Does Race Count in Anime/Live-Action Casting?

Posted by on April 6th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

What races are these drawings?

Director M. Night Shyamalan’s apparent decision to cast Caucasian actors to play the parts of non-white characters for his adaptation of the anime, Avatar: The Last Airbender, has stirred a proverbial hornet’s nest of protest and frustration online. At heart is a question often asked of me while I’m on tour for Japanamerica: Why do so many characters in Japanese art forms—anime and manga—appear to be ethnically Western?

The short answer is thanks to Frederik L. Schodt, author of Dreamland Japan, who notes that Western notions of beauty began to influence Japanese artists as early as the Meiji restoration (late 19th C). It’s also true, as Schodt notes, that the big saucer eyes of Western-looking characters made it easier for artists to express the nuances of deep emotion. And Osamu Tezuka, the father of modern Japanese comics and animation, was particularly keen to create characters that were ‘stateless’—appealing to a global audience.

Sixty years after Tezuka, we are confronted with a very 21st century dilemma—partly encapsulated by a blogger who calls himself Angry Asian Man: What to do with illustrated characters/avatars who come to life in live action films—and must be performed by real  people, who have very real racial/ethnic signifiers?

Author Ursula K. Le Guin was said to be very upset with Studio Ghibli’s animated version of her novel, Tales from Earthsea, principally because Goro Miyazaki (master Hayao’s son) turned her original dark-skinned characters bleach white.  Live-action Hollywood-ish versions of MahaGoGoGo!/Speed Racer and Dragonball Z both feature Caucasian leads, despite being revered and very Asian/Japanese source stories.

Hollywood, of course, requires major bank to get a story to the screens and cinemas across the U.S. and the world. And major bank means promised returns. Caucasian leads are virtually a necessity to guarantee that a film isn’t a flop in the hinterlands of the US—and overseas.  Can’t hedge your bets with millions in tow.

But there’s another problem: Few Japanese actors can speak English fluently, and those few who can are often too old for the roles they might play (Ken Watanabe being the perfect example).  Do Asian source stories like anime need Asian actors to deliver the aura properly?  And if so: Where to find them?

I happen to think race is immaterial when it comes to art.  If the dark-skinned eponymous anti-hero in Shakespeare’s Othello is played by an actor who is white, bronzed, pink or  green, I couldn’t care less, as long as he’s good. The great Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa of the Boston Symphony Orchestra once said when accused of hiring too few minority/Asian musicians (and I paraphrase): Art is not democratic.  I hire the best musicians who audition.  Period.

At the same time, I find it remarkable that the Asian race is even at issue today when Hollywood adapts anime into live-action blockbusters.  Asians in America have long been stereotyped as the ‘model minority,’ rarely raising a fuss over clear examples of discrimination. Perhaps, as a half-Japanese American, I should cheer this development, even if its motivation is one I find highly dubious.

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4 Responses to “Does Race Count in Anime/Live-Action Casting?”

  1. Claire says:

    Excellent article, and a provocative topic. Race should be immaterial when it comes to art, but as your point out, racial/ethnic signifiers suggest certain expectations, back stories, and narratives.

    Also, M. Night Shyamalan is formulaic and glib.

    • chancefiveash says:

      Interesting post. I’ve thought about this on many occasions myself (i.e. Speed Racer)

      Not to nitpick (or maybe I am), but Avatar is actually a US production that is heavily influenced by anime. It’s not considered anime. Not that is matters within the main point of the article.

  2. hcduvall says:

    Ahh, if only this movie was cast with the very best who auditioned. While I’m generally in line with the idea that Art should be cast with the best, I’d say that part of the complication is that the less common look for the characters was a calculated part of the work. LeGuin purposely made dark-skinned characters, and while work stands regardless of it, and likewise Avatar itself has a open look for the kid and teen leads, the adults do signal race more. It’s not really a case of the best for the work being used if it’s patently ignoring a portion of the creators’ intent. Mindful of the limitations of Hollywood and all that, all four leads changing was a bit more to swallow, than say the story of the MIT blackjack club that got made into the movie 21. There’s probably another debate to be had about how great it is if Asians (or whoever) are still regulate into supporting roles, but the notion that white still has to stand in for most acceptable is certainly challengable.

  3. Snarp says:

    Regarding the question of whether manga artists intentionally draw characters to look white or “ethnically neutral,” I’d suggest reading Matt Thorn’s essay The Face of the Other. The short version is that they don’t – Westerners think that manga characters look white because we tend to consider white the ethnic default, while Japanese people think that the characters look Asian for the same reason.

    (I can confirm this from my own experience teaching in Japan – Japanese kids think manga and anime characters look Japanese. They don’t think they look white. Only Westerners think that.)

    Beyond that, the idea that most manga artists are deliberately trying to make their characters look white is a little incredible. There may be a few Japanese artists who are deeply concerned with the accessibility of their works to a non-ethnically-Japanese, but if these guys had, like, a conference? The conference would be a very small one where everybody looked slightly sad at all times. Probably they couldn’t afford a really good hotel, the panels keep devolving into people reciting racist things their editors have said, and there’s this one guy who shouldn’t be there who just showed up so he could accuse everyone else of sympathizing with those dirty Brazilians who took his day job. Yukito Kishiro didn’t show up because he’s been hospitalized for depression again.

    And I got distracted there, but uh, it’s a little like saying that, you know, because a lot of novels by white Americans don’t have people on the covers – they have cars or lipstick or cats or something – white American authors as a whole are desperately interested in making it possible for a non-white audience to read their characters as their own ethnicity.

    Anyone believe that? Make that argument for me! I am interested in your ideas.

    Regardless, Avatar was not an anime – it was American-produced – so this stuff’s irrelevant. The show’s settings are pretty unambiguously derived from China, Japan, Korea, and pre-colonial North America. I just don’t see how one can make an argument that these characters were originally intended to be white.

    The suggestion that the casting directors somehow “couldn’t find” Asian or Native American actors who spoke English is pretty silly. Native Americans living in the US and Canada are known for their persistent habit of speaking English, and I would suspect that there are quite a few Asian-American actors in California. You could even import some from other states! If you can’t find any in Japan or China (HINT: you can) there are *other* exotic foreign lands with Asian people in them, like Canada, or Australia! They speak English those places, too. I mean, there is no shortage here.

    And anyway, if I recall correctly (and someone correct me if I’m wrong), the original casting call was worded to suggest that they were mostly interested in white actors. So I think it’s very, very risky to argue that they didn’t deliberately choose to cast the heroes as white and the villains as non-white – and if you want to do so, I think you need to think carefully about why you want that to be the case. About a quarter of the United States in non-white, but that’s not something that’s reflected in the ethnicities of characters in movies and TV, particularly the stuff aimed at kids – unless it’s, say, a problem story about drug addiction or gang violence or something, the hero is almost always going to be Caucasian. If you want to claim that the casting of Avatar wasn’t racist, you first have to be able to explain why this keeps happening, over and over and over. It’s pointless to talk about “casting the best person” for the role, because in general, Hollywood doesn’t do that. It casts the best white person.

    Avatar was very good, very successful, and very unusual for an American-produced kids’ show, in that it had an entirely non-white cast. This was one of the only shows that did that. There were a lot of kids who never got to see themselves as the heroes who this show made really happy. It’s special to a lot of people. I’m going to leave it as a mental exercise to figure out what this movie’s casting tells those kids.

    – or, okay, maybe I won’t. I recall an Asian woman saying that her nephew had seen the pictures of the actors, and was scared that it meant he and his friends couldn’t “play Avatar” anymore, because it was for white people.