I began to type this out as a post on Facebook, but then I decided “Hey, this would be good material for my blog”, especially since I was beginning to get wordy. I needed more space to express what’s on my mind concerning this important issue.
Some of you may or may not know, but my favorite Anime (Full Metal Alchemist) will be receiving a live action film adaptation set to release in Winter 2017.
Upon first hearing this news, I was super excited…but worried…I had seen trailers for the live action adaptation of “Attack on Titan” and was over all…less than enthused about it.
One aspect that these two anime (short for Japanimation for my readers not in the know) share is that a majority of the characters, save one or more, are European in descent. I found it disappointing when the first Attack on Titan trailer dropped and I noticed that the entire cast was Japanese, glossing over something that was a significant plot point in the anime: Mikasa Ackerman being the only asian character in the show, which has narrative purpose given the absence of most asian people in this world due to ethnic cleansing. Everyone else is clearly European.
Before you jump down my throat by saying something like “But Tom, America white washes their films all the time…but Tom…ethnicities other than caucasian have been put down so much that they deserve a chance to highlight their ethnicity…etc. etc. etc.” realize that white washing bothers me too. In fact, any kind of ethnicity washing bothers me, not merely white washing.
Let me be clear: I’m all for reimagining “what if” kind of scenarios, or even a bold new take on an old character, like The Doctor being female or a different ethnicity (because lets face it, his character can support a much broader variety than has been displayed thus far), or even different ethnicities taking on the mantle of another character (like Sam Wilson taking on the mantle of Captain America, Amadeus Cho taking on the mantle of the Hulk, or even Jane Foster taking on the mantle of Thor).
But why am I alright with these bold new takes? Why do I support these seemingly simplistic gender/race bending changes? Because they aren’t examples of characters who were traditionally one ethnicity or gender becoming another one, they are examples of characters who can accommodate such a change, either by their physiology (the doctor literally having a lottery of options) or taking on a mantle, or title that was once held by someone else. Sam Wilson isn’t an example of Steve Rogers becoming black. That’s obvious. It’s an example of Steve’s friend taking on the persona of Captain America (you can apply this same logic to the Hulk or Thor). Sam incidentally happens to be black.*
Which really brings me to my main concern for the Full Metal Alchemist adaptation. The entire cast, just like the Attack on Titan adaptation, is Japanese. It’s important to note, though, that Full Metal Alchemist is an example of masterful story telling and animation, and in appreciating this fantastic manga and anime we must offer tremendous gratitude to the country of Japan for being the birthplace of such fine works as this. It is because of Japan that we even get to enjoy this amazing work. And, so, a live action film adaptation should naturally be in the hands of the original country of origin. It just makes sense. This material originated from Japan, and thus Japan should be able to handle this material with respect and grace.
But, then again, is it the right decision? I cannot honestly say. I don’t know what Japan’s track record is for live action adaptations. I am aware of a few, such as Death Note and Attack on Titan. But, I don’t know how good they were. I also am not aware of the wealth of resources they may have to produce such films at a high quality that does the source material justice. And, of course, we come to the central topic: because this film is being produced in Japan the entire cast is Japanese. And this really bothers me, because it is a clear indication of ethnicity bending characters from one ethnicity to another. For all intensive purposes, it could still be a good film, and I understand the importance of maintaining the original spoken Japanese language for the film as well, but I still wish that the film could have been more true to the source material by casting actors according to their proper ethnicity. Is it really that hard to find European actors who speak Japanese? If it is, that’s really unfortunate.
The same goes here in America…is it really that difficult to cast the appropriate ethnicity for our films? I’m looking at you Ghost in the Shell…there’s no reason for Scarlett Johansson to play an Asian character. There are plenty of female asian actors who could easily have filled this role. I mean, Rinko Kikuchi in Pacific Rim has the hair, is the proper ethnicity, and just generally seems like a better option that Johansson.
Though, Ethnicity really isn’t everything, and I think we often put too much emphasis on ethnicity as something that defines character or behavior (which is in its very nature, racism). Ethnicity should really be thought of as an incidental trait of a person, and should have no bearing on how we treat or view other people. It’s color, and we’ve somehow managed to pack a ton of controversy into something that we observe through the color of light that bounces off any given medium. We see brown skin because brown is the color that isn’t absorbed by the skin it’s bouncing off of. It’s also a development of melanin via the theory of adaptation based on various degrees of sun exposure in different parts of the world. Basically, we’ve packed expectation, meaning, assessment, judgement of character and super shallow associations based on appearance. But I think one of the problems we don’t often acknowledge is the perpetuation of such stereotypes and ethnic expectations that occur within the same ethnicity. It often boils down to a derisive “us/them” behavior that can result in self segregation; in other words, removing yourself from other ethnic groups and surrounding yourself around your same ethnicity to bolster your sense of identity and belonging, which I feel is racist in and of itself. And I think the stereotype is that only white people do this, when in fact I think all ethnicities can be guilty of this.
But I can hear some skeptics now saying that because I am white I have no right to speak on the matter of race. I haven’t experienced the same level of prejudice, etc. The second fact is true. I have not had to endure racism to the degree that other people have had to endure it, and I have not had to experience racial profiling either. These are two aspects which the color of my skin has granted me the unfair privilege. But, I am an empathetic human being who can imagine and maintain the capacity to understand the absolute absurdity of passing judgement on another human being based on something so benign as the color of their skin, and thus I have a right to discuss this topic because I am a member of humanity.
I offer this defense of myself, because too often I feel the burden of racism or the label of racism is given to “the white man.” And I think this is unfair. If you accuse my country of white washing films (which it does, and I agree that it’s inappropriate) then you have to be intellectually consistent in the criticism of other countries enacting the same ethnic washing of their films as well. To tie it together, this is ultimately why I am disappointed with the live Full Metal Alchemist film opting for an all Japanese cast instead of a European cast which would be more authentic to the anime. If we hold ourselves to the same scrutiny of white washing I feel it is only appropriate to hold this same scrutiny for ethnic washing in general. But it should be a scrutiny not based on any sense of racial superiority, but rather a desire for appropriate and accurate portrayal.