Thursday, April 01, 2010

Virtual racism? Avatar: The Last Airbender

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.


ArthurFrDent said...

Seems like there are enough actors in the US, that have various ancestries to make this work out, unless racial purity then becomes the next issue to be worried about. And? Are there any blond characters in Avatar? Except for Yue, who had white hair for a reason, they all looked fairly generic with dark hair and varous eye colors. In a fictional world, it would seem like the audience would accept various things.

Importantly? There ARE a number of different ethnicities involved:
Zuko is Indian Ancestry, Dev Patel
Ozai is Maori of New Zealand Cliff Curtis
Iroh is Iranian Shaun Toub
Zhou is Indian Aasif Mandvi

And that is for one country, the fire nation. In looks, they might be reasonably close.

The main group of the show is Sokka and Katara, and they are Water Tribe. What acnestry is that? Yup, I dunno either, but it's an imaginary world, there is no reason that they would be Inuit more than Norsk or Lapp. Aang I haven't seen a good picture of, but obviously M. Night decided that the kid's acting ability made it possible for him to carry the movie even as an unknown.

there are plenty of other looks and nationalities represented, but the only thing they may well share, is that if there are a lot of lines to deliver, they speak English really well, since it is native to many of them.

Otherwise? Not a blondie in the group. I would say that Shyamalan actually did make quite an effort to get this to work with the various ancestries, but naturally with an eye to what would be marketable in the US.

Would it have been better to make this in Hong Kong, and have it subtitled? No. The cartoon [americanme? amerikoreanme?] is very much an American kids show to begin with. Even though production was sourced to Korea, the Story and Storyboards, and maybe even the Key were done in the US, by a couple of US guys. On the census form they'd be white and nerdy like me.

I think the questions being asked, shouldn't be asked of a particular film... they are much larger. And certainly not just one direction. Seem like I read that Utada got hassled in Japan for making a few albums in English, as if that was beneath her or something. As connected as the world is, the mainstream of each country has it's own ideas of what it wants. That's what gets funded, and it will also be safe. Bollywood arguably produces much more than Hollywood. The notions that run those specific stories are very local.

How do you remedy what's seen as a wrong? When a high proportion of US would Identify as "white" What kind of race is that anyway? I'm not of Anglo ancestry, Viking is much more likely, but I may as well be Italian as far as the census is concerned. there is no breakout. If you are from anywhere in Europe, except for Spain, you are white. Spain gets an exception, ASFAIK only because it is Spanish speaking, and so is lumped in with Mexican/Central American, as if the Ancestry is the same as the Mayan.


ArthurFrDent said...


I think a whole lot of this issue drives in to being a question of how you wish to be seen. What you wish to be associated with. That's why everyone gets so touchy about it. The actors probably are available for any given ethnicity if you dig far enough...

the question is, should that be the primary reason for selecting them, or are they in service to a story? Not to mention the practical concerns. I'm sue they could have gotten say, a Jet Li to play Zhou, but what would that do to the budget? Would have loved to have seen Chou Yun Fat as Iroh, too.

On the other claw, I hear they are trying to do a live action Bleach, and yeah, I have my reservations. If you Americanize the cosmology of a world with Shinigami, what do you end up with. Yet, will it fly any other way?

I think the angst is misplaced. Is it a good story? Does it serve it's source well? Are people interested? OK,NOW lets talk about what is behind this. Do people who see the movie, suddenly want to know what a Sifu is? Are they intrigued by the writings they see, or the architecture? That interest builds a bridge between peoples, IMHO, and it is that bridge that begins the breakdown of the wall of races...

Least that's the way I see it. Hope I didn't ramble too much. ;)

Roland Kelts said...

Not at all. Great insights and thoughts. I particularly like your suggestions regarding bridge-building via narrative.

charliedoesit said...

I wrote a post on my blog a week or so ago about the same issue. I couldn't even talk about 'The Last Airbender' I was so upset. I did however discuss 'Street Fighter:The legend of Chun-Li'. I called it "Where have the minorities gone?"

Anonymous said...

I am asking Asians to deface any and all Avatar posters by spray painting RACISTS on them. Also, I heard they are makig a Genghis Kahn movie starring Mickey Rourke. Jews in Hollywood and the media have always been racist towards Asians. Unless Asian Americans take a stand and stomp these assholes out in their tracks, they're going to keep on commiting to their divisive and racist policies against Asians. All it does is minimize Asian Americans who have been in this country for the last 150 years. These racist Hollywood Assholes don't want Asian Americans to be Americanized. It's always been about divide and conquer with them. There are enough starving actors looking for work. Stuff like this is racist and these idiots will keep on doing it unless Asian Americans come togther as a group and threaten them with either physical, fininacial or social consequences. This country has a problem with selective racism. Apparently, it's only racist if something negative is done to blacks, Hispanics, gays or Jews. With Asians, they just don't care.

Anonymous said...

To whoever wrote this article:

Even if the anime characters look western, one could tell what ethnicity they represent by the clothing they wear, what food they eat, how they fight, asian art, and architecture, etc. M. Night argues that in anime, it's ambiguous but in Avatar the Last Airbender cartoon, you can see clearly what the character's cultures are. There are Chinese letters and asian martial arts, people eating with chopsticks, Sokka and Katara are wearing Inuit clothes, and they even include eastern Shinto philosophy, how is this not related to asian/native american cultures? You say you don't care about the ethnicities of the characters, but if you look at the cast, all the lead heroes when to non asian/native american actors while the villains went to asian and other minority actors, is this a fair representation? Is this what United States is about?