Sunday, February 13, 2011

"Akira" Casting and Racebending Redux

A few days ago, the rumor went around the internet that James Franco is in talks to star in a film adaptation of "Akira," playing the role of biker gang leader Kaneda. I winced and I cringed, waiting for someone to speak up and point out that Kaneda is a Japanese character, and if Franco was playing the role, this was racebending, and we could expect another "The Last Airbender" – style casting ruckus on our hands. Part of me wants to let it go, to not say anything and not rock the boat. Another part of me wants to grab the directors by the scruffs of their necks and shake them like bad dogs, while demanding to know why they insist on being so dense. The directors attached to "Akira," by the way, are the Hughes brothers ("Menace II Society," "The Book of Eli"), who are African-American and therefore firmly in the category of people who Should Know Better.

The "Akira" casting situation isn't as egregious as "Airbender." An early script moved the action from Neo Tokyo to Neo Manhattan, suggesting that we'll be getting a heavily Americanized adaptation that will retain few Japanese elements. The lead character probably won't be called Kaneda - a name which has proven notoriously difficult to pronounce in the dubs of the 1988 anime - and won't be of Asian descent. This will avoid the possibility of a verboten yellowface performance, essentially by erasing the Asian characters and replacing them with new Caucasian ones - a practice critics call "racebending." It's a common tactic, one that's been used in many other recent films like "Dragonball," "21," and "Extraordinary Measures." Of course, the title will remain "Akira," in order to capitalize on the notoriety of the famous Katsuhiro Otomo manga and anime.

And this is the real reason that the whole racebending debate has exploded over the last year, and why we'll be seeing the debate come up again and again in the years to come. There's a bumper crop of properties in Hollywood's development pipeline right now, that either feature Asian characters or have Asian origins - "Cowboy Bebop," "The Runaways," "Death Note," "Robotech," "Ghost in the Shell," "The Weapon," and "Oldboy," just to name a few. I expect we'll be seeing more of them once the nostalgia wave hits Gen-Y in ten to fifteen years, the generation that grew up with the mid-90s anime boom. Hollywood has proven that they're perfectly willing to mine these properties for new film projects, but very few will be staying true to their source material and feature lead characters who are Asian.

A common excuse for racebending is that it's a matter of economics. There are no superstar Asian or Asian-American actors who are marketable, recognizable names, capable of carrying major commercial films. Sure, we have Jackie Chan and Jet Li, but they're both foreigners who learned English as a second language, and they're graying quickly - not exactly who the studios want headlining their slick action blockbusters. We've seen Hollywood try borrowing existing foreign stars from Asia, like Jay Chou and Rain, but this isn't going to be as effective in the long run as having Asian stars that have come up through Hollywood itself. If we have a deficit of Asian talent, the obvious way to fix the problem is to start putting some real effort into finding young Asian actors and actresses, and giving them the opportunities to grow into the stars the studios are going to need for these future projects. Our Tom Cruises and Will Smiths were not made overnight.

That means taking risks on Asian actors that the studios haven't been taking. The more resistant studios are to casting Asian actors, the more exacerbated the problem becomes. There's no reason that the role of Kaneda couldn't have gone to a young Asian-American actor like Aaron Yoo ("Disturbia," "21," "Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist") or Sung Kang ("Better Luck Tomorrow," "Fast & Furious"), except that these two have been stuck for too long in supporting roles and never got their break. There's no reason an Asian-American actor like Daniel Wu, who became a superstar in Hong Kong despite being unable to speak Cantonese until he was in his twenties, couldn't have become one in the U.S. The trouble is that so many of the roles these actors could have played have been reserved for Caucasian actors. This is one of the reasons last year's "The Last Airbender" casting fiasco raised such a storm of vitriol. It was not only a blatant example of racebending, but also represented a huge lost opportunity for American audiences to get to know some young minority actors.

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea of an Americanized "Akira" adaptation, but there's no escaping the sense that the material is being compromised. The central image of "Akira" that everyone remembers is Kaneda on his red motorcycle, roaring through neon-lit Neo Tokyo. There's no reason why a character like Kaneda has to be Japanese, but in this day in age there's no reason why he couldn't be - why our Asian actors can't play the heroes on the big screen. Racebending isn't going to fly for much longer. The audience is catching on and the existing fans of these properties are not happy. Hollywood better start getting proactive about this, or they're going to lose a lot of potentially lucrative franchises.

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