Friday, January 13, 2012

Hollywood Gets it Wrong Again: The Casting of Akira

Anyone who listens to the Beaucoup podcast (and all of you should) knows that we are less than enthused about the Akira film currently in development. One would assume that this movie is right up our alley. Truth be told, I don't think we "need" a live-action version of Katsuhiro Otomo's magnum opus, but if done well, I wouldn't mind seeing it on the big screen. But as is usually the case with properties as beloved as Akira, Hollywood has stepped in and decided to break something that never needed fixing. Now I know what you're thinking. How could we be so opposed to this movie when they haven't even shot one scene? That's a good question. The answer is simple: Casting.

Let's be honest, very few movies out there have the "perfect" cast. I mean, much to Tressa's chagrin, Mark Strong can't be in everything! But the Akira issue goes much deeper than "so-and-so is a bad actor," or "I hate that actress and I wish she would stop ruining movies and my life!!" (I'm looking at you Kristen Stewart). The casting decisions for Akira, much like The Last Airbender before it, reek of cultural insensitivity. Akira is an inherently Japanese work. It was written and drawn by a Japanese creator, it takes place in a futuristic Tokyo, and it was draw in the Japanese manga style. Yet up until a few weeks ago, not a single Japanese or Asian actor was cast, nor were any rumored to be attached to the project. Admittedly this is an issue that I usually think is blown out of proportion. Typically we're talking about the ethnicity of one or two characters being switched, not an entire cast. On the whole I believe society has become a tad oversensitive, often times looking for things to be offended about, but there is something about taking a Japanese property and choosing an entirely non-Asian cast that should make people stand up and take notice.

Admittedly it's been years since I've read the book, so I'm more familiar with the anime that was released on DVD back in 2002. For those whose never read the book, or saw the movie, I'll try and provide a brief summary (if it's even possible to briefly summarize a work that spans six volumes), however I will be using the anime as the basis of my summary. Akira takes place in a post-apocalyptic Japan. We learn that prior to the book's opening, a bomb was detonated over the country culminating in the start of World War III. The war decimated most major cities, however a few rebuilt themselves. One such city was Neo-Tokyo, a city burdened by corruption and terrorized by biker gangs and a government heavily influenced by the military establishment that rose to power during the war. It's here that we meet our protagonist, Tetsuo. The story is set in motion when Tetsuo, a biker, is involved in a accident with what appears to be a young boy. What starts off as a routine motorcycle accident quickly escalates when Tetsuo and the young boy are detained by the government. The government is shady, to say the least, and are obsessed with doing everything in their power to prevent a future catastrophe. Their obsession seems to be driven by fear of an unknown power referred to only as Akira. Shortly after the accident, Tetsuo begins to display vast psychic powers. Believing him to be the famed Akira, the government wants him dead.

Talk of a live-action adaption dates back to 2002, possibly earlier, and a simple Internet search will show you the long list of actors and actresses rumored to be cast. It reads like a veritable Who's Who of the Hollywood elite, however I defy anyone to get about 4 names in to the list without wanting to boot their friggin' computer out the window. The most notable include: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zac Efron, Justin Timberlake, Joaquin Phoenix, Chris Pine, Andrew Garfield, Keanu Reeves, Robert Pattinson and Mila Kunis. These actors were up for the roles of either Tetsuo, Kaneda or Kei respectively, and Morgan Freeman was rumored to play Colonel Shikishima. Assuming you didn't rip your own eyes out at Zac Efron, you see the list got worse, and more offensive, as it went along.

In an interview with The Advocate, Asian-American actor George Takei urged Warner Bros. to wake up and realize how offensive an all-White cast would be to both Asians and the fans of Akira as a whole. The interview took place in April 2011, and shortly thereafter Warner put out a new casting call. Now you'd assume the new casting call was initiated to rectify the mistakes they made in the past. Think again. The new call was for male and female actors of "any ethnicity." Now I'm willing to bet that deep down Warner believed this was a step in the right direction. By saying "any ethnicity," Warner was letting fans and critics know that they are open to Asian actors as much as Caucasian. What they were really saying was, "We still don't get it." They shouldn't be open to any ethnicity. They should be looking exclusively at Asian actors, be they Japanese, Chinese, Laos, etc.

I know that the last sentence may sound as misguided as what Warner is doing. I mean, wouldn't hiring only Asians be as problematic as hiring only Caucasians? Yes and no. For me it comes down to how relevant race and ethnicity is to the character in question. Take Clark Kent's friend Pete Ross. Since the characters first appearance Pete Ross has always been portrayed as a Caucasian male in the comic books. However, when the role was cast in the television series, Smallville, the character was played by an African-American. I don't see this as a big deal. Pete Ross' race is not integral to his character. Now imagine casting a Black Panther movie and choosing Bradley Cooper? Different ballgame.

You may hear the argument that studios are hesitant to go with an all-Asian cast believing it would be a tough sell to a mainstream audience in the United States. I'm not sure how true this is because, in reality, it's almost never been done. However, when it has, the results have been positive.  Memoirs of a Geisha was not only a huge success as a book, but the box office figures were not too shabby in their own right. How about a little film you may not be familiar with called Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ? This movie raked in $128,078,872 domestically, becoming the highest-grossing foreign language film in American history, and went on to win an Academy Award. And it was made in Mandarin Chinese!! Both of these films were outstanding, and succeeded for that very reason, even in spite of having an all Asian cast. 

I want to make one last point as it relates specifically to Akira. Manga is very successful in the United States. Perhaps more so than a lot of people think. I'm willing to bet that more Americans read manga than they do traditional comic books. That said, you have an audience that is already drawn to the Japanese style. They are not turned off by the imagery or the locations or the fact that the stories are read from right to left. They would be on board for an accurate interpretation of the source material they love so much. Now you just have to put together a top-notch trailer exposing the rest of the movie-going audience to badassery (not a real world) of Akira and I'm sure they'll come in droves.

Last week it was announced that the film has been put on hold indefinitely. This news items broke shortly after Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Gary Oldman and Ken Watanabe (the only one they got right) were added to the final cast list. I'd be lying if I said this news didn't bring a smile to my face. Every rumor, every casting bit, everything about this movie just seems wrong. It's my hope that this project withers away and dies. If you really want to see a film version of Akira, just pick up the anime that is now out on Blu-ray. Directed by the same man who created the book, the anime stands as the truest adaptation we'll ever get.

For those who are interested, here are links to all the volumes of the Manga series:
Volume 1
Volume 2
Volume 3
Volume 4
Volume 5
Volume 6

1 comment:

Becky said...

My husband, who is a MASSIVE fan of Akira and Ghost In The Shell (his 2 favorites) is sick at the idea of a live action Akira to start with, but to whitewash the cast is unforgivable. I hope this project idea dies, and fast!

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