Whitewashing of Asian Characters in Hollywood Anime/Manga Adaptations
2014 and 2015 were the years of new retelling of iconic Disney stories (Maleficent, Snow White and the Huntsmen, Cinderella, Pan). Now, it seems like the next new trend in Hollywood, is the retelling of iconic anime/manga stories on the big screens. But, there is just one problem with this new trend that is causing an uneasy stir among fans of these anime and manga. It is the blatant whitewashing of these characters. Let me take a pause, and explain what ‘whitewashing’ is.
Whitewashing can appear in non fictional works, but in this case, this happens when a fictional character from a novel is originally drawn or described as a person of color, yet in the live action adaptation, the character becomes intentionally white. Sometimes the white actor pretends to be of a different race, as when Rooney Mar pretended to be a Native American princess in Pan. Other times the character’s original racial identity is entirely abandoned and the character simply becomes White, as appears to be the case with The Last Airbender and Dragon Ball Z:Evolution. Now, there is a new syndrome of whitewashing of of anime/manga characters, that are not only dear to my heart, but also the heart’s of many fans.
Nat Wolff cast in Death Note
Warner Brothers announced that they’ve been working on a live action adaptation of the popular Japanese manga/anime series, Death Note. Warner Brothers also announced that, the main protagonist of this film, Light Yagami, will be portrayed by The Fault In Our Stars and Paper Towns actor, Nat Wolff. When this was announced, many manga and anime fans of this series, scratched their heads in confusion. Why is Light Yagami, a notably Japanese character, being played by a White actor?
In Death Note, a high school student named Light Yagami discovers a mysterious notebook that allows him to kill anyone simply by writing the victim’s name. When Light meets the notebook’s previous owner, a demon called Ryuk bent on ridding the world of anyone it deems evil or useless, he ends up tracked by Interpol and a world-famous detective investigating the unexplained deaths of several criminals.
Death Note will presumably be an American-ized take on the original property, as most of the producers involved are known for transporting Japanese pop culture over to Hollywood. Yes, this movie will be an American adaptation. But, why does and American adaptation have to equal a white lead? Can’t the main lead be a Japanese protagonist and still be the lead?
Scarlett Johansson cast in Ghost in the Shell
In April of 2015, Hollywood released that they were in the works of adapting the 90s film based in Japan, Ghost in the Shell, into a live action film. With that release, they also announced that Scarlett Johansson, had been offered the role for the main lead. My first reaction to this was, why didn’t they cast an Asian actress for this role, more importantly, a Japanese actress? I’m not saying that Scarlett can not deliver in her portrayal, it’s not her fault that she got cast, but, why not cast an accurate actress to portray an actual Japanese character? Many of us who enjoy cinema are conditioned to think of whiteness as the default. As if there weren’t already enough roles written for White actors, Hollywood decides that no one could’ve been a better fit for this Japanese speaking character living in Japan than, you guessed it, a White actress. A bit of a slap in the face to all the Japanese actresses that suddenly became unworthy of the big screen, don’t you think?
The he thing that is perpetuating this continual use of white actors taking the spots of Asian Americans, Hollywood is taking the opportunities for Asian Americans to be represented in Hollywood. How does an actor gain reputation in Hollywood without a reputable resume without opportunity to play iconic roles or any roles, for that matter.
In 2011, The Warner Bros. planned a live-action adaptation of Akira. According to articles in The Hollywood Reporter and several sci-fi blogs and websites, Garret Hedlund had been tapped to play the lead role of Shotaro Kaneda, with Kristen Stewart, Helena Bonham Carter and Ken Watanabe in talks to play other main roles.
The original Japanese anime version of Akira, was made in 1988, and considered the quintessential of Japanese animated film. The story circles around a catastrophic explosion that destroys the city of Tokyo – an explosion which is first implied to be nuclear in origin, a reminder of fears about atomic destruction in Japan since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fans of the manga and original movie questioned whether the plot so deeply intertwined with Japanese history could survive a setting change to Manhattan and changing all the main characters from Japanese, to White. This movie was shot down because of the large fan outcry of it’s misrepresentation.
*Did you know that the 2012 film, Chronicle, directed by Josh Trank, was influenced by Akira?
Why The Last Airbender Failed
Airbender and DragonBall Z: Evolution were an egregious examples of bad casting, because the race of the actors were particular to the culture and feel of a story taking place in mythical Asia. They basically took White actors to play all the leads in characters integral to the Asian story line. Hollywood has tried to make anime adaptations in the past using White actors to replace Asian characters and it just never ends well.
The Last Airbender, directed by M. Night Shyamalan, was adapted from the Nickelodeon animated show, Avatar: The Last Airbender, which was heavily influenced by East Asian cultures, particularly China, borrowing such things as architectural design and language structure. Other influences come from South Asian and Indigenous cultures. There is an article from the DailyDot, talking about the movie controversy.
Hollywood Needs More Representation
Asian-American actors have always had a difficult time getting parts in Hollywood. When some casting directors, producers, and directors, look at an Asian-American actors, and only cast them in movies that have Asian settings, they completely exclude the fact that, yes, Asians can be Americans too. That yes, they can be in romantic comedies, scary thrillers/horror, action blockbusters, etc. It’s a subtle racism that doesn’t have to do with hate, but it’s a type of casting racism nonetheless. Bad casting is in no way, meaning that the actors that are being considered/offered these roles, are not capable of giving a good performance. The actors above, are all great actors, and have no control of what decisions the director chooses.
It is, however, the responsibility of the people behind the scenes, to understand the importance of having accurate representations of races in which they cast actors in. Hollywood is an industry that reaches out to countries all over the world. But, having White people taking the roles meant for people of Asian descent, is a refusal to understand that people like them matter too. More diversity will allow people to acknowledge that Asians and other unrepresented minorities, are capable of making Hollywood films good, too.
What do you think? Leave a comment.