‘akira,’ ‘2 broke girls’ and re-framing the hollywood race debate.
Fanboys and fangirls either fist-pumped with joy or slumped down in disappointment at the news that the live-action American adaptation of manga series Akira has been put on hold once again, this time reportedly because of budget concerns. The movie’s been in the proverbial pipeline for years now with a number of big stars tied to the project, including Keanu Reeves. And it’s who will get top billing that’s been a subject of controversy. The latest names include Garrett Hedlund (Tron) as the lead, Kaneda, and Kristen Stewart (like I need to put the name of the series) as his love interest, Kei. The quirky Helena Bonham Carter and Japanese actor Ken Watanabe are also rumored to join.
Now you’re probably wondering, as I did, isn’t this a Japanese series? So, well, where are all the other Asians in the cast besides Watanabe? In what universe would Bonham Carter playing a role named “Lady Miyako” not be, well, incongruous? It seems that George Takei is wondering the same thing. He tweeted last April, “Akira epic fail—all actors up for Kaneda & Tetsuo are white?” and urged followers to sign a petition demanding that Warner Bros. not “whitewash Akira.” I, for one, would not want to feel the wrath of Sulu even through the Internet. Oh, my!
But to simply pose this as an issue of whitewashing dismisses a bigger-picture problem: That Hollywood doesn’t see ethnic stars as marketable. That if you found, say, a talented accent-free actor of Asian descent to play Kaneda (Harry Shum, Jr. anyone?), everyone would run screaming out of the theater and into the one with the movie starring Reese Witherspoon and co-starring a talking dog. A movie’s bottom line, the number of people willing to shell out cash to see when it opens, how much more it would make if it’s in 3D–it goes without saying that these things matter to Hollywood. It is about dollars and cents and eyeballs; not simply race. This is why executive instincts say, “Go! Greenlight movies in which the plot revolves around a man cross-dressing as a woman!” In 3D.
In the instances when Asian actors are included in mainstream roles, the way they’re portrayed and written still reflects this rather narrow view. Take, for example, the latest uproar over 2 Broke Girls after executive producer Michael Patrick King was skewered by critics at the TCA conference this week for defending the character Han and the borderline racist jokes made on the show. Noting Broke is an “equal opportunity offender” that “[takes] everybody down” is problematic because the Han caricature doesn’t take anybody, well, anywhere. For every multi-dimensional Chin Ho Kelly of Hawaii Five-0 or hunky Mike Chang of Glee, we get a Han Lee, and that’s just the way it is?
So, back to Akira. There is probably no faster way to isolate a core fanbase than by taking such huge liberties with the source material, as it seems the live action Akira will do. It also seems that someone forgot that Akira is a beloved international series with fans who have been perfectly okay with Kei and Kaneda being Asian. So if Akira proceeds with a largely un-diverse cast, perhaps some even more dramatic overhaul is needed: not only would it take place in neo-New York (instead of neo-Tokyo), but the name would not be Akira but something with less fidelity to its Japanese roots like, say, Aaron. Change the characters’ names: “Kaneda” becomes “Kane,” “Tetsuo” becomes “Tate,” “The Colonel” becomes—well, keep that one. Make it a “loosely-based” affair, and the issue of whitewashing or not becomes a non-issue.
In order for diversity to be normalized in Hollywood and the meaning of the American experience broadened along with it, creating so-called palatable and viable movies and TV requires Hollywood to understand that the audience who spends those dollar dollar bills isn’t a homogeneous population. Hollywood would be all the richer (literally and figuratively) for it.Tags: 2 broke girls, akira, anime, chin ho kelly, diversity, garrett hedlund, george takei, glee, han lee, harry shum, hawaii five-o, helena bonham carter, hollywood, japanese, kaneda, keanu reeves, kei, ken watanabe, kristen stewart, lady miyako, manga, michael patrick king, mike chang, reese witherspoon, Star Trek, sulu, tetsuo, tron