(Okay full disclosure before we get going, I know a lot of people don’t consider Avatar to be Anime, however in many aspects, I think it is close enough in many aspects. Stylistically, it is very similar to things like Studio Ghibli and other mediums.)
If it wasn’t plainly obvious, I love anime! Cowboy Beebop, Battleship Yamato, Trigun, Naruto, Ruroni Kenshin, Fairy Tail, the list goes on. However there seems to be a major problem when transitioning these stories from animation to live action. For some reason, everyone assumes that the entire cast should be Asian. Any time a character that is perceived to be Asian or any other race is portrayed by someone who is white, is often referred to as being ‘white washed’.
Frankly, given that the same standard does not apply in the other direction (Nick Fury, Dark Tower, etc.) I will not use that term as I consider it racist. Personally, I’ve always been of the mindset that if someone is a good fit for a role, can accurately portray the character’s personality, and respect the original source, then I really don’t care what race the actor is.
If someone came to me saying that they wanted to do a live-action Drakin, and portray Raiya as Japanese, I be excited to see what they come up with.
Anyway, onto the topic at hand…
So why do people, ironically mostly western audiences, expect live action movies based on anime to be portrayed by all Asians? Well often times it’s because Anime is such a huge part of Japanese culture, other times because people believe that Asian actors are under represented, and so on.
The argument on the other side is that a lot of anime characters actually look very Eurocentric and… that’s arguable. Put into context, part of the reason anime characters look fair-skinned with large eyes can be traced back to Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy. The original series helped bring anime into global recognition. Tezuka was a fan of, and highly inspired by the style and designs of Walt Disney. He liked the large eyes and incorporated them into his character designs. Because so many series draw their style from this original work, large eyes became predominant over many series to come. However, where western audiences see western characters, those same characters are seen as Japanese by their audiences from Japan. To me, this isn’t a failure of the design, it’s actually a plus. That these characters are designed in such a way where their race is left ambiguous, people can see them however they want.
Now, does that mean that many of these roles should be portrayed by more Asian people? In some cases… yes I agree if you’re going for visual accuracy, but I think in these need to be taken on a case by case basis and analyzed instead of just painting with a broad brush. Let’s take a look at two examples…
Example 1 M. Night Shyamalan’s (Sigh) The Last Airbender…
Here we see an absolute mess of characters that are arguably miscast. Let’s go down the list one by one of the various portrayals.
The Waterbenders (Katara and Sokka)…
This is arguably one of the worst portrayals in the movie, if we’re going by the rules that people should be portrayed by a perceived race… I would say that Katara and Sokka should be portrayed by someone who could pass as an Inuit if not by an actual Inuit, respectively:
Next let’s look at the Earth Benders…
(Hehe, sorry… the Devil made me do it!)
So I think most people argue that in this case, the portrayal is accurate. Though… I don’t know, you could make the case for Siberian Russian here as well, if not strictly going by their clothing and buildings. However, this one was fine for more people, so we’ll leave it at that.
The Fire Benders…
Okay, obviously these characters are poorly portrayed all around, but I would argue that doesn’t have… as much to do with their races as it does the actual people chosen. I’m sorry, but he looks NOTHING like Uncle Iroh and didn’t even come close to getting his personality right…
As for the racial issue… yes the architecture of the Fire Kingdom does look… arguably Chinese, you could make the case that, given the climate of India and the Middle East, they would be closer to what a ‘Fire Nation’ would look like. So while the portrayal is terrible, I think using people of Middle Eastern descent for the Fire Nation is a… fairly interesting take. I could see it working… just not like this.
(See the Title Image)
Arguably this is the best portrayal in the movie. I have no issue with Aang being a white kid and I really think, visually, Noah Ringer was actually a really good choice for the role. Feel free to disagree, but you can’t deny that he looks the part.
The Controversial Casting from Ghost in the Shell:
I know a lot of people took issue with this, saying that she clearly was supposed to be portrayed by an Asian woman… however… I don’t think so. Scarlett Johansson looks the part and I think did an amazing job in the role.
I also have to note that most of the criticism above comes from… ironically enough, western audiences. Yeah, odd though it may sound… Asian audiences, as well as the creators, actually liked Johansson’s portrayal.
So when it comes to mediums where one character appears as… or is implied by some, to be a certain race, do you need to find an actor to portray them properly?
Well… the answer is, it depends. If we’re talking about an Anime that actually takes place in an Asian country like Ruroni Kenshin, then every effort should be made to find a suitable Japanese actor… or at least an Asian who looks convincingly Japanese. Kenshin is a Japanese Samurai, thus it really wouldn’t make sense to have anyone else portray them.
However, when we’re talking about fantasy worlds, I think as long as the creator and the culture being portrayed largely doesn’t have an issue with it, then it’s not up to the audience at all. As long as neither of those parties are offended, I really don’t see an issue. What’s more, they don’t need people to be offended on their behalf. They can speak up and object if they have a problem with it.
So… what does everyone think? Am I correct in saying that, excepting in specific examples, race shouldn’t be a determining factor in any role as long as the character can be accurately portrayed, or should it be taken more into consideration? Let me know in the comments.
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