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The Old Masters: The Legacy of Mako Iwamatsu

April 27, 2010

Fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender are familiar with Mako Iwamatsu, the Japanese American actor who voiced “Uncle Iroh” in the first and second seasons of the animated series before he passed away in 2006.



Animation fans may also know of Mako from his role as Aku in Samurai Jack. Mako’s career included performances in 80 feature films and over 100 television shows. Mako was one of the first Asian Americans ever nominated for an Academy Award (The Sand Pebbles, 1966) or a Tony Award (Pacific Overtures, 1976.)


Mako’s character in Avatar: The Last Airbender, Iroh.

Fans may be less familiar with Mako’s work as an Asian American advocate. In fact, Mako spent his entire career fighting discrimination and standing up for actors of color!

Mako was one of the founders of East West Players, a Los Angeles based Asian American theater troupe. Created by Asian American actors who found their careers limited by a glass ceiling that discriminated against actors of color, East West Players gave Asian American actors a place where they could perform roles beyond the stereotypical parts available in mainstream media.

In the October 2000 Journal for Asian American Studies, researcher Karen Shimakawa interviewed Mako about racism in Hollywood and the East West Players in her paper, Asians in America: Millennial Approaches to Asian Pacific American Performance.

Other key figures in the establishment of Asian American theatre companies were similarly inspired by the heightened race-consciousness of the period: as early as the mid-1960s, remembers Mako, actor and founding member of Los Angeles’ East-West Players. An established film and television actor, Mako and his cohort lamented the scarcity of (non-racist, non-stereotypical) roles available to them, which eventually led to their beginning a theatre company:

“We started talking about…[how] most of us were caught being stereotyped in television and movies whenever a bunch of us would work together, and that went on for several years,” Mako said. “Finally, in 1965, we said: ‘We gotta do something…we gotta do things of our choice. We can’t wait for someone to say, hey, you guys gotta do something–we can’t wait for that.’ So, that’s how we started East-West Players.”

For over 45 years, East West Players has mentored young Asian American actors, including Avatar: The Last Airbender voice actor Dante Basco (Prince Zuko.)


left: Mako in Pacific Overtures right: Mako in East West Players’ inaugural production of Rashomon.

As one of the first Asian Americans nominated for an Academy Award in 1966, the Los Angeles Times wrote that “Mako used the prominence the Oscar nomination gave him to address the dearth of parts for Asian Americans in general. Unless a script specifically called for an Asian American, producers and casting directors rejected them for roles.”

“Of course we’ve been fighting against stereotypes from Day One at East West,” Mako said in a 1986 interview with The Times. “That’s the reason we formed: to combat that, and to show we are capable of more than just fulfilling the stereotypes – waiter, laundryman, gardener, martial artist, villain.”

In 1998, the Sondheim Review interviewed Mako on the 1976 musical, Pacific Overtures, the first musical to feature an all-Asian American cast. Mako was nominated for a Tony for his role, but he told the interviewer that had he won, he would not have accepted the award:

“Asian-American actors have never been treated as full-time actors,” Mako said. “We’re always hired as part-timers. That is, producers call us when they need us for only race-specific roles. If a part was seen as too “demanding,” that part often went to a non-Asian.

“I refused to piggyback off the success of Pacific Overtures. If the audience wished to boo me, fine. I would’ve thanked the people I worked with, but I didn’t feel I could accept the award as long as Asian-Americans were not treated as equals in our profession.

The Review asked Mako about director Hal Prince’s insistence on hiring an all Asian American ensemble to depict a Japanese story in Pacific Overtures. Mako said:

“No matter what happened, we couldn’t let people say ‘Asian-American actors can’t act.'”


Mako claims a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1994

In the 2006 documentary The Slanted Screen, Mako was interviewed for his perspective on the depictions of Asian American men in Hollywood. He cautioned aspiring Asian American performers against falling into a trap when breaking into Hollywood.

“Don’t get into ‘stereotypic image, you know? ‘Stereotypic image is the simplest and easiest way to do it, but you will not get– performers will not get–satisfaction out of doing it. The only satisfaction may be that your bank account may be a little fatter. That’s about it. Is that worth having that kind of a record on your soul?”

Mako also gave some additional insight to the documentary makers and viewers on his vision for the future of Asian American representation in film.

“The vision I had for myself and the vision that the younger generation has may be different. Maybe the younger generation is more success-oriented. ‘Once I make it, I can make things happen’–you know, that type of attitude.

But my word of advice to them is that: One man alone cannot do it all by himself. I think he needs a collective effort to rectify the injustice that has been piled up among, and buried, in our past.”

In Mako’s obituary in Playbill, current East West Player Artistic Director Tim Dang said:

“With Mako’s passing, there is a great feeling of loss in the Asian Pacific artist community. We have lost a pioneer who helped pave the way for all of us trying to make a career in the arts and the entertainment industry. East West Players is deeply grateful for the passion, the artistry and the activism that Mako displayed over the many decades as artistic director, director and performer. If it wasn’t for Mako, none of us would be here.”

Racebending.com believes that through the casting practices employed by the production of The Last Airbender Paramount is continuing the same discrimination, stereotypes, and yellowface-style practices that Mako spent his entire career fighting against.

Mako’s decades of advocacy should not amount this: a film where once again, Asian American actors cannot play the hero, and are not treated like “full-time actors.”

Mako’s groundbreaking performances, refusal to accept stereotypical roles, and creation of East West Players have paved the way for modern day media representation advocacy. The Last Airbender movie’s perpetuation of those same outdated practices undermines Mako’s inspirational legacy as an advocate for casting equality.


Avatar: The Last Airbender honored Mako in the episode “Tales from Ba Sing Se”

Avatar: The Last Airbender is such an important part of Mako’s legacy. In 2010, fans cannot allow Paramount to use The Last Airbender to continue the same kind of discrimination Mako fought against his entire career.

MORE:
Click here to learn more about East West Players
Read our interview with East West Player’s current Artistic Director, Tim Dang.

Categories: History and Concepts, The Last Airbender
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About the Author

Marissa Lee is one of the co-founders of Racebending.com

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