Whitewashing Akira: Where’s the Hollywood Wakeup Call?

Akira. Coming to theater screen near you. Prepare yourself for an epic adventure of untold proportions. Starring….

Robert Pattinson?

Um, what is going on here exactly?

Akira is Japanese. Pattinson is not. For those of you who are unfamiliar with what I’m talking about, that’s basically all the catch-up that you need. Hollywood producers, yet again, have managed to piss off a good portion of the world by trying to make the same mistake that they made last summer.

That’s right, Shyamalan, I’m looking at you.

This is a hot button issue, which makes me a little reticent to talk about it. I know that everyone gets uncomfortable as soon as the forbidden words get bandied about: “racism!” “sexism!” “homophobia!” It’s the easiest way to start a fight in a group of people who you don’t know. And frankly, most of the internet is a group of people who you don’t know. A lot of us try to stay as far away from it as we can because we want the internet to be informative and hopefully fun.

But let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about the fact that, yet again, a character who was Asian in the original story text might be cast in the film version as some white guy. I’m not an anime or manga aficionado by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m more than willing to call something out for what it is. And that’s racist. Yeah, I used the word—everyone grab your virtual pitchforks.

Racebending.com is attempting to draw attention to this strange phenomenon, and they have certainly gotten press for their efforts, if not the results they are hoping for. Akira‘s not the only film they have a beef with; they’re currently taking issue with the casting of The Hunger Games. As they rightly point out, in the book, Katniss Everdeen has brown hair and olive skin. While the film’s director has assured us that Jennifer Lawrence’s hair can be dyed (really? it can? mercy, let me contain my shock), it still does nothing to appease those who perhaps viewed Katniss as a biracial, or at the very least Mediterranean, character.

The Last Airbender film famously called a lot of unwanted attention to itself by whitewashing their cast as well, particularly the lead character Ang. The most colorful people in that cast were, predictably, the villains. The trend is getting harder and harder to ignore.

One of the main responses to ire over the casting of Akira is that there are no young Asian actors with enough star power to get the big box office numbers that Hollywood is banking on. But isn’t that exactly the point? Where are these young actors? Why aren’t they being given a chance? It’s not as if they don’t exist; Grace Park and John Cho are pretty solid proof. Who is keeping them out?

It made me realize for the first time that all of the Asian actors I remember watching as a kid are gone now—and no one has stepped up to take their place. Jackie Chan was a favorite of mine as a kid, but he has retired. So has Jet Li. Chow Yun Fat hasn’t been around for a while. Michelle Yeoh occasionally appears in an action flick. Lucy Liu is…come to think of it, where is Lucy Liu? A lot of these actors created a place for themselves in cinema, using their own crews and creating their own projects, but Hollywood doesn’t seem at all anxious to fill their shoes.

It leaves me at something of a loss. I don’t know how to improve this situation by doing anything other than expressing my displeasure, and that is what makes it frustrating. My only hope is that someone with enough clout will eventually take notice of the environment they are creating, look past the studio wallet and surprise us with the right choice.

Until then, my fingers are crossed. Tetsuo’s probably are too.


Emily Asher-Perrin used to watch Rumble in the Bronx, Operation Condor and Supercop with her dad whenever they were on TV. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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