A collection of vintage Bugs Bunny cartoons was recalled from retail stores last week after a Japanese American group complained that one of the video segments, titled "Bugs Nips the Nips," is racist.
MGM Home Entertainment distributed the offending cartoon as part of a 10-volume "Golden Age of Looney Tunes" set featuring animated Warner Brothers classics from the years 1931-1948.
Although the collection had been out since 1993, the controversy over it erupted only late last month, when a Sacramento resident who watched the Bugs Bunny tape with his grandson notified the local Japanese American Citizens League.
"It was pretty bad, very offensive," Michael Sawamura, the league chapter's civil rights vice president, says of "Bugs Nips the Nips," which was made in 1944. "The title itself should have been a red flag to someone."
In that selection, one of about a dozen Bugs Bunny episodes that make up the Looney Tunes set's seventh volume, the wisecracking rabbit is shipwrecked on an island with Japanese soldiers, Sawamura says. His characteristically "hare-raising" antics include giving the caricatured soldiers hand grenades disguised as ice cream cones.
"He is in his truck and as he is passing the ice cream out, Bugs Bunny says, Here, Jap. Here, monkey face. Here, slant-eyes,' " Sawamura said. "He also uses the term bow-legged."
No text or narration accompanies the cartoon to explain the World War II-era roots of its extreme anti-Japanese message.
Dan McLaughlin, a UCLA film professor and professional animator, points out that cartoons, while ostensibly for children, have a long tradition of relying on political and ethnic humor.
From "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show's" thinly veiled Soviet spies to the overly amorous French skunk known as Pepe LePew, animators have often used stereotyped characters to tell their stories. But modern audiences have increasingly questioned the content of cartoons. Latino groups, for instance, in recent years objected to elements of the mouse "Speedy Gonzalez," while an African American organization complained several years ago about the voices of the black crows in "Dumbo."
"In terms of caricature, the Japanese stereotype with the big buck teeth and glasses and the little skinny neck is very harsh," McLaughlin says. He adds that recent cartoons like "Beavis and Butthead" and "The Simpsons" seem to lampoon working-class whites, "the only ones you can make fun of today."
MGM spokeswoman Anne Corley says that in putting together the Looney Tunes collection, the company did not worry about including "Bugs Nips the Nips." MGM, she says, expected "individual cartoons would be taken in the context of the time in which they were produced."
"When we look at this tape, MGM thinks as much as anyone that these stereotypes are offensive," Corley explains. "However, it's what was happening in Hollywood at the time. . . . Hollywood was very involved in the war effort and part of what that involved was creating propaganda that would inspire Americans to fight the enemy. Like it or not, at that time the Japanese were the enemy."
MGM has not yet decided what to do with the Looney Tunes collection, which has sold about 8,000 copies. It has asked retailers to stop selling both the Volume 7 videocassette and the entire laser disc set. Warner Bros., which originally made the cartoon, has already pulled it from its chain of movie memorabilia stores, although it might remain on the shelves at other video outlets.
Corley says MGM might reissue the products with a warning label or edit out the criticized cartoon. But at $12.99 for each video and $100 for the laser disc, the series "is not a huge revenue generator. You have to weigh what the costs are of reworking and re-releasing the tape versus pulling it entirely," she says.
In the meantime, the Japanese American Citizens League has already turned its attention to another animated classic, Walt Disney's "Aristocats." According to Sawamura, his group is concerned about one of the cats, "a Chinese character who speaks with a heavy accent." The New on Video column will return next week.