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Tuesday
Mar222011

Akira Redux

You've heard that they're making a live action American version of Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira (1988), right? That's the sci-fi cartoon that really opened the Anime floodgates here in the States. I have a faint memory of seeing the movie in the theater when it arrived in the States -- I think 1990? -- and that memory involves two things: my jaw was mostly open throughout from the epic violent craziness, and my best friend at the time who I went to every movie with (hi Kevan!) turned to me during the climactic battle when Tetsuo transforms hideously into this blob like creature and said something silly like "quivering mounds of blubbery goo" in a dramatic but silly voice. We started giggling and a rather, um, large patron in front of us turned around to give us hateful looks. Embarrassing! But we were just reacting to the visuals on screen, I promise.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, the film is about a gang member biker Kaneda and his efforts to stop his powerful psychic friend Tetsuo from destroying Neo-Tokyo, an artificial city of sorts built after the destruction of the real Tokyo by another psychic boy named Akira who is still alive but imprisoned. (It takes place in 2019.) The new version will be directed by Albert Hughes (The Book of Eli) and the adaptation was done by Steve Kloves (The Fabulous Baker Boys, the Harry Potter franchise).

Though it was to be expected that the American remake would Americanize the story (it'll now take place in a futuristic New York City. Will they call it "New New York"?), some of us were stupid enough to hope that they'd realize that America does not equal caucasian. When your movie is based on a famous Japanese movie, it's not like you couldn't win lots of street cred and fan favor by casting Japanese Americans in the lead roles. Hell, even just Asian Americans of any type would win you non-racist points, as you'd still be acknowledging that people of color should maybe lead properties that are non-white in origin. Oh sure, you can say "there are no bankable Asian American actors" but how will there ever be if they're never given opportunities? And here's a thing Hollywood often forgets in their risk averse decisions: remakes of famous movies as well as virtually all genre titles, are sold primarily on their brand awareness and on their genre. This may be an unpopular theory but even something like Inception. Consider: What sold more opening weekend tickets? The folding city in the trailer or Leonardo DiCaprio's name in the trailer. The latter cost them 8 figures. This is why I've never understood why Batman in his multiple incarnations always requires an expensive leading man; BATMAN IS THE STAR, not the actor. Movie producers used to understand this. Christopher Reeves was not famous when he signed on for Superman and it sure didn't hurt that film's box office. District 9's box office wasn't hurt by using an (excellent) unknown in the lead role. With certain genres (mostly the "geek" genres: superhero, sci-fi, horror) the genre and the concept is the star.

My points is this. New York City is not lacking for diversity. I am white and I am most definitely a minority in my neighborhood. So why do movies set in NYC always seem lily white? And surprise: Actors come in all nationalities and skin colors, not just American/British/Australian and white.

illustration by taka0801

The actors being discussed for the lead roles of Kaneda and Tetsuo, who'll obviously have to be renamed Ken and Todd, are the following: Robert Pattinson, Andrew Garfield, James McAvoy, Garrett Hedlund, Michael Fassbender, Chris Pine, Justin Timberlake and Joaquin Phoenix. That's a lot of different acting styles and accomplishments and types and even ages. So basically, once again, we see that casting has nothing to do with what's required for roles or what tone a film is aiming for, it's just "whoever is on the studio's lips" each time. Sad. Casting is an artform, too. I really wish we'd see some acknowledgement that it is.

If The Film Experience were a massive site with millions of readers I'd demand a casting call right here. I'd be asking for all unknown or 20to30something Asian actors with excellent English skills, physical action film aptitude, and movie star good looks to send in their headshots and reels and I'd be packaging it all up with the top 20 and sending it Warner Bros way. Freelance casting director for hire!

Daniel Henney, Won Bin, Chang Chen, Masahiro Motoki, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Dennis Oh, Matsuyami Kenichi and Hiroshi Tamaki

Seriously, I don't understand why I can spend (literally only) 15 minutes brainstorming and come up with a couple of handfuls of Asian actors that might be cool to think about / test / consider for these roles (even allowing for the studio's random age ranges and no discernable "type") if they spoke English well -- surely some of them do, especially the American ones! ;)  -- but Hollywood studios with all of their casting resources and their budgets and their months of pre-production work don't ever even consider meeting with any of them? Do they even look at headshots? Do they even know that male actors of Asian descent exist? I'm beginning to wonder.

I suppose the most we can hope for at this point is that they deign to let Ken's (née Kaneda) love-interest Kei keep her Asian-ness. Every once in awhile the studios will let an Asian actress play a girlfriend. But Asian men? Forget about it. Shame.

Need More Akira? We'll be celebrating again in April in our "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" series. It's collaborative so join in.

Are you a new reader? Welcome. Please consider subscribing or bookmarking - some more pieces on animated films and Asian cinema coming up. We've been in the mood.

Another article addressing this problem -- though not Akira related:
Asia Pacific Arts "Hot Asian Actors Hollywood Doesn't Yet Realize It Needs"

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Reader Comments (33)

Thank you. This is an excellent post and really sums up my frustration about the casting of this movie and so many others.

March 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlison Flynn

This article (the one you wrote) depresses me. Don't blame the casting directors they don't have the power we assume they have because of their position. Those running the studio don't take risk -- they throw money at what on paper looks like a sure thing.

March 22, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtfu11

Wonderful article. Thanks for writing.

March 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSharkman

Why Robert Pattinson really he not even a good actor really.

March 22, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermonkey

I have to agree with Monkey on this one.

If you're going to remake a classic Japanese movie...why the fuck are you casting Pattinson? It's an action movie, and that is not going to attract female audiences. Casting Pattinson is going to repel male audiences.

You're going to have a small group of people who have seen the original and are curious...and that's it.

So, in other words, by casting an Asian...they could've made MORE money. Amirite?

March 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew R.

I assume you mean East Asian? Although your point works for South Asian men too (Dev Patel and Kal Penn notwithstanding).

March 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAkash

Preaching to the choir.

And while /3rtfu11 might be on to something in redirecting our finger wags to studio heads and executives, the more well known casting directors can definitely spearhead "radical" choices to the studio. Especially if a respected director is totally on board. THINGS CAN GET DONE.

Funny how the choices off the top of your head are practically perfect than the random ass potential candidates floating around.

Also when I looked up Dennis Oh, I noticed he's practically the Asian twin of Brandon Routh. There's your two actors right there, future Akira director!

March 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMark

Amazing post as usual, and so true. That list of Asian men is just so fantastic, it truly depresses me that none of them are even going to be considered. Masahiro Motoki in particular stands out as someone I would love to see more - "Departures" may not have been perfect but his charismatic and natural performance was a huge part of why it worked.

And Won Bin was perfectly unhinged in "Mother" - doesn't he seem perfect for an action film like this? Truly a shame!

March 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobert

Akash -- yes. I get that there are numerous distinctions when we say "Asian" of course and I remember the uproar abotu the Chinese cast of Memoirs of a Geisha but at least in those cases it wasn't white actresses pretending to be Asian (see 50s Hollywood).

I just don't get the resistance at all to telling New York based stories with people of color. But in generally, there is absolutely no excuse left for Hollywood when it comes to their resistance to Asian actors. Yes, Hollywood is generally kind of racist with casting but they've gotten over that to a big degree with like black and latino stars over the past couple of decades (even though there's still work to be done at letting all the best black actresses whither away without any big opportunities and challenges) but Asian actors? Why are they still being so uniformly ignored?

Robert -- I realize the following will sound smutty but these are movie actors we're talking about and everyone cares about how they look whether or not they're willing to say so. and despite the way won bin looked in Mother -- that's called what you have to do for certain characters (you're right that he's a good actor) -- Won Bin is beyond the realm of 'generally attractive' and well within thevicinity of HOT. when he's not playing a mentally disabled character. Like I dunno... Leonardo DiCaprio. Most everyone in the world agrees that Takeshi Kaneshiro is one of the best looking people on the planet (most everyone but Hollywood I guess). And Masahiro Motoki looks great with his clothes off so that's always a plus for action stars. Even the manly ones who are largely considered to appeal to a straight male audience generally show flesh in their movies.

anyway. this topic always pisses me off. sorry to get riled up.

March 22, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Appearance-wise, no one beats Takeshi Kaneshiro in good looks!!

March 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnthony Mai

The "white-washing" is sad but not the least bit surprising. They've done it with pretty much every anime/manga live action adaptation so far. Unlike those others, however, the names of the characters and who they are are so tied to being Asian that the "white-washing" is even more apparent (as well as being spiteful of the material). What's also weird is that they are getting actors that are heading into their thirties (and forties) to play characters that are supposed to be teenagers.

March 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Armour

Fantastic post. In another world some casting director or studio exec reads and takes note, and something great happens. But not in our world, I'm afraid.

March 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBenjh

I think it's great that you get riled up about important topics like this, Nathaniel. People of color need more allies like you! :)

March 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAkash

My very first Comment Du Jour. Woo!

And I'm glad it's for a very important topic too. :)

March 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMark

While I completely agree that the whitewashing is absolutely ridiculous in regards to the cast choices (it seems to show incompetence on behalf of America, where there are plenty of talented actors of different actors of different nationalities and races suitable for the role), I think it's just as bad to assume they should all be Asian.

Only for the sack of the setting being in "New Manhattan". I don't know how they plan on making the names Tetsuo and Kaneda work (Maybe they'll pull a flop similar to the one in the first dub of AKIRA, where Kaneda was pronounced "canada").

March 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTokedo

Tokedo -- i'm not sure i understand why it's "just as bad" when the origin of the entire piece is Japan?

March 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Typical hollywood. Thinkin' they know what people want. Their assumption always makes them look like an ass. When I went to see Tomb Raider some year's ago it was not because Angelina Jolie was playing the lead, its because I love the Lara Croft games. I dont go to the movies to see who's in it! I could give a ___ less! Isn't that a lil' conceited of hollywood? Hollywood's lack of diversity in the most diverse country in the world really baffles me. The Last Airbender should be a lessoned learned. I mean, damn, even television jumpin on the band wagon. Have u seen the many faces of color (black, latino, asian, middle eastern, etc) in leading roles? Look @ the now defunct "Undercovers" or whatever its called (lmao) with Boris Kodjoe and the girl named Gugu or somethin' (lmao!!!) Two black actors in leading roles. Not surprised it didn't last long. Show was boring and lack chemistry between the actors.

March 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMiss Mooks

I just feel like this needs to be added to the conversation:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jafd97yJFOI

Nate, its inspring to see such passionate writing about this subject. The Last Airbender hurt a lot, but a white-washed Akira is even more depressing. Justin Timberlake? Really?

March 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick

Lately I've been feasting on a lot of anime with the wife and kids lately. I'm getting to the point where I'm catching up on a lot of reboots of classic anime (literally ver 1.5, 2.0, 2.1), essentially rendering subtle CGI via the Zemeckis method (dangnabbit!, why?!).

I was super thrilled a few weeks ago when I looked up Akira on Wikipedia and discovered that Spielberg was attached to the live-action reboot (erroneously, dangnabbit!).

Having recently watched the Hughes Book of Eli I'm inclined to ignore this Akira reboot. The manganime (the raw story, the JAPANESE mythology, the 80s nostalgia) IS the star -- why ruin that by transplanting it to the USA and injecting 30 year-old poseurs into conspicuous green-screened environments?

Oh, right: ka-ching! (spoken with an inflected, Hollywood accent)

Being an old fart I would trust this transplant in the hands of Spielberg, Cameron, Ang Lee, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, or Bong Joon-ho -- adolescent visionaries who render with geriatric craftsmanship. This version looks like it will be fun (for emerging fans or those who are part of the production) and utterly forgettable-- except to the extent that it diminishes the mythology/ brand.

I hope I'm wrong, but the fly-by-night quality of this A-list production suggests otherwise.

March 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVern

I"m voting Matsuyami Kenichi

March 23, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterkyle cassidy

Great post, all of the guys you picked would work for the part as far as looks go. But I would suggest John Cho (Harold and Kumar) as a good candidate as he certainly is well known enough. He has done plenty of different rolls and proven he could work with any tone the film wants to take.

As a side note to Andrew, saying an action movie is not going to attract a female audience is just as bad as saying a movie with Asian actors won't attract white people. We don't all worship at the alter of twilight and romantic comedies.

March 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSamantha

Wonderfull article! But I need to agree with Samantha and the size of the female audience looking for action is very significant. Hurrah for girls in love with action and gore :)

March 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJamad

I appreciate all this response. Nice to see some new names in the comments!

Kyle -- he does look the part, right?

March 23, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Thank you Jamad, I loves me some action and gore

March 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSamantha

Your welcome Samantha, I love'em too. All those asian actors mentioned seem way better and smarter candidates then Pattinson or Timberlake! Does hollywood not see them as 'HOT' enough?
Im a girl and I think them asian actors are very smokin hot even MORE then Timberlake and Pattinson. I dont see who'd want to watch an white-washed Akira no matter how popular or hot the white actors are.
If by some miracle Dennis Oh gets a part in the movie I WILL RUN OUT INTO THE STREETS AND ADVERTISE THE MOVE MYSELF.

March 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJamad

Jamad -- LOL. sadly they probably won't even give any Asians supporting roles. I imagine those will go to other ethnic minorities first as is Hollywood's way. just like the link Patrick shared jokes about.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jafd97yJFOI

March 23, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

*Sigh* Sadly, deep down i know that's true. Too bad. Its such a great movie, it sucks that they're gonna ruin it. Reminds me of the DBZ live action movie all over again....times 100 :(

March 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJamad

Oh come on, can anything really be as bad as DBZ was?

March 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSamantha

The cruz of the problem is money. The producers go with whatever they THINK will bring them the most money. The reason they stick with white guys is because that's what we colletively keep throwing money at when we PAY to go see the latest leonardo di caprio or brad pitt movie. We throw money at them when we pay for cable or satellite television.

How do we solve this problem? PIRACY is the answer to this problem. As soon as this movie comes out, put it up on a Torrent site and distribute freely. Make DVD copies and give them to your local chinatown DVD peddler to sell.

do not PAY to see any movie whatsoever unless it advances the image of Asians and Asian american men. You might not realize this, but unless you are really mindful of how you spend your money, the racist hollywood producers already have their hands in your pockets. I realized this in 2005, and since then I have canceled my cable television. I do not pay to see movies unless it features an Asian in a leading, positively portrayed, non-stereotypical role. If I absolutely have to see the latest Brad Pitt, or Leo Di caprio or George Clooney movie, I make sure to neutralize my behavior by donating 2x the cost of the movie ticket to an Asian filmmaker, or to a cause that promotes Asian media literacy.

Nothing again'st white people. White people are great and I have many white people in my family. I love white people. But no matter what we do, white people will be fine, and unaffected by the activism we take up. They will always be seen in a positive light. But unless we act now, then Asians and Asian Americans will never be seen in a positive non stereotypical light.

March 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJJ DE LA CRUZ

I dont think itll be any better then DBZ if not worse. I guess well have to see what they decide to do :(

March 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJamad

OK, Fassbender, McAvoy and Garfield I understand. But is it really that hard to find an Asian actor who can act better than Robert Pattinson?

March 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJenn

This all reminds of the Godfather directed by Francis Ford Coppola and made in 1972. If anybody doesn't know, all the main characters were played by Caucasian except one, Michael Corleone. THat was famously played by Al Pacino. To remind people of how hard it was to get Al Pacino as Michael, just ask Coppola. The studio execs didn't want Pacino at all. Coppola had to fight tooth and nail to keep this part Italian. Think about it. Would Al Pacino have the career he has without the Godfather? No Way!

Now we fastforward to 2011 where Akira is being offered to only Caucasians. Deja Vu! Well like back then, someone has to fight this racist casting. Well I note that an Italian Leonardo Dicaprio's company Appian Way is producing this film. I think Leonardo has the passion and power to fight for 1 of the 2 roles to be Asian. So I'm calling you out Leo! You seem to be a man of principal and integrity. Don't let this injustice go under your watch!

March 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRob

Why don't they just NOT remake it?

Unfortunately, since it does look 100% likely, and they aren't going to cast Asian actors, why don't they cast, you know, ACTUAL TEENAGERS.

April 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSarah
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