Friday, December 16, 2011

Akira or How I Learned to Stop Complaining and Observe the Hypocrisy

Akira has been on my mind recently due to the controversy surrounding the remake. Like many fans, I was perturbed by the news that there was going to be a live action version made. Akira was an instrumental part of my development as a film lover. In the early 90’s my discovery of Akira, along with others 80s films such as Barefoot Gen, Vampire Hunter D, Wicked City and Fist of the Northstar, taught me that anime could be more than just a thirty minute Saturday morning cartoon. However my fears about the big screen adaptation have more to do with my inability to fathom how they plan to recreate several iconic scenes rather than the casting choices. To be honest, I naively assumed the likes of Ken Leung, Sung Kang and John Cho would probably be casted in the film.

However, like many, I was caught off guard when I learned that the likes of Garret Hedlund (Tron Legacy, Four Brothers) and Kristen Stewart (Twilight, Adventureland) could possibly star in Akira. It is even more disturbing that, although set in neo-Manhattan, all of the predominantly white characters will still go by the Japanese names from the original manga/film. While I agree that it is another example of a studio taking a beloved Asian animated film and Americanizing it (i.e. making the cast predominantly white), I find the backlash rather fascinating. Why is it that people get up in arms about this practice for certain adaptations, but blissfully accept it in others?

For years studios have taken live-action films from Asia and remade them with little to no fuss at all. The Magnificent Seven and A Fistful of Dollars are two examples of films that were adapted to much praise. More recently films like The Departed, The Ring, Shall We Dance?, Dark Water, Eight Below, Pulse, The Lake House, The Grudge, Bangkok Dangerous, and The Eye were all remakes of Asian films that received little to no claims of “whitewashing.” Of those films mentioned, Bangkok Dangerous was the only one, if my memory serves me correctly, that actually feature any Asian actors in prominent roles. One would think that there would be the same level of outcry for these films as there is for Akira! In most of these cases, similar to the major complaint most have with the Akira remake, Asian actors/actresses were not cast in most of the roles.

I could not help but think of the Q &A session for the wonderful film Better Luck Tomorrow at TIFF in 2002. The film’s director Justin Lin, who would later go on to make the surprise hit Fast Five, and his talented cast, which featured John Cho pre-Harold and Kumar, talked about the struggles of being Asian-American in Hollywood. The cast commented on how they all became friends by running into each other at the same auditions to play the Chinese food delivery guy. While the cast was able to look back and laugh at their early days, the fact is things have evolved slowly for Asian-American actors. Sure they are more visible in regards to roles on television, but the roles are still few and far between when it comes to the big screen.

The sad part is people only seem to want to stand up and shout when talented Asian actors/actresses get ignored for anime/manga adaptations. Even then it seems like they are picking and choosing which adaptations to rile against. Speed Racer and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World where both released with no uproar, however films like Street Fighter: The Legend of Chung-Li, Dragonball Z, and The Last Airbender were viewed as crimes against humanity for featuring white actors in the leads. Is it because talented directors like the Wachowskis and Edgar Wright where attached, not to mention the star studded cast in each, that people were more accepting of this practice? Both Legend of Chung-Li and Dragonball where directed by individuals who brought the world Exit Wounds and Final Destination respectively. As for Airbender, well let us just say M. Night Shyamalan missed the mark with this one. Regardless, change cannot truly occur if people get annoyed in one instance, but blissfully let it go the next.

Now I am not saying to sit idly by and accept the “whitewashing” of Asian cinema. If anything, I think people should voice their displeasure of the lack at diversity in Hollywood loud and clear. I would love to see Akira done with a predominant Asian cast as much as the next fan of the film. However, if you are going to get all up in arms over Akira, then be sure to angry when films like The Departed, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Shall We Dance?, Speed Racer, etc. are adapted as well.


  1. Well, one of the standard images of anime is that the good characters usually have round eyes, while the evil characters usually have slanted eyes. I've frankly never understood why they do that, but nevertheless they do.
    Having westerners play the two major good parts would not be that far removed from anime's default.

    As for Asians being marginalized, it's not just in getting roles, but in winning awards, too. I noticed this way back with the 1988Best Picture The Last Emperor. It features almost all roles played by Asian actors and actresses, the movie got 9 Oscar nominations and won all 9, including Best Picture - yet not one single person was even nominated for acting.

  2. @Chip Lary – You make a good point about the lack of award recognition as well. The Last Emperor is a great example of this. I have never understood how a film can be nominated for Best Picture of the year without having at least one acting nod? Makes no sense!

  3. I don't really care all that much that there is mostly white actors in this live-action remake, since it's set in New York. But let's face it, it's going to suck pretty bad with this MTV cast and the fact that they will still use the Japanese name...

  4. @Castor – I have really low expectations for this film as well. Garrett Hedland has yet to impress me as an actor. Plus the use of Japanese names is just silly.

  5. I haven't seen all the movies you listed, but I think the reason movies like "The Departed" and "Magnificent Seven" didn't come under fire is that they successfully transplanted a *plot* into a completely different setting, rather than attempting to recreate the same Asian setting and characters except with bonus!white people. Movies like Dragonball Z, The Last Airbender and Akira, however, all fail this test because they want characters named "Son Goku" and "Aang" and "Kaneda" but they don't want to take the risk of casting a nonwhite person in these roles.

    Basically they want to cash in on the "exotic" novelty factor of Asian culture, but they don't want to acknowledge the existence of actual Asian *people.* "The Departed" and "Magnificent Seven" showed respect to the source culture by not treating it like a fetishy costume to be put on.

    Additionally, the excuse that has been made for Akira is "it's OK to cast white guys because it's set in New York." This reveals a subconscious assumption that American = white, which is wrong (factually wrong if nothing else). In fact less than half the population of New York City identifies as white.

  6. @lis – Excellent points on both the cashing in on the “exotic” and the fact that they are ignoring the diversity that currently exist in America. I find the whole transplanting the story argument interesting as well. It is one thing if you are adapting something that is set in the past, but it is strange that adaptations set in modern day America, or even the future, convey so little of the diversity that currently exist.

  7. lis has a point.

    The Departed backlash would be enormous if, let's say, they would have called it Infernal Affairs set in Hong Kong starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

    I think there's a certain room for "American versions" of Asian films like The Ring and such because they are treated as remakes. In the case of Chun Li and/or Dragon Ball, we're talking about taking a beloved franchise to the big screen for the first time (in the case of DB) and not casting a single Asian lead. Well, Kreuk is another story.

    I do think Asian-American actors get a lot of flack from the Asian community - Maggie Q is just one example.

    Take it like this... there wouldn't be much uproar if a producer decided to take some of the stories of the Afro Samurai series and tell them from the POV of a Caucasian Samurai, but what would people say if they decided to bring the Afro Samurai to the big screen calling it "Afro Samurai" and casting Justin Timberlake as the lead, when the role could have perfectly be given to an African-American actor.

    Studios have also learned to call their project re-adaptations, unless a project has a cult that's not so mainstream. In that case they call it an American remake with no hassle. xD

  8. @Amy – I found your point about Asian American actors, such as Maggie Q, getting a lot of flack from the Asian community interesting. Could you elaborate a bit more on what the particular issue is that the community has with these actors?


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