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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