By Stephanie Siek, CNN
(CNN) - America’s embrace of Japanese pop culture, particularly manga and anime, hasn’t resulted in an embrace of Asian and Asian-American actors when those storylines go to Hollywood.
Two upcoming feature films based on Japanese material are already stirring controversy after rumors that white American actors will be cast as characters originally written as Japanese.
Tom Cruise is rumored to be in talks to play the lead role in the Warner Bros. adaptation of Japanese novel “All You Need is Kill,” replacing a Japanese main character. Warner Bros., which is owned by the same parent company as CNN, is also in the pre-production stages of making a live-action version of “Akira,” a graphic novel that was made into a landmark 1988 animated feature film in Japan. All of the actors rumored to be in consideration for the upcoming film’s main characters are white Americans, although casting calls invited actors of “any race” to audition.
That’s troubling to both the series’ devoted fans and advocates of diversity in casting.
Kent A. Ono, a professor of Asian-American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the practice of casting white actors to play Asians and Asian-American characters has a long history in Hollywood. Until recent decades, this mostly took the form of white actors playing stereotypical representations of Asian characters, such as Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of I.Y. Yunioshi in 1961's “Breakfast at Tiffany’s," Rita Moreno as Tuptim and Yul Brynner as King Mongkut in the 1956 film "The King and I," and Katharine Hepburn as Jade Tan in 1944's "Dragon Seed."
In recent years, Ono said, Asian characters have been replaced with white American versions played by big-name Hollywood stars. It happened with films like the 1960 western, "The Magnificent Seven," which starred Brynner, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson, and was based on the influential 1954 Japanese film by Akira Kurosawa, "Seven Samurai." As Japanese manga and anime have grown more popular, it has happened in films like "Dragonball: Evolution" and "Speed Racer."
“Animation and anime are these interesting contexts, because casting directors, producers and directors can say, ‘Well, the anime character is fictional and not a real live body … and to cast them as another race is OK,’” Ono said.
The result is fewer opportunities for Asian and Asian-American actors who want a shot at a powerful role.
“Not only do Asian-American actors find this a displacement of their ability to work as laborers, as performers in these sort of roles – they also find this an affront to their identity, to their work to overcome racism and be seen as legitimate actors,” Ono said.
Racebending.com, an international grassroots organization founded in 2009, protests what it sees as the “whitewashing” of film roles and pushes for the fair representation of minorities in media. Spokesman Michael Le said that the increasing popularity of manga and anime titles means that movie producers are keen to cash in, but many don't see value in keeping the original Asian characters that made them popular.
“I remember 10 years ago, I could walk into [the comics aisle of] a Barnes and Noble and it would be all western comics, all DC and Marvel. Now I walk in and the Asian section is bigger than the western comics section,” Le said. “Asian culture is enormously popular and acceptable, but the people are not. The people are inconveniently the wrong race, and so whitewashing is a result.”
Le and other fans want the studios to avoid the debacle associated with the 2010 live-action film “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” The M. Night Shamalyan production tanked with critics and fans after being dogged by controversy surrounding its casting. The "Avatar" animated television series, on which the movie was based, takes place in a fantasy world populated by four Asian- and Inuit-based cultures. But the actors for each of the lead roles were white, except one - the villain, played by “Slumdog Millionaire” star Dev Patel. Racebending.com was formed to protest the production’s decision to “racebend” the characters – wordplay that alludes to the element “benders” from the "Avatar" series.
The Warner Bros.' planned live-action adaptation of “Akira” has fans watching closely. According to articles in The Hollywood Reporter and sci-fi blog i09.com, Garret Hedlund was being tapped to play the lead role of Shotaro Kaneda, with Kristen Stewart, Helena Bonham Carter and Ken Watanabe in talks to play other main roles. Except for Watanabe, who is Japanese, all are white.
An unnamed studio insider told the Hollywood Reporter for a January 5 story that preproduction had stopped due to issues related to script, budget and casting. Warner Bros. spokeswoman Jessica Zacholl said the studio had no comment regarding the holdup in production for “Akira” or any rumored casting decisions.
The original Japanese anime version of "Akira," made in 1988, is considered a pinnacle of Japanese animated film. The story revolves around a catastrophic explosion that destroys the city of Tokyo - an explosion which is first implied to be nuclear in origin, a reminder of fears about atomic destruction in Japan since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Fans of the manga and original movie question whether the nuances of a plot so deeply intertwined with Japanese history can survive a setting change to Manhattan.
Jerry Beck is an animation historian and co-founder of Streamline Pictures, which brought the first screenings of the 1988 production to America. He said studios are underestimating their target market’s attachment to and understanding of Japanese connections to "Akira."
“It’s not just the story of what goes on there, but the story of culture,” Beck said. “I wish them luck, but it sort of cheapens the material. In a way it’s a universal story, but it’s also a very Asian or Japanese story.”
Joe Peacock, a writer and web designer who owns the worlds’ largest private collection of animation cels from the original “Akira” film, said shift anime characters into white characters “is annoying to the point of disrespect.” In disrespecting the source material, he said, the studios are alienating the fan base which could make the movie a success – including Peacock, whose devotion to the movie includes an award-winning "Akira" tattoo that covers his left arm.
“When your billboards are saying bad things about the project, you’ve done something wrong – and that’s all fans really are, is billboards or megaphones for the project,” Peacock said.
Fans are watching what happens with “All You Need is Kill,” too. The original novel focuses on the "Groundhog Day"-like travails of Keiji Kijira, a Japanese soldier in an international army fighting a war against aliens. The character dies, but always awakens to find it's the day before his death. He relives that day until he has amassed the skills and experience to prevent his own death.
In the movie version to be produced by Warner Bros., the character has a new identity – American Billy Cage – and the movie has a new title: “We Mortals Are.” Three of the four actors rumored to be under consideration for the role are white, with Tom Cruise as the speculative front-runner. Also rumored to be in talks were Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling and Keanu Reeves.
Zacholl said Warner Bros. had no comment about the castings and would not confirm or deny rumors of any decisions related to them.
But a Racebending.com’s statement on the film points out that even in an American film, a “totally American” cast shouldn't necessarily be entirely white.
“Certainly changes will be made to the story in adaptations, such as setting a story in the United States instead of Japan," Racebending.com states. "What disappoints us is that when these adaptations are reset to America, they do not reflect the diversity of the United States. Many people are of Asian descent but are also ‘totally American.’”