Stephanie Siek, CNN, January 13, 2012
America’s embrace of Japanese pop culture, particularly manga and anime, hasn’t resulted in an embrace of Asian and Asian-American actors when those storylines go to Hollywood.
Two upcoming feature films based on Japanese material are already stirring controversy after rumors that white American actors will be cast as characters originally written as Japanese.
Tom Cruise is rumored to be in talks to play the lead role in the Warner Bros. adaptation of Japanese novel “All You Need is Kill,” replacing a Japanese main character. Warner Bros., which is owned by the same parent company as CNN, is also in the pre-production stages of making a live-action version of “Akira,” a graphic novel that was made into a landmark 1988 animated feature film in Japan. All of the actors rumored to be in consideration for the upcoming film’s main characters are white Americans, although casting calls invited actors of “any race” to audition.
That’s troubling to both the series’ devoted fans and advocates of diversity in casting.
Kent A. Ono, a professor of Asian-American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the practice of casting white actors to play Asians and Asian-American characters has a long history in Hollywood. Until recent decades, this mostly took the form of white actors playing stereotypical representations of Asian characters, such as Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of I.Y. Yunioshi in 1961’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Rita Moreno as Tuptim and Yul Brynner as King Mongkut in the 1956 film “The King and I,” and Katharine Hepburn as Jade Tan in 1944’s “Dragon Seed.”
In recent years, Ono said, Asian characters have been replaced with white American versions played by big-name Hollywood stars. It happened with films like the 1960 western, “The Magnificent Seven,” which starred Brynner, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson, and was based on the influential 1954 Japanese film by Akira Kurosawa, “Seven Samurai.” As Japanese manga and anime have grown more popular, it has happened in films like “Dragonball: Evolution” and “Speed Racer.”
The original Japanese anime version of “Akira,” made in 1988, is considered a pinnacle of Japanese animated film. The story revolves around a catastrophic explosion that destroys the city of Tokyo — an explosion which is first implied to be nuclear in origin, a reminder of fears about atomic destruction in Japan since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Fans of the manga and original movie question whether the nuances of a plot so deeply intertwined with Japanese history can survive a setting change to Manhattan.
Joe Peacock, a writer and web designer who owns the worlds’ largest private collection of animation cels from the original “Akira” film, said shift anime characters into white characters “is annoying to the point of disrespect.” In disrespecting the source material, he said, the studios are alienating the fan base which could make the movie a success — including Peacock, whose devotion to the movie includes an award-winning “Akira” tattoo that covers his left arm.