ORIENT EXPRESSED Remake Remodelling
Orient Expressed is a weekly column, exploring the cinema of East and South-East Asia. This week: In the struggle against Hollywood ‘whitewashing’, is the forthcoming Akira remake the right battleground?
The American Akira remake has already incurred the wrath of the internet, long before any scenes have even been shot. Much of the anger has been focussed on the decision by the producers to open up casting of the leads to actors of “any ethnicity,” and the subsequent rumours of the likes of Leonardo di Caprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt or (horror of horrors) Zac Efron taking on the roles of protagonists Kaneda and Tetsuo.
Accusations of ‘whitewashing’ – deliberately casting white actors into roles specifically written for other ethnicities, for financial reasons – were everywhere. A virtual petition by the anti-discrimination group racebending.com entitled ‘Don’t Whitewash Akira!’ has received over 20,000 signatories and sparked talk of boycotts and protests. Even internet hero George Takei weighed in on the debate, urging Warner Brothers to “do the right thing” with Akira. In a 2011 interview with the Advocate magazine, Takei compared the casting to M. Night Shyamalan’s whitewashed Last Airbender (2010), claiming that “(Shyamalan) cast his project with non-Asians and it’s an Asian story, and the film flopped.” That may be true for The Last Airbender, but is it true for Akira? What is it, other than the setting, that makes Akira a specifically Asian story in the way that Miss Saigon or The Good Earth are specifically Asian stories?
That there is a ‘glass ceiling’ to ethnic minority actors in Hollywood productions is, depressingly, undeniable. 2008’s 21 infamously adapted a book about a predominately Asian-American group of students with an all-white cast, prompting producer Dana Brunetti to claim that she “didn’t have access to any bankable Asian-American actors that I wanted… If I had known how upset the Asian-American community would be about this, I would have picked a different story to film.” This shortage of Asian actors must be chronic. 2010’s Prince Of Persia adaptation cast Jake Gyllenhaal and English actress Gemma Arterton as a Persian (Iranian) and an Indian, respectively. Dragonball Evolution had white Canadian Justin Chatwin assuming the role of the noticeably non-white sounding Goku. One can’t help but wonder if it’s attitudes like Brunetti’s that are the reason for the lack of ‘bankable Asian-American actors’ in the first place.
It remains the prevailing belief throughout Hollywood that white audiences can only relate to white actors. Rather dishearteningly, the stats back this up. A study by Andrew Weaver of the Indiana University Department of Communications, in which sixty-eight white college undergraduates were introduced to twelve fictional synopses of romantic comedies, with casts of varying racial makeup, found that the participants were less likely to see a film depending on the number of black actors. A similar study of 150 participants, aged 18 to 69, found similar results, despite their previously expressed views on race.
We’ve been raised on the notion that ‘normal parts’ in films are roles that white people play.
However, Weaver was quick to argue against racial prejudice being the deciding factor for the disparity – when asked if they felt they were in the intended audience for the film, the likelihood of the participants agreeing decreased significantly when it came to films with a majority-black cast. In other words, Hollywood makes films with white actors to avoid alienating white audiences, and white audiences watch films with white casts because they’ve been conditioned to feel alienated from films that don’t have them.
We’ve been raised on the notion that ‘normal parts’ in films are roles that white people play. White people fulfil the roles of everymen and family men. Should an ethnic minority character feature, it will be their race that defines the character – wisecracking black sidekick, mysterious oriental femme fatale, and so on. There have been great leaps in recent years to defy this trend, especially among black actors – we’ve had a black Felix Leiter in Casino Royale and Idris Elba’s Norse deity in Thor, but colour-blind casting among other groups has been sorely lacking. It’s hard to name any Asian-American actor that can demand a billing as high as Will Smith or Denzel Washington can, for example.
There are signs that the good work by organisations such as Racebending is starting to show signs of a payoff – the film Up, for example, featured an Asian-American as one of its leads and managed to gross nearly $600 million – but progress in Hollywood is slow, and there’s too much money at stake to jar with audience expectations. It’ll take the best part of a generation to completely reverse the trends we’ve created. British-Chinese Elizabeth Chan, writing in The Guardian earlier this year, described a situation in her drama school whereby she was discouraged from assuming a role written as ‘a girl on a bench’, on the basis that it was written for ‘white people’. The year was 2006. If such attitudes have even filtered down to the drama academies, it’s going to take a lot of shifting on the silver screen.
In this climate, then, is it wrong to deny Asian actors a shot at Akira? After all, it’s a Japanese story, about men with noticeably non-Caucasian names like Kaneda and Tetsuo. Why is casting Zac Efron in that role acceptable and Jake Gyllenhaal as an ancient Iranian prince isn’t?
There is a difference between an adaptation and a remake, and this is something the whitewashing debate has failed to address. The former is derivative, an attempt to process the same ideas into a different medium. Any changes are subject to debate, and ‘faithfulness’ is the key. A remake takes the elements of a story and re-uses them in a different way. It doesn’t have to be faithful, nor should it be derivative.
Akira will be a remake. It’s already been confirmed that the setting of the story will no longer be a crime-ridden Neo-Tokyo, but a crime-ridden Neo-Manhattan – and in a city as multi-cultural as New York, there is no reason why the lead role can’t go to Leonardo di Caprio or Denzel Washington or Dev Patel or John Cho. It’s not a story about race or nationality. There is a strong subtext that roots the original in Japanese culture, but the essential building blocks of the tale are not dependent on the setting. It’s a film about biker gangs and terrorists and genetic engineering.
21 was wrong because it was an adaptation – the race of the leads was the only thing changed. Had it been an original story, there wouldn’t be a problem, but it purported to be something it wasn’t. The Last Airbender was offensive because it gave us white people pretending to be Asian, with Asian names and Asian backgrounds. If the new Akira maintained the Tokyo setting but denied Japanese actors the chance to play the big roles, it, too, would be deserving of criticism and protests. Zac Efron should be denied the part because he’s Zac Efron, not because he’s white.
A remake should use the ideas of its predecessor to create something new and striking, worthy of standing alone – think of the difference between Howard Hawk’s 1932 Scarface and Brian de Palma’s dissection of the Cuban underworld in the 1983 remake, or the difference between the Hong Kong triads in Infernal Affairs (2002) and the Boston Irish mob in The Departed (2006). Akira doesn’t have to be an Asian story any more than Blade Runner or Jurassic Park or Robocop have to be American stories. But by the same token, many Hollywood films do not tell Caucasian stories – and they owe it to actors of any race to open up those parts for them.
For more entries in our Orient Expressed season, click here.
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