what race are they?
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 US 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.