SF anime fans were treated to the news this week that one of the most successful and acclaimed anime SF series, Cowboy BeBop, would become a live-action production coming to Netflix. And, as expected, the news has brought with it a… ahem… bounty of controversy.
The controversy is all too familiar to fans of foreign TV and movie productions that are remade by American production companies, and most recently epitomized by the live-action movie production of Ghost in the Shell. When GitS producers announced that Scarlett Johansson would be playing the starring role of Major Motoko Kusanangi, fans erupted in anger, demanding to know why a Japanese actor wasn’t going to get the role. A recent attempt to bring Akira to the live-action screen had brought up the same appearance of American whitewashing of foreign material, and may be a major reason that the production has been back-burnered.
Although the stylistic nature of anime doesn’t necessarily make clear a character’s ethnicity, to most Americans it is assumed that anime characters, being created in Japan, are Asian. So when Americans are substituted for presumed Asian roles, people get as upset as they would in America if a European woman was given the role of Harriet Tubman. But in fact, Japanese anime does often portray European characters, even when it isn’t as obvious to Europeans as it is to the Japanese. And looks can be deceiving.
Take a look at the image above for example, from the original series, and it looks clear that not all of the characters share the same skin color. Jet and Faye appear to be significantly more European in caste compared to Spike, whose caste is decidedly more Asian, but whose last name—Spiegal—doesn’t sound very Asian. But Faye’s appearance also suggests to many an Asian ancestry, and most fans assume Faye is therefore Asian… even with a last name like Valentine, which sounds more European. And Ed (pictured at top of article) is redheaded, but her last name is Wong. So who is what nationality?
In fact, all of the characters are supposed to be Asian, and creator Shinichirō Watanabe has professed to designing the characters after aspects of his own personality. (Gotcha.)
But what will happen in the live-action American production? American remakes of European and Asian properties are well-known for “anglicizing” characters, believing they will make the properties more palatable for American audiences. And, unfortunately, there is a basis for the assumption, and evidence that anglicized characters do indeed draw more American viewers. Given that, American producers will be more inclined to do what they’ve always done and anglicize the cast.
On the other hand, we’re also in the midst of a renaissance of sorts for diversity and representation, and audiences in general responding more favorably to seeing multiple ethnicities and socio-sexual diversity on-screen. And in BeBop, we have a main cast of four and a number of occasionally-appearing supporting characters. So there’s a good incentive for breaking up the cast into multiple ethnicities to suit.
For example, if I were handed the casting wand for this series, I would make Jet an American, Spike would be Japanese, Ed would be Scottish, and Faye South American or Pacific Islander. (Einstein would remain a Corgi.) Jet’s Americanism opens him up to multiple racial avenues in itself (hooray Melting Pot), so he could as easily become African-American, Native American, or any other ethnicity desired… if given the choice, I’d pick someone with a European/Native American heritage. But with a name like Jet Black, maybe he should be part African…
But I don’t have the casting wand. What we’re more likely to see is exactly one Asian character (Faye would be my first guess, Spike my second), with the remainder of the cast being European. And a lot of complaining to follow, and claims that the value and success of the show will rise or fall on how this one issue is handled.
Now, maybe all of this is completely unfair; after all, a cast hasn’t even been chosen yet (not publicly, at least), and the production is being judged even before a minute of filming has been done. I want to keep an open mind at this stage, and I know that Watanabe has been retained on the new series as advisor, so hopefully he’ll have some influence on the production and its adherence to his original intent.
But we’ve also seen this dance before, and we’re all very familiar with how American producers will insist on their steps and moves once the music starts… and how American dance moves have a habit of looking horrible when set to non-American music. At this point, only time will tell.
I just hope they get the ship right…