Quantcast

«

»

Oct 31 2011

The Whitewashing of Akira

I can’t say I’m particularly looking forward to this, though as a geek I’m duty-bound to watch. Apparently Akira is being given the live-action Hollywood treatment. Say it ain’t so!

I’m not much of a “canon purist”, especially not in cases where I’ve never read the original source — the original anime movie Akira was based on a 2100-page manga epic and therefore had to depart from the source a good number of ways to make it fit into a reasonable movie-length premiere. My chief concern even outside of the faithfulness to the originating material is that the impending explosion in Neo-Tokyo, like in this Youtube parody, is going to be transformed into the standard Hollywood and Americentric concerns. With white American actors. Actors like Garrett Hedlund, who’s in the running for the part of Kaneda.

Two nights ago, we watched a Japanese action film called Attack From Space during our Mock the Movie event, a film from 1959 overdubbed into English. All the Japanese names were retained. All the Japanese focus was retained. All of the baggage of a post-World-War-II Japanese mindset was retained. Sure, it wasn’t a good movie particularly, but as a treatment of Japanese cultural heritage, it was relatively sound. I can’t help but doubt that the message of the venerable movie Akira — steeped as it is in themes of revolution, youth culture versus authoritarianism, and societal fears of a nuclear holocaust, embodied in a single person whose will can cause said holocaust — is all going to get wiped away in an effort to turn the franchise into another Michael Bay style vehicle for explosion porn.

I’m with George Takei on the race issue, as well. Taking a movie about Japan and Japanese culture and Japanese kids, and casting white actors in their place, is not cool. Race-swapping actors the way Hollywood did with Avatar: The Last Airbender is simply unacceptable. Non-Americans and non-whites can and should be protagonists in our society. It’s not only an insult to Asians to take Asian characters and make them white, it’s also an insult to white Americans to think they cannot identify with characters who are visually different from them in any way. If race is a manufactured societal construct based solely around visual cues, then — though this might be counterintuitive — ending racism begins with acknowledging that people have different appearances. And not in shallow ways, like casting white people into roles where the originals were Asian, or adding in The Token Black Guy. I’m talking acknowledging the differences in appearance in real ways, like actually casting Japanese folks in a movie about Japan. It’s not racist to suggest that Asian characters be played by Asians, it’s an acknowledgement that not every protagonist has to be an American-born-and-bred white guy for consumption by the insular and racist parts of American culture.

Ending sexism, homophobia and transphobia means making being sexes and genders other than what is proscribed by our patriarchal society as the norm, normal. Ending anti-atheist sentiment means making being an atheist normal. Ending racism likewise means making it perfectly normal to be another race, or to possess the visual cues that suggest that you’re another race. Normalizing the “others” cannot be done by eliminating them from stories and replacing them with the “normals” everywhere possible.

29 comments

Skip to comment form

  1. 1
    chaosagent23

    This is one of those times that I don’t think geek cred will be damaged. Personally I won’t give the filmmakers a dime for the bastardization of Akira. I know a handful of people not seeing this movie won’t do much for their bottom line. I just get tired of the retreads and remakes of films that are perfectly fine and need no updating. Akira does not need a whitewashed live action movie spewed out by Hollywood.

  2. 2
    eNeMeE

    At least it can’t be as bad as the TV movie adaptation of “A Wizard of Earthsea”?

    …though that’s a lot like saying it can’t be as bad as a kick in the junk while having unanesthetized testicular surgery…

  3. 3
    Aliasalpha

    So film gets shitty remakes & whitewashing, gaming gets shitty reboots & turning everything into an FPS, music gets shitty remixes and covers that bear no similarity to the original… Are books still safe?

  4. 4
    Pteryxx

    Books aren’t safe. Just look at the hideous film travesties of Jumper or I, Robot; or the proliferation of page-wasting “epic” series.

  5. 5
    Jason Thibeault

    Luckily, the Twilight movie adaptations are particularly faithful.

    *sobs*

  6. 6
    Kate from Iowa

    Not to mention that the page wasting (and occasionally book wasting epics then get hours wasting television series. Or the graphic novels that get turned into perpetually dissapointing television series (or worse, bad syfy movie series, as 30 Days of Night seems to be…)

    (Which get watched because there’s only so much time I can watch Cartoon Network without feeling like I should be in a helmet and “special” retainer.)

    And speaking of the movies, is this “let’s break the final book up into two movies so we can rake in more cash…er, I mean…be faithful to the author’s vision. Yeah, that sounds good…” trend really going to stick?

  7. 7
    karmakin

    I’ll be honest…I wasn’t a big fan of Akira. I saw it for the first time after I saw Ghost in the Shell, which I thought was much better. (That said, Ghost in the Shell:Stand Alone Complex is leaps and bounds better than the movies)

    The problem probably is the translation from manga epic to a 2 hour movie. Which is why the US version is going to be a double disaster. It’s going to be a slimmed down version of an already slimmed down story.

  8. 8
    Aratina Cage

    Just look what they did to Dragon Ball! It’s an outrage to say the least. I’m still pissed off about that. Speed Racer was pretty bad, too, though not nearly as cringeworthy as Dragonball: Evolution. I’m extremely skeptical that they will be able to pull off an OK or–even less likely–praiseworthy adaptation of Akira if they go ahead and tinker with the background story for a couple of well-known White actors.

  9. 9
    Art

    If movies were primarily about artistic expression you would be right to complain about an Asian character being played by a white actor. Unfortunately, as the media and marketing consultants that work for the studio will point out, movies are primarily marketing platforms. Profits from movie theme products often exceed the profits from the movie itself. Selling products depends on viewers identifying with the character and seeking to be like them by buying the branded products offered.

    Asians and blacks children are trained from a young age to identify with white characters. As are white children. This is why black Barbie never got much traction. Having an Asian main character might cut tie-in sales 5%. Millions of dollars. Pretty much the cost of producing the movie. With a white lead the movie is a sure-thing investment. They might break-even but losing money is an impossibility.

    With an Asian character they have to depend on the artistic strength of the story, and it doing well in the theaters, to get their money back. Investors are bean-counting cowards. Artistic, and cultural, integrity is far, far down on their list of priorities.

    No worries, in the long run the demographics of the US, the browning of America, and the fact that the studios already get more profits form foreign markets than the US, mean that marketing is browning and yellowing. Racial ambiguity is becoming the ideal.

  10. 10
    Cloumiau

    Luckily, the Twilight movie adaptations are particularly faithful.

    *sobs*

    Twilight is basically Inuyasha with all the lampshade-hanging removed and all the creepy undertones dialed up to 11. So you could think of Twilight as a really, really bad film adaptation of Inuyasha.

  11. 11
    Jason Thibeault

    Hey, what do you folks think about The Walking Dead? I haven’t watched it yet, though I’ve read the first twenty or so comics.

  12. 12
    Cloumiau

    I don’t buy Art’s premises for a fraction of a second, they all sound like the sorts of nonsensical justifications that were offered for the banks’ redlining of A-A neighborhoods before the CRA was passed. I find the additional conceit that greed qualifies as some sort of plenary indulgence for even the most heinous behavior amusing.

  13. 13
    Jason Thibeault

    Asians and blacks children are trained from a young age to identify with white characters.

    Art: by whom, exactly?

  14. 14
    Cloumiau

    Books aren’t safe. Just look at the hideous film travesties of Jumper or I, Robot;

    Or Hitchhiker’s Guide. (almost managed to purge that one from you memory hadn’t you?)

  15. 15
    noastronomer

    “…it’s also an insult to white Americans to think they cannot identify with characters who are visually different from them in any way.”

    After all no-one in America watched the original animated series (Avatar:The Last Airbender). Oh, wait…

  16. 16
    Jason Thibeault

    Amusingly enough, Avatar’s country of origin is the United States. And the whitewashing that took place involved turning the “evil” Fire Nation from white to tan, and the protagonists from tan to white.

  17. 17
    michaelswanson

    I remember arguing with a friend who was upset that a black kid might be cast to play Robin in a Batman movies back in the 90s, because Robin was white.* I didn’t care who they cast, as long as they could act. There is nothing about Robin that made him necessarily white, other than that he was dreamed up in the 30s. You could certainly argue that you couldn’t cast a black Batman without reinterpreting the character (also fine), as a privileged white billionaire vigilante would be perceived differently by society than a black man in the same position.

    I think you’re spot on about Akira casting, though. It is a quintessentially Japanese story, casting non-Japanese actors is a slap in the face to the story and the culture.

    Now, there’s nothing wrong, in theory, with the idea of a live action remake of Akira (with a Japanese cast!). It’s conceivable that someone could do a really fine job. Just like it’s conceivable that Stewart Copeland could stumble across my craigslist ad and join my band. Or Bill Gates could accidentally drop a roll of thousand dollar bills out of a helicopter that will fall into my open palm, just as I gesture to a friend while saying, “You know what I could use right now? About $10,000 dollars dropping out of the sky and into my open palm.” Personally, I’m waiting for Ray Wise to pull an old draft of my screenplay out of my recycle bin and call me up to beg for the part of the mad doctor. It’s conceivable. (Yes, I keep using that word. It does mean what I think it means.)

    *If you’re enough of geek you might know that an early script for the followup to Burton’s execrable Batman movie was written by Sam Hamm. It featured Robin’s introduction. I read a bootleg copy back in ’92. It was actually pretty good. If I recall, the actor in question was Marlon Wayans.

  18. 18
    Art

    I’m not seeking to justify anything. That is just the way it is. Do a little reading as to how movies are pitched and produced, casts selected, and stories altered to make the project more palatable to investors. If you don’t like it; change it. Good luck with that. Lots of people have tried.

    If you’re seeking to find who did this, and you’re like most people, you can start by looking in a mirror. If you have any index funds or a 401-k that have mass media in it, that money is invested by accountants guided by media consultants who consider casting white, or at least light skinned, actors a safer bet.

    To them, a movie is primarily an investment vehicle. They lean heavily toward corporations that place ‘shareholder value’, maximizing short term profits and avoiding risk, above serving the needs of artists, movie viewers, or the social merits of alternative racial composition.

    Demonstrate in hard numbers that they can produce higher profits by casting Asian actors, preserving the essential Japanese character of the story, and you have a shot. But you’re going to have to buck the studio executive and yes-men who believe the conventional wisdom that keeping it less ethnic is safer and will bring in a wider audience.

  19. 19
    Pierce R. Butler

    Even Kurosawa cast Richard Gere as a supposedly half-gaijin relative to a Japanese family in one of his later films. Didn’t even give him any epicanthic eye makeup to provide superficial plausibility.

    So if one Akira did it that way…

  20. 20
    Cloumiau

    If you have any index funds or a 401-k that have mass media in it,

    Nope.

    maximizing short term profits and avoiding risk, above serving the needs of artists, movie viewers, or the social merits of alternative racial composition.

    Good luck maximizing profits without serving the needs of movie viewers. And again this all sounds exactly like the BS used to justify redlining, or the ever popular “I’m not racist but…you know…property values…” You were already given one counterexample to the idea that audiences will only accept white characters, it’s not exactly difficult to think of others, just what exactly are you looking for?

  21. 21
    michaelswanson

    Art says:

    I’m not seeking to justify anything. That is just the way it is…

    Just like people complaining about things they don’t like, disagree with or are offended by. Not as useful as actually making a concerted effort to change things, but pointing out what’s wrong with something isn’t such a bad thing.

    …though as a geek I’m duty-bound to watch…

    I missed the above quote at first. I will say, Mr. Thibeault, that not seeing the film would put more weight behind your argument — even though it would only cause a $10 dent to millions of dollars in profit. In a way, your article can come across as, “Taking a movie about Japan and Japanese culture and Japanese kids, and casting white actors in their place, is not cool…but it will have explosions and futuristic motorcycles, so I have to see it!”

  22. 22
    Cloumiau

    Even Kurosawa cast Richard Gere as a supposedly half-gaijin relative to a Japanese family in one of his later films. Didn’t even give him any epicanthic eye makeup to provide superficial plausibility.

    Rhapsody In August is an original screenplay, not an adaptation of an existing story, Gere’s character in the film is American, and his nationality is clearly relevant to the story given the subject matter. I honestly don’t see much of a parallel.

  23. 23
    Aratina Cage

    Burton’s execrable Batman movie

    *gasp* ??? His Batman movies were fucking masterpieces!

  24. 24
    Jason Thibeault

    I will say, Mr. Thibeault, that not seeing the film would put more weight behind your argument — even though it would only cause a $10 dent to millions of dollars in profit.

    I said watch, not pay to watch. Once one of my friends inevitably buys the DVD, I’ll borrow it. And, depending on just how bad it ends up being, will very carefully return it to them so as not to incur the cost of having destroyed and needing to replace the original.

    michaelswanson: I only have a slight problem with race-swapping from white to black (e.g. Nick Fury in the Marvel Ultimate or Movie continuities), or from male to female (e.g. Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica). Both of these take existing roles and reinterpret them, rather than inserting Token Black Guy or Token Woman into the story. And they move from “society default white male” to another color/gender. And in both cases, they took bog-standard practically stock characters and turned them into something slightly more interesting.

    Now, you probably couldn’t introduce Dick Greyson as a black Robin without altering a good deal of his backstory (the circus acrobat era is already long past, though, so his backstory needs a revamping desperately), but aside from the fact that he’s bloody dead, Jason Todd doesn’t need to be white. Tim Drake, neither, not even as Red Robin. They even had a good chance to do it during the reboot and retrofit of the entire DC universe.

  25. 25
    Jason Thibeault

    BTW: Red Hood is a lie. Has to be. Everyone in comics come back from the dead except Bucky and Jason Todd. And those two, especially not to become two-bit villains.

  26. 26
    John Wilson

    Demonstrate in hard numbers that they can produce higher profits by casting Asian actors, preserving the essential Japanese character of the story, and you have a shot.

    I’m a little late to this, but as a fan of the Asian film industry, I have to wonder if Art has ever heard of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”? Phenomenally successful Asian film and, if it did not get the revenues in the US box office of the likes of the truly dreadful (IMHO) Titanic, $200+ million is hardly to be sniffed at.

    I must admit that when I first heard Akira was being remade as live-action I was incredibly excited. As technically brilliant as the Akira anime was, it didn’t really tell the Akira story. I was fortunate enough some time ago to get my hands on a couple of the Akira manga (unbelievably being sold at cover price in a local Waterstones bookstore!); it’s a completely different story. (If you’ve ever watched any Evangelion, and then seen the condensed Neon Genesis Evangelion film, you’ll get the gist of what I’m talking about). But having white actors playing Japanese biker gangs? That’s just taking suspension of disbelief too far, it’s just not going to work.

    On the other hand, there are rumours that with the release of a new Akira film, there may be a new publisher for the original Manga. Which would be very nice.

  27. 27
    michaelswanson

    Jason Thibeault says

    I said watch, not pay to watch.

    I stand corrected.

    Moocher.

    [/runsaway] :)

  28. 28
    WMDKitty -- Survivor

    Dammit. I will NOT be watching this. I’ve seen the animated movie, I’ve read most of the manga, and I refuse to tarnish those with… that.

  29. 29
    Juniper Shoemaker
    Asians and blacks children are trained from a young age to identify with white characters.

    Art: by whom, exactly?

    This is a good question. I feel that I was taught to identify with white characters. That’s part of trying to be as “white” as possible in order to gain approval. I feel that I received most of the instruction and the impetus to do so from the culture in which I grew up. However, divorcing myself from the deep-seated rage I’ve come to experience over this issue for the purposes of an explanation that does the complexity of this phenomenon justice isn’t easy. Plus, I don’t think it is quite the same for members of the Millennial Generation (i.e., Americans born between 1982 and 2000) as it was for Gen Xers (i.e., Americans born between 1960 and 1981).

    Therefore, I don’t yet have a fully formulated answer with respect to my own experience in the U.S. I couldn’t begin to answer this question for other locations around the world (e.g., where, as one result of European colonization and American influence, brown, black or Asian kids favor movies and beauty magazines that feature delicate white damsels with saucer-large deep-set Caucasian eyes, pelts of mercilessly straight hair, and thin beak-like noses as heroines and models; brown, black and Asian nations whose citizens routinely express disgust for dark skin, nappy or curly hair, broad noses and epicanthal folds and spend fortunes on skin bleaching, straightening perms, flat irons and blow dryers, “circle lenses”, cosmetic contact lenses that make brown irises appear blue, green or hazel, rhinoplasty and blepharoplasty). Something to continue to try for.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite="" class=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>