January 17, 2009

Someone is allowing Keanu Reeves to play Spike Spiegel.

If the response across the web is any indication, fans of Cowboy Bebop are mostly infuriated by the news, with a hopeful few clinging to the notion that Keanu's anime fandom will translate into a performance along the lines of, well, faithful cosplay.

But add it to news of Leonardo DiCaprio's live-action Akira, (with Joseph Gordon Levitt playing Tetsuo), and a live-action Ninja Scroll, plus M. Night Shyamalan's live-action whitewash of Avatar: The Last Airbender,* and we're looking at a definite trend of live-action anime adaptations, the first of which to hit screens being Dragonball Evolution, which also features white actors playing roles originally created, written, directed, animated, and performed by Japanese people.**

According to Edward Said, one of the principles of Orientalism is a belief that Asia cannot speak for herself, and that the West must do it for her, constantly re-interpreting and clarifying the "mysteries of the Orient" for Western audiences, regurgitating the complexities of other cultures into an easily-digestible whole. The trouble with the Orientalist position is that it creates a false discourse that operates on the premise that a whole country and its inhabitants can be reduced to a single brand identity, a cognitive simplification equivalent to saying that "all anime is tentacle porn." Moreover, it assumes a fundamental incapability of the Western mind to grasp the multi-faceted nature of that which is Other, because "the gaijin won't get it."

But as all anime fans know, this is simply not true. However one feels about fansubs and scanlations, they frequently take the time to explain to an eager and intelligent audience the delicate nuance of a Japanese reference or phrase or pun. And if the recent developments at Crunchyroll have proven anything, it's that anime fans want anime, and they want it animated, and soon, not months or years from now.

There's an argument to be made that the purpose of live-action adaptations isn't to appeal to anime fans (although such adaptations doubtless intend on capitalizing on them), but rather to introduce mainstream viewers to anime via the otherwise-familiar milieu of flesh-and-blood cinema. And as self-professed anime fans, this may be Mr. Reeves and Mr. DiCaprio's goal -- to show the rest of the multiplex what arthouse and home viewers have known for decades. But can such a move really benefit the anime industry? Is a live-action adaptation -- especially one that uses white actors in Japanese roles*** -- really a faithful homage to a beloved title? Or it it just an allegedly foreigner-friendly dumbing-down of the original text? We won't know until the films arrive. But in the meantime, my real question:

If you love anime, why not just fund more anime?

The anime industry is barely getting by, at a point in time when its global appeal is most highly recognized. As Roland Kelts points out in Japanamerica, people who believe that anime is a lucrative business for the animators or even directors are sadly deluded. Japanese creators are often separated from royalties when it comes to overseas licensing, because, as Kelts says: "The global anime boom of the twenty-first century has taken Japan, a country whose corporate culture prides itself on knowing the next new thing, almost completely by surprise." (73) But big names like DiCaprio and Reeves could give the industry a much-needed boost by following the Tarantino and Wachowski method: fund your own anime, rather than commissioning adaptations. For the cost of a Hollywood film, couldn't you pay the people at Gonzo or Production IG or Bones to animate your own script? What if, instead of meatsack re-hashings of classic anime titles, we got fresh product done by professionals who know the medium inside and out?

I ask because animation is its own unique medium. It can do things that film can't. It depicts events in a manner that, while not entirely realistic, remains at its best truthful to lived experience. Anime fans have accepted this, and moved on. They understand, respect, and desire more of the art form on its own terms. They know its merits, and its limitations. In fact, they relish in them. And if Mr. Reeves and Mr. DiCaprio were the fans they claim to be, they would feel the same.

Anime does not need Hollwyood to speak for it. Anime does not need a whitewash, an improvement, or a literal incarnation in order to reach an understanding audience. Audiences understand, if given the opportunity. They're smarter than the focus groups say. If producers proclaim to love anime, they should put their money where their mouths are, and buy some more of it.

*I include Avatar: The Last Airbender on this list because it featured both characters and actors of colour: Katara and Sokka, originally dark-skinned (like all Water Tribe people), are now being played by white actors. And while white voice talents were employed, so were Asians: Mako, George Takei, George Hong, Dante Basco, Tsai Chin, and Sab Shimono all contributed their talents (although frequently as guest stars rather than leads, with the exception of Mr. Iwamatsu and Mr. Basco). Notably in Shyamalan's live-action cast is the replacement of Mr. Basco (a Filipino-American who has appeared in live-action films and television) with a blond, blue-eyed pop star.

**And Korean people, let us not forget. Korean animation studios frequently do "in-betweener" animation for both Japanese and American productions, and have done so for years now. This is also true of the afore-mentioned Avatar.

***One could also argue that the role of Spike Spiegel is not Japanese -- Spike was born on Mars, and we don't know his ethnicity. But the characters of Akira and Ninja Scroll are definitely Japanese.

Image credit: Slashfilm

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Comments:
I think that it's less of the "orientalism" you mention and more of Hollywood trying to find another source of movie ideas. Hollywood will make their anime adaptations and eventually move on to something else in the same way they did with cartoons, fantasy novels, TV shows, Asian horror and so on.

While there will undoubted be some good movies made out of this, most of them will be terrible and in the end, the originals will still be considered niche.
I'm going to agree with you. This reminds me of Jake Gyllenhaal as Prince of Persia...
I'm always fascinated by live-action adaptations (tv drama or feature film) of animated programs that are produced by local Asian markets for local Asian markets... there's usually a cultural flavor to the programs that's wholly unique, and the storytelling is much more genuine (however much adapted the script happens to be).

What makes me ill are the Hollywood adaptations. Producers have been fielding Japanese animation for potential blockbuster films for a long time, and it's only now that these films are actually being made... yet, there hasn't been one of some such announcement over the past six years that gave me an initial sense of confidence.

Other than many of these new projects looking as if their directors ultimately have too much money and too much time on their hands; it pains me to say that the of "animation is animation" and that "animation should stay animation" means nothing to people with money. (Sure, motion-capture and computer graphics blur what we define as animation, but in a different manner...)

A live-action Cowboy Bebop makes my eye twitch; a live-action Akira makes me lose feeling in my left arm...
I can't follow you in seeing this as a special phenomenon restricted to Anime. Comic-and-Animation-to-Lifeaction has been done in Hollywood as well as in Europe: Superman, Spiderman, Batman, Hulk, X-Men, Popeye, Scooby-Doo, and this goes back even to Prince Valiant. In Europe we had Asterix, Lucky Luke, and Enki Bilal's Immortal, and a Tintin is said to be in the pipeline. A media transfer like this is done by those kind of people who see everything just as "property" and will milk it as long as possible.

But of course I always agree to "let the animators get more money."
There already is a Tintin live-action film -- Les oranges bleues, done way back in the 70s (IIRC). But unlike all other adaptations I know of, while it had the usual cast of characters it had an original scenario.

Like many, I find most live action adaptations just don't live up to the comic book/animated version. In my opinion this has to do with the relation between representation ad reality, but it would take a long post to clarify what I mean so I'll leave that for another day.

That said, at least Immortal was directed by Bilal himself.
A very intresting article, isn't Keanu a little old for spike?

As an asian-canadian-animator I agree with most of this article but the hiring of white actors to play asian or other ethic roles just seems to be business as usual for hollywood, it seems like a real hold over from the old days of that system, it always amuses me that any ethic role can be filled by a british actor in the mind of hollywood. It's like the british are just diffrent enough but not too diffrent, so want some german nazis get some brits. Ghandi get a brit, Russian? obvious, get some one british. I think maybe this is an old school aproach that might hopefully be dying out.
money rules the world. People donnot flock to see a movie made up of a black or asian cast. Hence they use white actors.

Sure there are some exeptions to that. jackie chan in his stereotypical martial arts asian dude. Sure there are exceptions but generally asians/blacks are sidelined from the screen. if you watch enough movies you might think the world is composed of mainly white people.

thats my two cents.
I'd show this article to people who saw the casting of white characters into distinctly Asian roles is 'no big deal.'

Let's see if they still think that after seeing Spike and Akira getting the same treatment.
this is going to blow i mean can you imagane kyonu "cha dude you like shot me" ewww so fail
I find this article to be racist and cloyingly pc. Hollywood follows the dollar... and reframing that motivation as ethnocentricity and paternalism is manipulative and narrow minded. You want animators to get paid.. yeah.. I'm with you. A live action anime inspired movie with Keanu Reeves might make a dollar, but it means fewer opportunities for animators. That doesn't make it racist. Very obnoxious of you.
To two previous anonymous readers:

I think that the assumption that a movie will not work with unless a white actor is featured in a role original conceived by the writer as someone who is not is problematic.

How does money make that motivation less problematic? The underlying assumption that a film will not be bankable without white actors is more of an issue.
This post has been removed by the author.
"while white voice talents were employed"

"[Asian voice actors appeared] frequently as guest stars rather than leads"

Why aren't people getting more upset about non-Asian actors playing the voice roles in the original show? (Or, for that matter, playing the parts of Asian characters in anime dubs?)

The animated Avatar had a nearly entirely white core cast. You could just as easily picture Mae Whitman next to Katara in your article as the actress you do picture there. And there was hardly any trace of Asian accent in those characters—in fact, Jason Isaacs was told specifically not to try to sound Asian. ("Be yourself…but be your American self," is the advice the British actor was given.)

Why didn't people get upset about that? Because the characters looked Asian, it didn't matter whether they had authentic Asian accents or not? Is being Asian really only a matter of appearance?

No, of course not. That's why people are getting so upset. They don't want white actors to be made up to look Asian (or even just have the Asian features ignored) precisely because being Asian is not skin deep. But it sure doesn't look good that they didn't complain about the same issue back when the animated show was being made.

I would like to think that Night honestly didn't even think about ethnicity one way or another and just cast the best actors he could find. But the politics of ethnicity mean that even trying to be race-agnostic will be seen by some people as an anti-Asian bias.
Hi Chris,

You make a good point about voice casting. I think that "race-agnostic" would mean casting anyone - Asian, European, African, and so on - and I don't think that's the case here.

Also, I think there are more than enough Asians that have been in North America - in many cases for generations - for the American accents not to be a problem.
This is a very good point. Of course it's a simplistic argument, but at the end of the day there's no escaping the fact that there must be a demand and a market in order for there to be a product.

If anything, the backlash shows how far anime has come in America - in the 1980s, anime was far more obscure and what fans existed would have been utterly thrilled to have a big name actor do a live action remake of an anime show. Now the impression is that anime can do better than its inevitable mangling at the hands of this crew.

I disagree with slowtiger's assessment that comic books turned into movies suffer the exact same issues. Making action films of Western products by Westerners keeps things largely within the same culture, and this neatly avoids the problem of Orientalism mentioned in the article.
To Chris, I'd have to ask, why does someone need to sound Asian to be Asian? I'm a Korean adoptee. If you saw me on the street in Korea, I'd blend in with the crowd. Over the phone however, you'd have a tough time telling where I was from. You'd almost positively think I was white though. Why do people have to have an accent to be Asian? That notion in and of itself is institutionalized racism at its worst. Why can't we move away from the idea that Asian people have to look, act, and talk a certain way especially in the medium of film, television, and animation.

These decisions, the way they come out, it makes it alright for people to be racist. It's ok to make the assumption that English isn't my first language. It's ok to assume I'm Japanese or Chinese, because hey, they all look alike (just look at the movies). With my experiences with racism and hatred, that's not ok with me.


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