Most South Park reviewers will fall into two camps regarding this episode. Either you love Butters, and love episodes focusing on Butters, or you don’t. This episode is a Butters episode.
That’s not to say Butters’s journey through an incorrect multiple personality diagnosis by a mentally deranged psychiatrist is the only storyline in “City Sushi.” As the title suggests, the episode also follows the travails of local City Wok owner and South Park’s only Asian, Lu Kim. A new Japanese restaurant, the aforementioned City Sushi, opens next door to Kim’s City Wok, causing Kim to scheme ways to destroy his new competition.
The central shtick in much of the episode gets tiresome. Butters plays imagination games, like most children. However, when Butters dresses up as or acts as a different person, Butters’s parents and his new psychiatrist take it to mean that the boy has Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD).
The joke is clever, but it repeats over and over in this episode. Ditto with the running thread that the psychiatrist himself has MPD. The psychiatrist’s various personalities interact with Butters, forcing Butters to commit sometimes illegal actions. Of course, the psychiatrist has no idea of his own problems, so everyone continues blaming Butters and his nonexistent MPD. Not terribly exciting. South Park has traveled down the road of ”over-medicated children” critique before.
More interesting is the parallel narrative involving Lu Kim, the City Wok owner, and the new Japanese restaurant next door, City Sushi. Again, the episode repeats jokes–in this case, the joke that both Asian man cannot understand each other’s accented English. One minor qualm I have always had with the character of Lu Kim is that his exaggerated accent doesn’t actually contain common phonemes that Chinese-speaking English speakers incorrectly use. The surprise ending of this episode alleviates that problem.
Lu Kim engages the Japanese restaurant owner in a series of fake friendship exchanges, all of which are created in order to shame the Japanese man or to hurt him in some capacity. This storyline, in classic South Park style, employs stereotypes and amplifies them in order to draw attention to the ridiculous nature of racial stereotyping in general. For example, commentators continually refer to both restaurants as Chinese, and the town names the restaurant area “Little Tokyo,” making no distinction between the different Asian cultures.
“City Sushi” doesn’t feature any other student but Butters, and this limits the episode greatly. Stan and Kyle are generally used as voices of reason, stand-ins for the audience, mouthpieces for Trey Parker and Matt Stone. The reason why the Butters divide affects this episode is that this ep is a classic example of an episode that doesn’t feature the main four boys. In general, these episodes are limited in scope and viewpoint, because of the lack of “straight man” characters.
“City Sushi” revolves around two main narratives that really focus on two recurring jokes: Asian stereotypes, and confusion surrounding Butters’s MPD diagnosis. The end of the episode is clever. We find out that Lu Kim is merely one of the psychiatrist’s personalities, and everyone agrees to let him stay that way, in order to preserve the town’s Chinese restaurant.
Retconning a character’s back story is always interesting, even if it’s a character as inconsequential as South Park‘s Lu Kim. The fact that the man is not Asian, but is rather a white man pretending to be Asian, throws the issue of race and stereotypes into focus. Was Lu Kim a stereotypical Asian because he believed in stereotypes? What makes someone White or Black or Asian? Is race just another social construct, agreed upon by people for convenience?
It’s the final reveal–and the social commentary that it inspires–that saves this episode, for me. Humor-wise, the jokes ran stale after the first half of the episode. The plots were uninspiring and repetitive. However, the discussion of race and identity prompted by the discovery of Lu Kim’s true self is interesting. It’s exactly the kind of social analysis that South Park often sparks, and it’s for that reason that I watch and enjoy the show.
Plus, it’s really, really funny.