Mushrooms are so hot right now. The Wall Street Journal recently observed fungi’s “star turn” in the culture of late, with mushrooms popping up all over fashion, television, even book publishing. We just went through a whole thing with the successful video-game adaptation The Last of Us, which, as you know, was heavy on shrooms, even if it did demonize our mycelial buds. Then came another step forward in fungal-Hollywood-video-game relations, one that broke box-office records over the weekend: Chris Pratt’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie, which takes place, of course, in the Mushroom Kingdom.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie also fits into another trend. Know what else is so hot right now? Asians. Everything Everywhere All at Once just won the Best Picture Oscar. Pachinko is carrying Apple TV+. Simu Liu is in Barbie. And with The Super Mario Bros. Movie, we can add one more entry into the emerging Asian-Hollywood canon, not because we’re talking about a Hollywood adaptation of a Japanese game starring an Italian plumber, but because, my friends, Toad is Asian.
I feel you growing uneasy. That’s okay. But have you ever heard Toad yell?
A smiling face barely concealing a deep well of rage? It hits deep. (Have you seen Beef? Same thing.) To be sure, The Super Mario Bros. Movie isn’t perfect, artistically or representationally. My dear Toads are depicted as an anonymous mass, industrious and communal. One could read the film as yet another white-savior narrative: Mario goes into a foreign land, embeds in local politics, learns the mystic traditions — Tanooki suit, kart driving — and helps to fight off another external antagonistic force. The Super Mario Bros. Movie is The Last Samurai, except unlike the latter, it might actually win an Oscar. But the citizens of Mushroom Kingdom are also stylish as hell, with poufy pants and big dope hats. Pull up this scene and unfocus your eyes; the Mushroom Kingdom is giving Seoul. Don’t you want to live there? The game of pop-culture representation is a war of attrition. You win some, you lose some.
If you’re still not convinced, consider that Toads are often overlooked. What’s more Asian than that? Toad still isn’t a playable character on Super Smash Bros. His one starring game, Captain Toad, is a spinoff in the relatively niche puzzle-platformer genre. You don’t often hear people maining Toad in Mario Kart. Combined with Toad’s simmering rage, dripping street fit, Itaewon-esque city, and anonymizing big-screen treatment, it’s hard to see Toad as anything but Asian. Also, my guy literally has a second Japanese name: Kinopio. (Speaking of which, Yoshi is also Asian. A working-class king. Princess Peach, however, is still Caucasian. It’s a complicated dynamic.)
That Toad — the individual, because we must differentiate from the species-collective, also called Toad, who are all Asian by the way — is voiced by Keegan-Michael Key in this film is besides the point. Casting slights like this happen all the time. With hard work and campaigning, we’ll get to a place where Donnie Yen takes over the role. Point is: The Super Mario Bros. Movie should be considered a significant entry in Asian-Hollywood relations, at least on par with Crazy Rich Asians, and Toad should join the canon of Asian hotties alongside Manny Jacinto.