The Samurai Robot Isn’t Racist, He’s The Best Part Of Transformers 4

The Samurai Robot Isn’t Racist, He’s The Best Part Of Transformers 4

I’m the rare kind of person who unabashedly adores Michael Bay’s much-maligned treatment of Transformers. Everybody else I know hates these movies, so much so that none of them have even bothered to see the new one.

If this is purely a matter of taste, I’m totally fine being the lone Transformers fan. But one thing my many detractors have lobbed at me since I came out last week and put it.

Now: I think much of the disdain for Age of Extinction stems from the residual hatred many still have for Michael Bay’s last three Transformers films. The alleged racism here is no different. Bay drew some fierce criticism in 2009 when he stuffed two robots into Revenge of the Fallen who oozed retrograde black stereotypes out of every leaky gasket.

Age of Extinction doesn’t have any “black” robots, as ridiculous as that is to say. But it does have “a Ken Watanabe-voiced autobot who calls Optimus Prime ‘sensei,’ is named ‘Drift,’ and speaks in Haiku,” the commenter pointed out. One critic at The Daily Dot made a direct link between Drift and 2009’s batch of reprehensible robots, saying: “Apparently Michael Bay and his production team learned nothing.”

Do I think Drift is offensive? Yes. Do I think Drift’s presence in this movie is a sign of Bay’s persistent, stubborn racism? No. If anything, Watanabe’s character shows just how much the director has grown as an artist, however unwittingly, over the past five years.

I know, I know: we’re talking about Michael Bay again. His name doesn’t sit so well next to “maturity.” Hear me out.

It begins with the cast. One of the things that makes Age of Extinction one of my favourite pegs in the new series is that it finally, officially jettisons many of the subpar actors from past films. Shia LaBeouf, Tyrese Gibson, Josh Duhamel, Megan Fox…they’re all out. In comes Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, and Kelsey Grammar. John Goodman and Ken Watanabe, meanwhile, fill in the voices of two of the supporting Autobots with surprising grace.

Goodman and Watanabe don’t just manage to inject a genuine inkling of human emotion into the hulking, CGI-infused metallic structures in this movie — though that’s an achievement in its own right. Each brings their own personality to this. Not their real personalities, but the archetypes that have been built up around them throughout their careers in film. They do this so well that I have to wonder if the people who made Age of Extinction tinkered with the design for the robots once they got the actors in place in a similar way to how Peter Jackson revamped Gollum once he realised how incredibly Andy Serkis could master that role in Lord of the Rings.

The racial tropes running through Drift’s character make a lot more sense in this light. Watanabe’s biography on the popular film index IMDB says that the man first made a name for himself in Japan by playing many a samurai warrior. The first major film that introduced him to American audiences was The Last Samurai.

I find that film far more irksome, racially-speaking, than anything in Age of Extinction. I mean, it’s a movie about Tom Cruise travelling to 19th century Japan and mastering the country’s military traditions better than the people who actually live there seem to be able to. Watching it felt like I was gazing upon a modern, orientalized version of The Last of the Mohicans, complete with its own set of noble savages, such as Watanabe, that Cruise was there to learn from and ultimately beat at their own game.

The racism lurking throughout that book was understandable in the 1820’s when it was first published. I have no idea why anyone thought this was an acceptable story to tell with a straight face in 2003:

The worst part about this is that despite being a great actor, Watanabe’s has been jammed into these same kind of exotic, mystical warrior roles ever since. It’s hard to imagine Clint Eastwood, the star of many a spaghetti western modelled off Japanese Samurai flicks, didn’t watch The Last Samurai a few dozen times before casting Watanabe as the star in Letters From Iwo Jima, for example.

And then there’s his role in the new Godzilla. Man, all you Transformers haters out there: if you want to see something that really is offensively bad, go see that movie. Then we can talk. In one memorably atrocious scene, he hands a broken pocket-watch to an American military officer and tells him that it stopped working when the U.S. dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. Then he walks out of the room and nobody ever speaks of this again.

Just, you know, a little passing reference to one of the most horrifying moments in human history and the tension it’s left lingering between the United States and Japan. And that’s a scene in a new movie based on a franchise that, much like Transformers, has slowly been pulled away from its Japanese roots as American blockbusters continue to have their way with it.

Transformers doesn’t get lost in the mire of this offensive bullshit because it blows it up, literally and figuratively. And here’s why: If we recognise that Drift’s role in this movie is sort of gross, then we also have to accept that it’s little more than an exaggeration, a caricature, of other disturbing aspects of Watanabe’s career in American cinema.

Age of Extinction doesn’t make much of this, but it doesn’t really have to. All Michael Bay needed to do to offend people was to take the original archetype and make it several stories taller. Drift is what it would look like if someone laid Silly Putty over Watanabe’s character in The Last Samurai and then stretched it to a breaking point.

This is what I’ve always loved about his Transformers movies, even when they miss the mark. They might technically be “live action” films, but they’re so drenched in the maximalist beauty and bombast of the summer blockbuster that they still feel like the cartoons from whence they came. And like any good cartoon, they tiptoe along a knife-edge between the hilarious and the profane. Writing in Harper’s in 2006, the cartoonist Art Spiegelman called this a “predisposition toward insult,” and the source of many a comic’s power:

Cartoon language is mostly limited to deploying a handful of recognisable visual symbols and cliches. It makes use of the discredited pseudoscientific principles of physiognomy to portray character through a few physical attributes and facial expressions. It takes skill to use such cliches in way that expand or subvert this impoverished vocabulary.

I don’t think Michael Bay is in the same league as Spiegelman as an artist. But he’s getting closer. Drift has much more in common with the animals in Maus, Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning comic about the holocaust, than the minstrel show that was on display in Revenge of the Fallen.

These new Autobots and Decepticons might not be the ones that many fans know and love from Transformers past. But like their predecessors, they’re still giant, silly, occasionally incendiary cartoons. So while Drift might only speak in haikus, I think he still manages to say something surprisingly bold.


  • Second article by Yannick about how good the new Transformers movie supposedly is 😐

    • While I can understand him liking the first and even perhaps the second film I can’t understand people who defend it from there on. The first 2 movies from an objective stand point aren’t terrible, they are terrible if you wanted something faithful to your childhood memories (which hoped so desperately for) but if you don’t have the attachment it’s fine to like them.

      After that it gets confusing, the third one is terrible from even an objective stand point, recycled plot lines and devices, characters stretched beyond the ridiculous to try and stay relevant (the humans mostly) and absolutely no evolution in the story, it is a bad film and the fourth doesn’t sound much better.

      • I don’t get the whole “Michael Bay destroyed my childhood” sentiments.

        Obviously, the transformers movies are utter tripe, they’re simply crap movies and I find them offensive on so many levels. But unless I’m missing something, the cartoons were pretty crap too.

        Now, I’m only going from the episodic cartoon I watched in the 80s so I’m unaware if there’s some solid transformers lore out there that’s deep and engaging. I’ve got a bunch of the original cartoon series I show to my kids and the plot lines and overall quality falls into that “so bad it’s good” realm of viewing.

        This is not a defence of the movies, they could have been great. But I don’t think too highly of the original cartoon either. When I was 5 it was the greatest thing ever! But watching it with my 34 year old eyes, it’s so camp it’s almost embarrassing.

        • Just like opinions on the movies, opinions on the cartoons are subjective. While yes the series itself is a shameless extended toy commercial butchered from an anime, and yes can be pretty campy, things like the movie really ramp it up to be a respectable story and universe. If you watch the cuts that make the whole thing truer to the original anime they can also be quite respectable, much like Robotech.

          • According to wikipedia it was written in america they just outsourced the animation, there was no original anime.

          • The origins of the series in convoluted at best, while creating the series was an American idea and concept, and yes the animation was done in Japan. When it reached America again there was huge issues over the story between writers and such and it became a mess, while back in Japan they pieced it all together the way it was intended, it comes out a bit more coherent in the long run.

          • Ahh no… Robotech is made of distinct and totally unrelated anime series that were sourced from Japan and pieced together as 3 arcs of the same story, when actually they were 3 totally independent TV series in Japan.

            First Robotech War: The Super Dimension Fortress Macross (3 October 1982 – 26 June 1983)
            Second Robotech War: Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross (April 15, 1984 – September 30, 1984)
            Third Robotech War: Genesis Climber MOSPEADA (2 October 1983 – 23 March 1984)

            I always wondered why the story arcs were so disjointed in robotech as a kid, and finally had it answered when I looked into it.

          • I’m well aware of Robotechs origins, not sure how that relates to the transformers?

          • Yes the cartoon movie, which is great and I won’t hear one word against it *puts fingers in ears* lalalalalala

          • I honestly don’t remember much of it other than I watched it and I think Optimus dies. I have no recollection of it’s quality.

            The cartoons however have some hilarious plot lines. One we watched recently had the deceptacons dress up as autobots and film themselves committing a crime in order to get humanity to reject the autobots and drive them out of town. Once the deceptacons are rid of the autobots they enslave humanity, forcing one character to pull a lever all day long. The day is eventually saved when it is revealed that the damning video footage of the ‘autobots’ has a segment at the end where they take their masks off, revealing they are deceptacons. Perhaps Megatron should have edited that part out O_o

            I literally face palmed. It’s actually hilarious!

          • Yeah, well it was an 80s cartoon, you have to forgive some of its tropes from the era. I don’t really see the movies as destroying my childhood and I know they couldn’t have been completely faithful to the source because it doesn’t translate well, but I just feel that Bay completely disrespected the source material and slapped a nostalgia name on it.

            You can do great thing with an approximation without shitting all over what people loved about the ideal. Look at Pacific Rim, Del Toro basically said “this is my version of live action Evangelion” but it wasn’t Evangelion and didn’t try to be and most Eva fans I know love it. Had he stuck the Eva name on it and said “This is Evangelion” people would have been just as pissed as Transformers fans are and rightly so.

          • Just so you know, Transformers is not butchered from any Anime. Transformers was an original 1980’s American cartoon based ‘very’ loosely off several separate toy lines in Japan. The Hasbro rep then came back to the States, bought the rights to all the toys from several different companies, fine tuned and originally created Transformers. I’m so sick of people screwing this fact up.

            Also, the cartoon was NOT merely an extended toy commercial. Were there toys, sure – but so was there for MASK, G.I. Joe., He-Man, Thundercats, TMNT, My Little Pony, Care Bears, Strawberry Shortcake, etc.! I’ve seen in the toy aisles lately action figures for Ben 10. So then, the Ben 10 cartoon MUST be just a toy commercial then.

          • Except the toys existed before the cartoon and Hasbro are not shy about admitting what their intention for the Transformers cartoon was and I am well aware of the origin of the cartoon, it probably wasn;t the best wording to say it, but I was talking about the fact that the series was butchered by the time it got back to the US because of disputes between creatives. While in Japan it was shown in it’s original intended form.

        • “Ruined my childhood” I consider to mean something is so bad, that you don’t want to enjoy the franchise anymore or wish you never did because of how embarrassing whatever it is that made the franchise terrible.

          • Yeah in all regards to that I don’t think it would be possible to ruin someone’s original memories of something unless you watched it recently and it didn’t hold up.

            For example I watched the g1 movie last week… oh boy I was pretty dissapointed, I mean I still love it but it makes me still question why people hate Michael bay films so much… the G1 film was pretty ridiculous in some aspects haha…

  • Can’t people just enjoy an action movie? If you want Optimus to carry Bumblee up some stairs Gone In The Wind style, go and make your own movie. Otherwise go and tear up by yourself in a corner and get a life.

    • Sure, by that logic every Uwe Boll movie ever made is an instant classic just because ‘you should enjoy it’…

  • I’m pretty sure I didn’t even pay to see Dark of the Moon, it was on Netflix or something, and my TIME was too much to give for that awful steaming pile of turd. Bay has had his chance.

    • I think what he was trying to get at is that Bay has grown as an artist because he added a racist stereotype and then adapted the character to be more like how he viewed the voice actor they cast, while still being quite racist?

      • Not even pretty much how it is. I think it explicitly stated that.

        Apparently, ‘ironic’ use of racial stereotyping is now okay because Reasons.


    “And then there’s his role in the new Godzilla. Man, all you Transformers haters out there: if you want to see something that really is offensively bad, go see that movie. Then we can talk.”

    Ok let’s talk. Godzilla was never claiming to be high art, however it eschews a lot of American filler and restored the westernised version of Godzilla back to his status as ‘King of the Monsters’. While a lot of the human elements were lesser, both Watanabe and Cranston delivered the two strongest performances in the movie. There was no offensive racism in Godzilla unless you intentionally create it yourself while searching for it. I find it interesting you choose to select a watch as symbolic of potential, when Bays movies are filled with blatant examples.

    From the snaggletoothed, gold tooth mouthed, bug eyed, street speaking ‘urban-bots’ of Revenge of the Fallen, to ‘the black man always dies first’ syndrome that pollutes Bays movies, to Drift in Age of Extinction, Michael Bay is not INTENTIALLY racist, but his movies are steeped in racial ignorance. There’s a big difference between the two, but both are still equally as offensive.

    Maybe you’re not aware, but many clocks actually stopped at the moment the bomb blasted in Hiroshima, here’s some evidence:

    The point of the scene in Godzilla, was to emphasise the negativity of nuclear war. The original Godzilla movie, Gojirra, was one of the first to carry a heavy anti-nuclear message. This movie carried it too but more slanted towards the side of nuclear war, hence the potential destruction of the world coming from mans over reliance on nuclear energy, which was a catalyst for the return of the Kaiju. The watch itself never needs to be spoken of again, it was merely a metaphor, symbolic of what their actions could result in.

    Godzilla may have not been the deepest of movies, but you missed the point of the scene entirely. The military wanted to nuke godzilla and the kaiju, to send them back where they came from. Watanabe realised nature was the great balancer, he knew what horror and futility the nukes would bring on. He used the watch to emphasise and remind the futility of nuclear war. Sorry you couldn’t get that.

    But please, don’t wax lyrical and defend Michael Bays useage of character stereotypes. Just because he got a Japanese man, a great actor at that, to do the voice over work, does not make his constant racial ignorance any better, if anything it makes it worse. He has a clearly defined history of ignorance. Example?

    The Haitians in Bad Boys 2, Sgt. Epps (Tyrese Gibson) or Whitmann (Anthony Anderson) in Transformers, all of these ‘roles’ feel as if they’re defined by their stereotypes and never emerge as being the layered characters they could be, just a shallow, wasted interpretation of one.

    Despite all that, I still enjoy a fair few of his movies, but I’m not apologetic and ignorant to the stereotypical rubbish he throws in. The severe overuse of jingoism, the super-positive military aspect (Armed services family here but his movies drench you in it), the stereotypes galore. But, at the end of the day, it’s Michael Bay, when you see a movie of his you know what you’re getting.

    tl:dr : Yeah, no. You’re off on the wrong tangent dude. Bay has ignorant racist stereotypes in his movies and you missed the point of the watch scene.

    • my major concern with the defense is both with the 2 in the second movie and this one, why are they the only Transformers who change their facial appearance to match their personality? If it’s not directly exploiting stereotypes why did it go beyond personality for the three most “racist” characters?

      • Indeed, a great question. I once saw someone say ‘They learnt everything on the internet’, which leads me to ask why Prime isn’t telling Megatron constantly he’s a douchebag who *bleeps* his own mother etc. It seems they selectively take the most stereotypical aspects of it all and apply them. While I do think Drift is a fantastic looking Transformer for Bays movies, like I said, I’m definitely not beyond seeing the problems inherent in the designs of them all. Prime doesn’t look like a white stereotype, neither did Ratchet or Ironhide, or Bumblebee, yet the twins in ROTF sure as hell did, especially with that throwback monkey design, and Drift well, one CAN say Drift doesn’t embody as much negative cultural stereotyping, but I’ve known Japanese people who really tire of everyone thinking their culture is all about honour, samurai and ninjas lol.

    • Don’t forget, the racist Ebonics spewing “black” transformers from film 2 are also uneducated. One of then remarks that he can’t read!

    • Getting things may not be his Strong point, he actually thinks Tom Cruise’s character in The Last Samurai was the last Samurai.

      It was Ken Watanabe’s character, Cruise’s character may have learnt their ways and respected them but he was not a Samurai.

      If your going to talk about the Transformers movies, by themselves than you need to also talk about how they ignore their own plot points established in previous movies.

      • Exactly, hence the moment at the end ‘I will not tell you how he died, I will tell you how he lived.’

        Personally, I found The Last Samurai to be one of the better executed movies about Japanese culture at the crossroads of modern and past lifestyles.

        • Agreed, although much like 47 Ronin, it could of done without the token whitey protagonist.

          • You guys are also forgetting that Samurai is both singular and plural… It’s referring to the whole goddamn village, not 2 guys, a geisha and a sushi place as it were. So yeah, totally agree with you.

  • I disagree with this on… just so many levels. I haven’t even seen the movie but everything else you said was really, really disagreeable

  • Yannick, you like something no one else does.
    A samurai robot, racist or not is just stupid. It comes from space, why does it look like a samurai? The other ones can turn in to cars and stuff, but that’s because they have camo or something.

    • Drift is not a Samurai Robot, he is a Robot Emulating Samurai’s since he can look however he wants it’s the same as a child playing dress up.

  • Oh he’ll no… You did not just compare Michael Bay to Art Spiegelman!!!!

    Michael Bay has never made, nor will ever make ANYTHING that can compare with Maus, a work that can legitimately lay a claim to be one of the most important of the 20th century…

    I say this as a person who enjoyed some of Bays early films and indeed enjoyed the first Transformers.

  • I was going to post another lengthy rebuttal to this article like I did on the last Yannick Transformers article. Then I realised it wasn’t worth the time.

    But to sum up what I was going to say, you’re giving Bay WAY too much credit arguing Watanbe’s character is somehow subverting or drawing attention to the tropes of Watanabe’s previous roles. No, Bay is just unintentionally ignorant. He has a history of it. He probably watched Watanabe’s role in The Last Samurai and thought “LET’S DO THAT BUT WITH MOAR PEW PEWS AND ‘SPLOSIONS”.

  • It is because people think all you need to do is depict something and it’s an “ism” of some sort. I’m not saying os isn’t but clearly most people here are stretching just as much as you are.

  • So its racist to have a samurai robot?
    Are robots only allowed to emulate white people?

  • I feel like I need to remind everyone about Nero, the stereotypically Italian Ferrari from the third transformers movie. There is no defence for the use of racial stereotypes in bays movies. It’s not an accident or a distillation of a voice actor’s career works, it’s endemic.

  • Why is it not a requirement to have some sort of knowledge of the medium/genre/craft etc. to judge it? I mean there are many conventions to do with narrative, character, setting, representation etc. in film as there are with music, photography etc… Why are we able to point our finger, cry “-ism!” whilst displaying our clear ignorance of the subject and have half the readers agree whilst displaying a similar ignorance. I mean, I study a number of media subjects at uni and we do several subjects that deal (but not exclusively of course) with the difference between depiction and endorsement, between representation and intention. As far as I can tell from our backgrounds, most people are aware of these conventions, if not well-versed in their knowledge of them. They help us understand when we should point the finger and when we should pose a question. They teach how not to demonize and how to open up an issue for discussion as opposed to spout propaganda for our own preferences and insecurities. Why don’t we have a similar expectation when it comes to important issues? Why do we just let Kotaku create %&^*fights instead of actually discussing something without demonizing someone else? (which consistently encourages generalisation in one direction but discourages it in another) When did “an eye for an eye” become our best possible solution?

  • The Samurai Robot wasn’t racist. The chinese guy in the elevator knowing kung-fu because “obviously everyone who’s chinese knows kung-fu”…kinda racist.

    It was easily one of the dumbest films I’ve seen this year…but it’s still the best Transformers movie of the 4, and I enjoyed it.

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