Ahead of the release of the DC Comics film Suicide Squad, potential viewers were bombarded with ads featuring comic-book names both familiar (Harley Quinn, the Joker) and unfamiliar (El Diablo, Enchantress). Falling into the latter category was the superheroine Katana, played by the newcomer Karen Fukuhara. Dressed in a Rising Sun mask and wielding her namesake weapon, she appeared in promos featuring images of Hokusai’s Great Wave and whooshing sword sounds. But in the film itself, Katana isn’t actually a member of the titular group: She’s the almost entirely wordless accomplice to Joel Kinnaman’s Rick Flag, who’s in charge of keeping the villains in line. Except for a soupçon of lines delivered in terse Japanese, she’s a ripple in the background.
Others in Suicide Squad also suffered from a lack of screen time, but Katana represents the norm for Hollywood’s East Asian characters, who are almost exclusively sidekicks or underwritten rivals. The action genre, and especially franchises, is rife with examples. In the last 5 years, there’s been Elektra (Élodie Yung) in Netflix’s series Daredevil; Kato (Jay Chou) in The Green Hornet; several characters in the X-Men films; Sulu (John Cho) in the newest Star Trek movie; Dr. Helen Cho (Claudia Kim) in The Avengers: Age of Ultron; Mercy Graves (Tao Okamoto) in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice; Su Yueming (Bingbing Li) in Transformers: Age of Extinction; and many others.