American Akira: whitewashing, identification and appropriation.

The following is cross-posted from my Race, Gender and the Media class blog. I’m having a great time in that class. I tend to dominate in-class discussion, usually to answer misconceptions brought on by privelidge deniers, A few people in the class must think I’m a jerk. I blame the great coffee across the street, and indignation. –SR

Last month, a controversy emerged around production and casting of an adaptation of the classic Japanese comic and film series Akira. Akira was one of the first feature-length Japanese animated films released in U.S theaters.

The American adaptation will relocate the iconic Neo Tokyo landscape to New Manhattan. A group of white actors are on the shortlist to portray originally East Asian protagonists. The first question that comes to mind is “If they’re changing the location and characters to Americans, why continue calling it Akira?”

The casting issue is important because the visibility of minorities in their indigenous settings is lacking. The prospective cast of  Akira displays that Hollywood continues to undermine Asian figures and identities in favor of white ones, a trend that has maintaned in hollywood since white actors wore make up to appear Asian,known as “yellowface”, to portray Asian characters

. Hollywood follows the idea that audiences would identify more with a white protagonist than a minority. Adhering to this idea shows how out of touch the producers are with audiences. A subculture of predominantly white fans embrace Japanese animation and have no difficulty identifying with Asian characters. In my experience with anime conventions, people across ethnicities and genders dress as the white-haired male dog demon Inuyasha from the series titled after him, or the alien warrior Goku from Dragon Ball Z(also adapted unsuccesfuly in the US.).

In another example, Kanye West had no problem identifying with the antagonist Tetsuo when borrowing Akira imagery for his video “Stronger”. (This identification may also play a part in uneven appropriation of non-dominant cultures by the majority, which I my cover in another post)

The “majority identfication” approach is not even successful in the box office.. For example, The Conquerer — where John Wayne portrayed Genghis Khan, the most influential Asian leader in world history–  and The Last Airbender failed in the box office despite the “more recognizable” white protagonists.

Below is a video satirizing the Americanization of Akira. Unfortunately, the video seems to have foreshadowed the production instead of lambasted it.

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