuller's films, and during the late 1990s when I was working for Tarantino's production company, I saw a 35mm print of White Dog, one of the rare times the film had been screened for the American public.

It's no accident Fuller picked a dog for his film. Dogs and African-Americans have a long, checkered history. Dogs were used to track escaped slaves. Fire hoses were sprayed at and doges were sicced on blacks during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. This imagery exists. Fuller used a white dog as an obvious metaphor to show how racism is taught.

And yet, here in Japan, we have The White Family, consisting of a white dog father and a black son. Of course, the breeds are totally different — the movie has a white German Shepherd, while the SoftBank ads have a white Hokkaido Ken.

Does this mean the producers of the SoftBank ad were aware of this? Of course, not. This film, while a significant entry into Fuller's filmography because it marks the last Hollywood film he did, is certainly not a major film in Japan. (It did get a release there in 1990.) Most likely, the producers, the stars and even Carver himself are obvious to White Dog — and that is fine. However, I would be surprised if Tarantino did not make the connection between the ad and White Dog in his mind at least, even if it is a superficial connection. The connection exits, though while it may be interesting to point out, it is tenuous at best.

These White Family ads are actually a breath of fresh air. Even though, the idea of a white dog having a black son might not fly in the US, the series of ads are welcomed in Japan. Here's why: While the White Family clearly does not look like a normal family, they act like a normal family. Carver's brother character is just a regular brother-type character. The ads do not bring up his nationality or colour, and he does not play up the kooky foreigner angle that dominates so much of Japanese mass media. He's just a normal guy! (With a dog father.)

Just like White Dog before it, these White Family ads examine race — though the SoftBank ads do not directly deal with racism. Instead, by indirectly commenting on racism, the ads shine a light to stereotyping elsewhere in the country's media. As American-born Japanese TV talent Dave Spector once pointed out, the Japanese often view foreigners on TV as like a panda bear. They're cute and interesting and fun to throw marshmallows at, but that's about it. Carver's character in the White Family is a baby step beyond that.

For those who are interested, the White Family ads with English subtitles can be viewed here.

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    This is a really interesting article touching on several things I find fascinating (social normatives and the role of race in media, especially in Japan) and one of my true loves (cinema), but you really need to proof read your articles. As a journalist you really should be reading through your work, not just hitting the spellcheck button and calling it a day.

    That said, please keep writing about this kind of stuff. Anything that can get the wheels turning in my head during work time is most welcome!

    Although it's link to videogames was tenuous, this was a very interesting and enjoyable article.

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