Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), the only organization solely dedicated to advocating balanced, sensitive, and positive depiction and coverage of Asian Americans, is blasting “Bullet Train” as another in a long line of whitewashed movies based on Asian source material where American filmmakers choose to only include Asian characters in minimal roles or as window dressing.
Although shot in Los Angeles, the film is supposed to take place on a bullet train in Japan. Yet white and black actors (e.g., Brad Pitt, Joey King and Brian Tyree Henry) get top billing with Andrew Koji and Hiroyuki Sanada ranking fifth and sixth in the credits. Asian American actors like Masi Oka and Karen Fukuhara can only be said to make mere cameos, appearing in two or three very short scenes — a waste of their talents.
Although the movie opens with Kimura (Koji) and The Elder (Sanada) concerned about the survival of a family member who was pushed off a building, The Elder’s presence isn’t really felt until toward the end of this overly long, confusing, and meandering film. With the constant introduction of new assassins and flashbacks and modified flashbacks to explain their significance to the central plot, viewers need to draw diagrams to understand what is going on.
There’s even a lack of Asian or Japanese-speaking parts for people on the train. An elderly white woman (seen in the trailers) berates Pitt and Henry for making too much noise in a “Quiet Car” and Channing Tatum says a few lines as a passenger.
Kotaro Isaka, writer of the novel “Maria Beetle,” upon which “Bullet Train” was based, tried to rationalize the mostly non-Japanese/Asian casting, telling The New York Times, “[The characters are] not real people, and maybe they’re not even Japanese.”
“That is a laughable statement,” said Guy Aoki, founding president of MANAA. “Aren’t ALL characters in a fictitious novel ‘not real people’? And despite their nicknames, all of the characters in his book were clearly Japanese.”
In August 2020, when it was rumored Joey King had auditioned for Katara in the Netflix live-action series “Avatar: The Last Airbender” (which had been whitewashed in the 2010 live-action film version), the actress wrote on Twitter, “I do not believe a white woman should play a character of color. Not me or any white woman for that matter.”
Yet that same month, she had been in negotiations to play The Prince (Satoshi Oji in the novel) in “Bullet Train,” production began in October, and filming in November. Her tweet has since been deleted.
Of the film adaptation, author Isaka even said, “I don’t have any feeling of wanting people to understand Japanese literature or culture. It’s not like I understand that much about Japan, either.”
Aoki cringed at that comment. “What an embarrassing sellout. Guess he’s more interested in counting the money he’s getting for selling his work (and soul) to Hollywood and hoping for sequels.”
Director David Leitch told The Times, “We were all really aware and wanted to make it super inclusive and international. [The diversity of the cast] just shows you the strength of the original author’s work and how this could be a story that could transcend race anyway.”
Aoki points out that only makes excuses for the tired Hollywood practice of exploiting Asian source material, leaving out most of the Asians in it, and calling the casting of white, black and Latino actors a triumph for diversity. “Amazing.”
“If the story was so strong,” asserts Aoki, “it wouldn’t have been risky to include Japanese or Asian actors in more if not all of the roles. ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ certainly didn’t suffer for it (it became the highest-grossing romantic comedy in 20 years). ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ did so well (the highest grossing film of the pandemic era up until that point) that Disney decided to release all of its future movies exclusively in theatres ahead of streaming on Disney+.
“Unfortunately, people in Asian countries are used to seeing movies with all-Asian casts, so when Asian-sourced properties get turned into big-budget motion pictures, they find it refreshing to see white, black and Latino stars in them, not caring that the Asian content or culture of the original has been all but abandoned. By contrast, Asian Americans, who are still hungry to be seen, heard and understood in their own country, perceive it as more whitewashing.”
MANAA is discouraging moviegoers from seeing “Bullet Train” in theatres, and instead encourages supporting films that really give more well-deserved attention to Asians and Asian Americans. Otherwise, the public will be doomed to seeing more whitewashed projects like “Bullet Train” in the future.
Visit https://manaa.org/ or “Media Action Network for Asian Americans” on Facebook.