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How Falcon x Winter Soldier Humanizes Asian-Americans

Episode 1 of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier offers some positive examples of Asian-American representation

It’s been a troubling year for Asian-America. Besides the pandemic itself, the Trump administration’s scapegoating of Asians for the coronavirus has led to an uptick in anti-Asian hate speech and hate crime. New videos of attacks on elderly Asian people seem to surface every day, and after hearing of the deaths of 6 Asian women (and two others) in a series of shootings in Atlanta, I found myself needing a break.

So I sat down to watch some escapist entertainment from Captain America’s two best friends.

To my surprise, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier did not offer me an escape: Episode 1 of Marvel’s new show prominently features three Asian-American characters in the storyline of Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), immediately bringing up questions about Asian representation in popular media.

“Sex addiction” is more of an indictment on the question of racial motivation than an exoneration.

After all, not all representation is good. Whether it’s Black men being cast as criminals or Black women being cast as sassy nannies, whether it’s Asian men being emasculated or Asian women being fetishized on-screen—“representation” in the past has often come at the cost of humanization. Harmful stereotypes perpetuate systems of oppression against people of color, with dangerous consequences. When the shooter in Atlanta cited his “sex addiction” as his motive, some people were quick to eliminate race from the equation. Problem is, the murderer grew up in a country and culture that has long objectified and fetishized Asian women. In this context, “sex addiction” is more of an indictment on the question of racial motivation than an exoneration.

Marvel’s new show arrives in this moment of reckoning, and the timing forces an evaluation: do the Asian characters help or hurt the cause of humanizing Asian people in media?

I argue that they help. For those who haven’t seen the episode, be warned that there are spoilers moving forward.

Humanization through Fear

The first Asian character to be introduced is probably also the most controversial one. In a nightmare, Bucky recalls an assassination he performed in the past: he mows down 6 grunts (ostensibly Russian) before taking out their leader and ominously uttering the words, “Heil Hydra.” Unfortunately, an Asian-American man named RJ finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Bucky leaves no witnesses, so he kills RJ, too.

Bucky Barnes aka Winter Soldier (Sebastien Stan) approaches RJ (Akie Kotabe)
RJ Nakajima in his last moments | Screen capture from TFATWS

Some would probably find RJ’s fearful eyes to be triggering, especially considering recent events; however, I find that RJ’s fear is exactly what humanizes him. We just watched Bucky cut and shoot through 7 Russians like you can’t believe they’re not butter, with hardly a word uttered or a face shown. But RJ is offered a different treatment: we see his shaking hands and wide-eyed expression featured prominently on-screen, but the scene cuts before Bucky actually kills him. As Bucky wakes up in the present-day, we understand RJ’s humanity to be the root of Bucky’s current guilt and remorse.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve watched a white protagonist beat down swathes of nameless Asian grunts as he takes on some crime syndicate. Compared to that, I see the humanization of RJ to be a marked improvement.

Humanization through Agency

As it turns out, RJ’s death will have further ramifications in the present. Motivated in part by guilt, Bucky has befriended RJ’s now elderly father Yori Nakajima.

As Bucky and Yori enjoy their weekly lunch at a local Japanese restaurant, we are introduced to Leah. The premise of this scene is risky: when a white male protagonist meets an Asian woman, too often the love interest is portrayed as more of a lust interest. It’s easy for such scenes to play into harmful stereotypes of Asian women being lustful and/or submissive.

Miki Ishikawa as Leah in Marvel’s Falcon and the Winter Soldier
I have all the agency | Screen capture from TFATWS

This scene, however, seems to avoid such issues by affording Leah her due agency. She starts the conversation, Yori plays wing-man and suggests a date, while Bucky comes off shy and even a bit embarrassed. When Bucky expresses doubt, Leah asserts that she likes the idea, then not only turns down pinochle but also sets both the time and place: her restaurant, tomorrow night at 10 pm. By allowing a confident Leah to control both the situation and outcome, the show subverts the trope of the submissive Asian woman.

Humanization through Authenticity

It’s unfortunate that I have to even praise the meeting of such a low bar, but the show also succeeds by portraying Leah as she is — a human being, not some Orientalized caricature borne from racist fantasies.

In fact, the creators seemed to have striven for a specific kind of ethnic authenticity and humanization. These distinctly Japanese-American characters are played by actual Japanese-Americans: Miki Ishikawa plays Leah, Ken Takemoto plays Yori, and Akie Kotabe plays RJ. Their interaction plays out in a Japanese restaurant, complete with traditional decor, and the scene’s most crucial moment occurs when Yori spots a serving of daifuku, a traditional Japanese rice-cake stuffed with azuki bean paste. As Yori recalls his son’s love for this treat in his native tongue, the show exposes the audience to both Japanese language and culture while humanizing this father through his grief.

Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastien Stan) and Yori (Ken Takemoto) in Falcon and the Winter Soldier
Yori recalls his son's love for Daifuku | Screen capture from TFATWS

The significance of specifically humanizing Japanese culture, language, and people should not be overlooked. Captain America and Bucky were originally introduced as American soldiers in World War II, and the vilification and internment of Japanese-Americans following the attack on Pearl Harbor still constitute one of the darkest chapters in American history. Horrible, racist portrayals of Japanese people proliferated in the mainstream media at the time. Given this context, the creative choices seem to at least acknowledge this history and contribute a small piece to righting this terrible wrong.

Humanization through Guilt and Grief

On the night of their actual date, Leah and Bucky share drinks over a game of Battleship, and we see more of that confident young woman, unequivocally human as she works long hours, enjoys cold beers, and keeps a stash of board games in stow to pass the slower days.

Through her, we learn more about the pain that Yori has lived with ever since the death of his son. After Bucky leaves due to his emotional discomfort, he visits Yori and sees a small memorial for RJ through the doorway.

The character history of the Winter Soldier practically necessitates on-screen deaths. But when one death is featured so prominently, and the deepest impacts of that death are displayed through the grief of a family member left behind, the story sets up RJ’s death as the foundation for Bucky’s development. As Bucky grapples with guilt, remorse, and trauma, it will be the humanity of RJ Nakajima that drives his character arc.

Akie Kotabe as RJ in Marvel’s Falcon and the Winter Soldier
RJ is humanized in death | Screen capture from TFATWS

It will also be the pain of his father Yori. As we witness his grief as a parent, we’re called on to empathize with the families of those who have lost loved ones — whether they were fictional young men killed by the Winter Soldier or real spa workers killed in Atlanta.

And I have to caveat all of this analysis by characterizing it as “so far, so good.” The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is entering a cultural moment it did not expect, as the series was originally scheduled to debut in August of 2020. Although this first episode passed my bar for positive Asian representation, I acknowledge others may disagree. I also acknowledge that Marvel has plenty of room to mess things up in the coming five episodes.

Regardless, we will keep pushing. Pushing for responsibility in how the media covers and portrays us. Pushing for accountability in how our leaders describe us. For now, let us just remember the names of those whose lives were lost: Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan, and Daoyou Feng.

Rest in peace.