We’ve heard the same story before. Hollywood’s racist. They ruin good ideas and “white-wash” everything.
For once, it isn’t exactly about an Asian work, but it’s the same argument as before. People have once accused producers of “white-washing” the movie by casting a Caucasian actor in place of a minority character from the original novel. To make things worse, the storyof a dystopian world in which the government selects teenagers to kill one another draws parallels between the Japanese “Battle Royale” movie to the point where fans have accused the former of plagiarism.
Yes, “The Hunger Games” does bear similarities with “Battle Royale.” I’ll give its author, Suzanne Collins, the benefit of the doubt and assume that she didn’t deliberately rip off the latter work. Even if that was the case, what people don’t understand is that “The Hunger Games” is its own separate thing. There was a reason why the book series became a national hit amidst the 2008 financial meltdown. For whatever reason, the book’s distrust of the government consciously or subconsciously resonated with today’s youth.
It’s hardly a coincidence either that “Battle Royale” reached production a decade after Japan’s own property bubble burst. The Kobe earthquake and Tokyo sarin gas attacks in 1995 further added to the country’s national despair.
The two movies emerged from two separate historical events and are unique in their own way due to this. Perhaps, this is why the “Battle Royale” remake never gained traction. This ultimately addresses why adapting Japanese and anime works to the American silver screen proves so difficult and race-bending remains one of only many challenges Hollywood faces in tackling the medium.
The first problem is that Hollywood is coping with a culture it does not fully understand. “[The] Japanese people who do not understand cultures overseas will not be able to create entertainment for the global market,” video game composer Akira Yamaoka said, explaining why the Japanese video game industry has stagnated in the past decade. Substitute video games for films and the inverse rings true for anime adaptations.
Hollywood doesn’t comprehend Japanese culture through a post-war lens. Many of the country’s anxieties with technology emerged during the Meiji Restoration and persisted long into the modern era. Such anxieties begot films like “Ghost in the Shell,” “Akira,” and other cyber punk films in Japanese animation. Moreover, this tension and angst doesn’t transition as well to Western audiences.
Take “The Matrix” as an example. The Wachowski Brothers showed Joel Silver “Ghost in the Shell” and said, “We wanna do that for real.” But anyone who has seen either movie knows that they’re thematically different. The protagonist of GIS underwent an identity crisis amidst becoming a cyborg. Technology essentially robbed her of her humanity (or Japaneseness). “The Matrix,” on the other hand, rewrote the concept to appeal to the counter-culture sensibilities of the ’90s and what would later devolve into the post-9/11 political left.
Likewise, “Akira” evokes themes particular to Japan’s history as well. From the movie’s opening, an atomic blast erupts throughout Tokyo in a not at all subtle reference to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There isn’t any other event that arouses the same response for Americans besides 9/11.
Let’s go further with other anime films optioned by Hollywood. The “Neon Genesis Evangelion” live-action adaptation has been development limbo for the past decade. Fan opposition is one factor, but my sentiment is that producers overestimated their understanding of the franchise and its medium.
The anime has tickled the minds of media studies intellectuals since its inception. That’s no surprise given the depth of some of its characters. Like the “Watchmen” graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, “Evangelion” picks apart some of the archetypes in its respective genre. One example is Shinji Ikari, the series’ main protagonist, who exhibits traits similar to the otaku (asocial anime maniacs) and hikikomori (shut-ins). To the best of my knowledge, there aren’t any Western parallels to these psychological conditions abroad.
This brings us to Hollywood’s other problem. They don’t understand anime’s fan demographic. I’m guessing that Hollywood considered manga and anime as the next plausible frontier as they ran out of superhero movies to adapt. The problem is that anime’s fanbase, the otaku—both in America and overseas—are dissimilar to the comic book geeks of the States. From personal experience and the books that I’ve read, the otaku share an uneasy relationship with reality and a difficulty relating to anything unless it pertains to fiction. Depicting a cartoon with flesh-and-blood actors isn’t their preference.
What’s more, white-washing may be one of only many problems, but it’s still a problem. America as a whole may at best subconsciously want to see white leading actors on the screen. However, American otaku consists of Asiaphiles and wants to see Asian actors on screen. They’re people who love anime because of its “Japaneseness.” Anime remains a niche medium for consumers and it makes no sense to disobey the demands of the people willing to purchase a movie ticket.
All that being said, Hollywood’s likely to shovel out several more box office flops and still miss these problems completely. James Cameron seems intent on making a “Battle Angel Alita” adaptation and, given his Midas touch, it’ll be a box office boon. Otherwise, continue to expect Hollywood to pitch more failed attempts. Let’s just not pretend that white-washing is the only problem at hand.
Brett Fujioka can be contacted at email@example.com. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.