I. Y. Yunioshi is a fictional character in Blake Edwards' 1961 American romantic comedy film Breakfast at Tiffany's, which was adapted for the screen by George Axelrod based on Truman Capote's 1958 novella of the same title. The character in the film is significantly different from the character as presented in Capote's original novella, and the film version of Mr. Yunioshi, as portrayed by Mickey Rooney, has been the subject of extensive critical commentary and review since its theatrical release.
In the early 1960s and before, racist humor was acceptable in American culture, although this general attitude began to change later in that decade, and more so afterwards. In 1961, The New York Times review of the film said that "Mickey Rooney's bucktoothed, myopic Japanese is broadly exotic." Some reviewers of the day did note an issue over the characterization. James Powers' review in The Hollywood Reporter stated, "Mickey Rooney gives his customary all to the part of a Japanese photographer, but the role is a caricature and will be offensive to many." In Variety, Larry Tubelle wrote simply, "Mickey Rooney’s participation as a much-harassed upstairs Japanese photographer adds an unnecessarily incongruous note to the proceedings."
In 1990, The Boston Globe described Rooney's portrayal as "an irascible bucktoothed nerd and an offensive ethnic caricature". In 1993, the Los Angeles Daily News wrote that the role "would have been an offensive stereotype even played by an Asian; the casting of Mickey Rooney added insult to injury".
The portrayal was referenced in the 1993 film Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story as an example of Hollywood's racist attitudes about Asians that the Chinese Bruce Lee's success as a movie star would challenge. Specifically, when Lee and his girlfriend Linda Emery watch Breakfast at Tiffany's in the theater, where despite laughing at the character, Linda suggests they leave midway through the picture after she notices that Bruce is upset at Rooney's stereotypical depiction of a Japanese man.
More recent characterizations include as an uncomfortable "stereotype", "painful, misguided", "overtly racist" and "Orientalist", an "inexcusable case of yellowface", "one of the most egregiously horrible 'comic' impersonations of an Asian ... in the history of movies", and a portrayal "border[ing] on offensive" that is a "double blow to the Asian community – not only is he fatuous and uncomplimentary, but he is played by a Caucasian actor in heavy makeup." Similarities between the character of Mr. Yunioshi and anti-Japanese wartime propaganda in the United States have been noticed by critics Jeff Yang and David Kerr.
A free outdoor screening in Sacramento, California, scheduled for August 23, 2008, was replaced with the animated film Ratatouille after protests about the Yunioshi character. The protest was led by Christina Fa of the Asian American Media Watch.
A screening was shown August 11, 2011 at Brooklyn Bridge Park's "Movies with a View" series in New York. Due to protests from a multi-ethnic group organized by an online petition at Change.org, the screening also included a short statement by the organizers which acknowledged and validated community concerns about Yunioshi and a brief documentary about Rooney's character and the portrayal of Asian Americans in other films that was edited from a DVD extra for the anniversary DVD. The aforementioned editorial in the New York Daily News by columnist Jeff Yang offered an alternative view regarding the protests: "Far from boycotting the movie or even begrudgingly accepting it, I think it should be mandatory viewing for anyone who wants to fully understand who we are as a culture, how far we've come and how far we still need to go."
Response to criticism
In a 2008 interview about the film, Rooney said he was shocked to hear that his role as Yunioshi had been branded racist by several Asian-American activists. Rooney said he was heartbroken about the criticism: "Blake Edwards...wanted me to do it because he was a comedy director. They hired me to do this overboard, and we had fun doing it....Never in all the more than 40 years after we made it—not one complaint. Every place I've gone in the world people say, 'God, you were so funny.' Asians and Chinese come up to me and say, 'Mickey, you were out of this world.'" Rooney also said that if he had known people would be so offended, "I wouldn't have done it. Those that didn't like it, I forgive them and God bless America, God bless the universe, God bless Japanese, Chinese, Indians, all of them and let's have peace."
A 2013 Broadway show based on the film cast Japanese-American actor James Yaegashi as a culturally assimilated Japanese-American Yunioshi born in California, as the character was written in Capote's original book.