Why race matters when it comes to casting anime adaptations.
Two weeks ago we got out first glimpse at Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kurasungi from the upcoming live-action adaptation of 90s cyberpunk classic, ‘Ghost in the Shell’. This casting sparked a tonne of outrage when it was first announced last year, and this image of Johansson in costume for the role has only served to dredge all of this vitriol back up again. Why? Because yet again Hollywood has inexplicably chosen to race-swap an Asian character, and to add insult to injury – they were even reports that Paramount and DreamWorks ran tests to make Johansson look “more Asian” using VFX.
What the actual fuck, Hollywood?
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a live-action anime adaptation lose its ‘Japaneseness’ in translation, and it looks like it certainly won’t be the last. It all started with the terribly conceived ‘Dragon Ball Evolution’ movie (2009) that cast white actor Justin Chatwin in the role of ‘Son Goku’ for the live-action adaptation of Akira Toriyama’s iconic ‘Dragon Ball’ franchise. The film was a massive commercial and critical flop, and more importantly, a painful disappointment for fans.
Fast-forward to 2014, and ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ (2014) is released to far better reception. The film was loosely based on Katshuro Otomo’s manga, ‘All You Need Is Kill’ (I use the word ‘loosely’, loosely here) and starred Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt. Since then, it seems that Hollywood has begun snapping up live-action anime rights like they were going out of style. In the last few weeks, Netflix has announced its plans to produce a live-action ‘Death Note’ film adaptation starring white actor Nat Wolff as ‘Light Yagami’, and we’ve even had reports that several studios are battling it out for the live-action rights for Pokémon. And let’s not forget those ‘Akira’ rumours that have been circulating around for years now. The way things are going you can probably look forward to Zac Efron playing Kaneda in 2018.
You might be wondering why any of this matters – why, in these fantastical stories in which cyborg cops patrol the streets of future Tokyo or a teenager possesses a supernatural book and chats to an invisible Death God that looks like Robert Smith on an acid trip should it matter what the races of the characters are. And you’d be right to think this if it were not for the fact that Hollywood has an unfortunately long track record of whitewashing characters of colour – particularly Asian characters. From Micky Rooney as ‘Mr. Yunioshi’ in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ (1961) to Tilda Swinton as ‘The Ancient One’ in Marvel’s ‘Doctor Strange’ (2016), the only thing that seems to have changed in the last 40 years is that the offensive accent has been dropped.
The argument I hear constantly in defence/explanation of these casting decisions is that big budget films need a “bankable” star in order to justify and recoup the money the studio shells out for them. Director Ridley Scott took this line of defence in response to criticism levied at him for his whitewashed casting in ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’ (2015).
“I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such […] I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”
Despite the fact that I’m pretty sure the director of ‘Gladiator’, ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Alien’ could get a 3-hour film in which an old man picks chewing gum off the bottom of his shoes financed if he really tried hard enough, this argument is incredibly depressing and frankly inexcusable. If a “bankable” star has to be white in Hollywood then why is that something industry leaders like Scott can just shrug off and accept? It’s not something that would ever be acceptable in any other job sector without serious human rights violations, so why should the film industry be exempt?
The cold, hard truth is that directors like Ridley Scott – and Hollywood in general – just doesn’t seem to care about race – even if it has a detrimental effect on the authenticity of the story they’re trying to tell and sell to us on screen. And, as writer/director Max Landis recently explained on You Tube, even if directors and writers do care, the combination of financial fears and lack of opportunity for actors of colour to make it to ‘A-List’ status has created a “broken system” set against them. For anime fans, all this means that for the foreseeable future we can look forward to a sea of white faces masquerading as our favourite Japanese heroes, heroines, and villains.
This problem is particularly relevant to anime and manga adaptations because of the quintessential ‘Japaneseness’ of the medium. Anime – as well its unique visual style – is filled with stories, characters and themes that rely deeply on the country’s cultural heritage, social and political history, and distinctive sense of humour to be understood. For non-Japanese otaku, this allure of ‘otherness’ is what makes us binge-watch an entire show on Crunchyroll, or spend hours styling a ridiculous wig before a convention, or empty our pockets for imported plush toys.
We don’t love anime despite it being Japanese; we love anime because it’s Japanese.
And whilst there has unfortunately been evidence to the contrary, to me the idea that an audience will only pay money to see characters on screen that match what they look like has as much basis in reality as the fictional worlds those characters inhabit. I think the amount of tears we all collectively shed whilst watching a child’s imaginary friend fade to nothing in ‘Inside Out’ proved that. (Uh, spoilers for ‘Inside Out’, btw.)
It is of course true that miscasting doesn’t automatically mean a film will be bad. ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ – despite rinsing out every ounce of Otomo’s manga it could get away with – turned out to be an interesting and well-executed sci-fi action movie. But, if a film starts off by miscasting the race of it’s main character, then how much respect do you think those pulling the strings really have for the source material, or for us – the fans?
Featured image: Scarlett Johansson in ‘Ghost in the Shell’ / Movie Web
- Cast of ‘Dragon Ball Evolution’ / Playstation
- Tom Cruise in ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ / Cinema Blend
- Mickey Rooney in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’/ Wikipedia
- Tilda Swinton in ‘Doctor Strange’ / The Metro
- Anime characters from ‘Shounen Jump’ / Anime World Info
- ‘Critically JaPanned’ by Loldwell / Loldwell.com