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MASI OKA
Paul Drinkwater  /  NBC
Please, "Heroes," don't let Future Hiro lose the charm of Present-Day Hiro.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/16/2007 2:30:28 PM ET 2007-04-16T18:30:28
COMMENTARY

A heinous crime took place on Jan. 15 in Beverly Hills. Masi Oka, who plays the adorable and earnest Hiro Nakamura on NBC’s new hit “Heroes,” did not take home a Golden Globe . Instead, the award for “Actor in a Supporting Role — Series, Mini-Series or Television Movie” went to Jeremy Irons for his portrayal of an aging Robert Dudley in the HBO mini-series, “Elizabeth I.”

Can you find the jillion things wrong with this picture? Yeah, yeah Jeremy Irons can act — usually. (Let’s not forget his role in “Dungeons & Dragons,” the movie.) But taking a part in this year’s “Lord of the Rings”-wannabe stinker “Eragon” should have disqualified Irons from any award nomination for the next 10 years.

Still, it’s Golden Globe organizers, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, that bears the most guilt — placing Irons and his frou-frou historical cable drama of limited appeal in the same race as a graphic novel-styled series about a bunch of regular Joes who suddenly discover they have superpowers. In a just world, “Heroes’” Hiro would be competing with “My Name is Earl,” not the Earl of Leicester.

Up against such a weighty adversary, Oka and his brilliantly crafted Hiro never stood a chance. Awards generally default to the hoity-toity intellectual choice. Heaven forfend the audience doesn’t think the judges are all smart and stuff.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the cable box, here’s Hiro, a Japanese pop-culture obsessed nerd stereotype who can bend the space-time continuum. The heck with the British accent and Elizabethan bio pick. We’ve seen that plenty and we’re bored. But Hiro — here’s a guy we can all relate to.

Sure, at first glance, Hiro is as two-dimensional as the comic books he adores. But imbued with Oka’s razor wit and understated pathos, and following a story line headed for heartbreak, Hiro becomes something more. He’s every viewer who feels like a geek and longs for a greater calling. It’s why, in only half a season, Hiro is now one of the most popular characters on primetime TV.

Hiro’s heartache
Hiro is so central to “Heroes,” it’s hard to believe that show creator Tim Kring added the character almost as an afterthought. It was Kring’s wife who saw that the pilot script lacked someone actually happy to have superpowers. For most of the other "Heroes," these amazing new abilities are a burden.

Admittedly, not every superpower on “Heroes” is cool or handy as Hiro’s talent for bending time and space. Some are just a bummer. Nuclear Ted (Matthew John Armstrong) for example, inadvertently killed his wife via radiation poisoning. And Niki Sanders' (Ali Larter) inability to control her super-strong, sociopathic alternate personality landed her strait-jacketed in a padded cell with a bum shot full of Thorazine. These characters are going to need a lot of therapy before they can get it together and join the other freaks of nature in saving the world.

No need to page Dr. Freud for Hiro — at least not yet. Since the first episode, he believed he had powers even before he could use them. Once he figured out that scrunching his face in childlike concentration was the trick to bending space and time, Hiro readily accepted his destiny.

The universe seems to support Hiro’s belief. Monday night, the first episode after the “Heroes” winter hiatus, found Hiro and his friend Ando in a museum stealing a samurai sword Hiro believes will help focus his flagging power. The sword’s sheath is stamped with the familiar RNA symbol that pops up everywhere in the series. But Ando interprets it as combined Japanese symbols which translate to “great talent” and “Godsend.”

Turns out, the sword is a wood replica with strictly placebo effect. The real one belongs to unseen puppet master Linderman. It’s not Hiro’s first disappointment — nothing compared to his love interest Charlie, the waitress whose life he was unable to save. The painfully naive Hiro believes this Linderman will just give him the sword. Hiro is in for of a year’s worth of rude awakenings.

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Viewers know Hiro is in for hard times because, well, they’ve seen television before. Maybe even read some books. The wide-eyed and naïve, the characters who represent childhood, always take a fall — that is, they are forced to grow up.

Viewers also know Hiro’s fate because they’ve seen it. It’s future Hiro who coined the “Heroes” anticlimactic catchphrase, “Save the cheerleader, save the world.” He travels back in time to deliver the message to power-poseur Peter Petrelli (Milo Ventimiglia).

Frankly, future Hiro is a drag. He’s lost both his glasses and his accent, wears all black, sports a soul patch and a ponytail, and carries a sword. He looks like a dude having a midlife crisis, nothing like the joyful imp who raises his arms and shouts “Yatta!” (“I did it!”) every time his power works. If “Heroes” writers know what they’re doing, they’ll take a long time to beat the life out of current Hiro.

As Oka plays him now, Hiro is the embodiment of “kawaii,” the Japanese aesthetic of “cute,” usually reserved for females and Sanrio products. Many online fans declare Hiro a heartthrob — but you have to wonder if they’d feel so enamored if he was the IT guy fixing their computers. Flirting with the sexless Asian stereotype, Hiro would be offensive if not for Oka’s deft portrayal.

Masi Oka is so cool, he should get an award just for being Masi Oka. The digital effects artist-cum-actor still works several days a week for George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic, where he crafted special effects for such box-office hits as the Star Wars prequels, “The Perfect Storm,” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.” The 32-year-old Japanese-born actor also is a delight on the talk-show circuit, making jokes about traveling back in time to warn himself about a certain girl, and demurely answering questions about his 180 I.Q. He is the geek to Hiro’s nerd.

It’s hard to imagine any other actor bringing Hiro to life. Even Oka says that as soon as he saw the script, he knew the part was his. Oka moved to the United States at six, but visited Japan frequently while growing up. Translating his scripts from English to colloquial Japanese, Oka occasionally adlibs Hiro’s broken English for fun. When flying politician Nathan Petrelli (Adrian Pasdar) asks Hiro if he’ll win the election, Hiro tells Nathan he’ll win by a “mudslide” (instead of the scripted “landslide”).

Hiro and Nathan got another opportunity for comedic chemistry on Monday's episode, “Godsend” when they met again in New York City. Discussing the city’s impending doom, Nathan attempts (without success) to teach Hiro how to pronounce “villain.” It’s bittersweet that such moments will pass as Hiro’s English gets better and his naïveté is lost. Still, it’s exciting to watch Oka expand his character from manchild to true hero.

Though the Golden Globes blew it, there are still the Emmys in September. Maybe this time Oka will get his much-deserved reward.

Helen A.S. Popkin is a freelance writer in New York City.

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