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Friday, March 21, 2008

A Whitewashed Speed Racer?

I've got remarkably mixed feelings about the upcoming Speed Racer movie.

I mean, it looks good. Well good in the sense that it'll either actually be good, or it'll be so awful that it's a blast to watch. I'm rather stunned by the way the actors, particularly that fellow playing Speed, really evoke the characters.

But it gives a slightly bad taste in my mouth that all of the main actors in the film seem to be caucasian.

Admittedly, I don't think there's anything in the plot that necessitates the characters/actors be Japanese or anything, but, well, I kind of think that a movie based on a Japanese anime ought to star Japanese-American (or at least Asian-American) actors.

Heck, even if the story specifies a European or American origin for the characters, there's no reason the characters couldn't be Japanese-European or Japanese-American.

I have nothing against the actors themselves, but it seems like there are still so few starring roles for non-white actors that it really would have been nice if a movie based on one of the earliest and most famous imported Japanese animated shows could have a featured a mostly non-white cast.

It seems like such a missed opportunity to me.

23 Comments:

  • At March 21, 2008 7:16 AM, OpenID thomwade said…

    I don't know...most anime characters look very Caucasian in their features-even when they are in stories set in Japan. So I am not surprised that the cast reflects that. It is unlikely that it ever occured to anyone that this would be "white washing" the original. It's not quite the same as taking, say John Stewart and casting a white actor in the role.

     
  • At March 21, 2008 7:33 AM, OpenID melashaan said…

    Personally, I'm not surprised, mostly for the same reasons that Thom said; I remember my mother watching Speed Racer with me when I was a kid and asking why Japan made all their heroes white. I'm more bothered by having yet another foreign bad guy. Britain is one of the last countries on Earth that can tolerate us, but American movie & TV makers feel the need to keep throwing us British bad guys. It's like they want to further alienate us or something.

     
  • At March 21, 2008 8:30 AM, Blogger Nenena said…

    Wow, okay, so I'm not the only one who noticed that. ^^;;

    Even more depressing, The Dragonball movie has all white leads, even though there's a more diverse cast in supporting roles.

    And as for Japanese manga/anime characters having "Caucasian" features... not really. Some have big eyes, many don't, but that's usually an indication of youth/innocence, not a racial marker. The pale skin is a result of black-and-white manga not allowing for skin tones and that translating over into the animated format. Colored hair, like blonde and red, is used to help differentiate otherwise highly stylized and similar-looking characters. So it's purely an accident that manga/anime characters look "Caucasian" to Western viewers. They look Japanese to Japanese audiences.

    Sorry, mini-rant. "Manga characters look Caucasian!" strikes me as a week excuse for casting white actors as Japanese characters.

     
  • At March 21, 2008 9:24 AM, Anonymous suedenim said…

    I always thought the main Speed Racer characters were supposed to be Americans, myself. The "Pops" character in particular, seems difficult to imagine as any other nationality.

    Looking briefly at the wikipedia site about the film, it seems they do have a fair number of Asians in secondary roles:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speed_Racer_(film)

     
  • At March 21, 2008 11:15 AM, Blogger Ragtime said…

    At the time that the Speed Racer cartoon was being made (I don't know about now), foreign studios that made these sorts of cartoons tended to make them for the export market -- there being more non-Japanese than Japanese in the world.

    As a result, they tended to draw their characters as close to "raceless" or "mixed race" as possible (not "Caucasian"). The idea was that if you were in Japan you would "see" a sorta-Asian character, but if you were white, you'd see a sorta-white character.

    So, all all-white cast doesn't bother me becomes any character was cast "incorrectly," only for the usual reasons that all all-white cast is a problem.

     
  • At March 21, 2008 11:22 AM, Blogger Nenena said…

    Well, in the English dubbed version all of the character were given English names and American voices. ;) But they all originally had Japanese names and were supposed to be Japanese characters. I understand that the movie is a Hollywood production meant for an American audience, but it still would have been nice for the movie to at least acknowledge that the source material and original characters are Japanese, somehow.

    And I think I finally put my finger on the reason why the "the characters look Caucasian" complaint annoys me so much. It's because the anime characters are unmarked. They're drawn in a generic style that includes basically no racial markings - they all have the same basic face, skin color, eyes, nose, mouths, etc. They're not drawn to look Caucasian *or* Japanese, they're not drawn to look like anything. But Western audiences, who are used to "white" as being the unmarked state, will look at those characters and see them as white. Japanese audiences, who are used to "Japanese" as being the unmarked state, will look at those characters and see them as Japanese. Tatsuo Yoshida originally drew the characters as unmarked because both he and his audience saw unmarked characters as "Japanese" - and any character who was not Japanese did get distinct racial markings to indicate this.

    So when people say "the characters look white" it's more of a reflection of their own worldview (unmarked state = white) than anything else.

    (I'm going to stop hijacking the comments now, I swear.)

     
  • At March 21, 2008 11:25 AM, Blogger Nenena said…

    Aaaaand Ragtime posted while I was typing, but basically, yes, what Ragtime said.

     
  • At March 21, 2008 11:49 AM, Blogger Dane said…

    Good news! There are a good amount of Asians in the movie. There's even an Asian racer guy shaving in most of the trailers, who is inferred to be a threat to Speed. Here's a list of Asian actors in the movie:

    June Park - Yakuza driver

    Jung Ji Hoon - Taejo Togokhan

    Karl Yune - Togokhan Security Head

    Yu Nan - [Role unannounced]

    Nayo Wallace (black, but still noteworthy for diversity) - Minx

    All of these people to my knowledge have speaking roles of some part, except for Yu Nan (however, it will be her American debut). Plus, I think there will be many drivers, mechanics, and spectators of many races will be shown as well. The Wachoskis to me seem to be doing their best to make this a diverse movie, dispite the fact that the Speed Racer show was whiter than sour cream.

     
  • At March 21, 2008 12:20 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    There's also the fact to consider that most anime uses stylistic elements derived from Disney movies of all things (Bambi is a main draw.) But the fact is, the Japanese are usually portraying Japanese characters in such a manner. With Japanese names and Japanese culture. Even Speed, Trixie and company had Japanese names originally, as Nenena points out.

    It's hard to claim that characters named "Go Mifune", "Kenichi Mifune", "Michi Shimura" were meant to be anything other than Japanese. Just because we eliminated any reference to Japanese culture when releasing it here doesn't change that as much as some of us may see the characters as looking more white than Asian, the people drawing them explicitly intend them to be Japanese NOT white.

    I can see the argument that they don't necessarily look race-specific, though I disagree for obvious reasons stated. But it's very clear that they're not "whiter than sour cream".

    I'm not arguing against the Americanization of the characters or using the American version. That's what we know. But the American version never, as far as I know, explicitly stated the characters were white. (Contrast with say, Fake, which takes place both explicitly in the US and explicitly among white people, as the half-Japanese origin of one of the main characters is noted and remarked upon.) So really, there's nothing that necessitates the characters be white. And since this is one anime where the characters are all black haired and dark eyed, there isn't even the oddity of hair color to be concerned with.

    I think it's more than possible that, having gone to school with kids of Chinese or Japanese descent named "Chris" or "Laura", that we could have Asian-Americans playing Speed or Trixie or Racer X. It's not even like any of these people have weird hair colors to explain, even. As anime goes, it'd be fairly easy.

    Sure the Wachowskis are under no obligation to cast Asian people in major roles. But really, there's very little reason specifically not to. An Asian-American girl with Trixie's bouffant and dress would look as much like "Trixie" as a caucasian. An Asian-American boy in Speed's costume would still be recognizable as Speed Racer. Especially if you consider how much obvious effort was put into making that kid up in those posters. The same effort involved on an Asian American kid could still, easily, look like Speed.

    And honestly, the list of minor characters doesn't cut it. The issue isn't about the amount of asian actors that get work as minor characters. There are plenty. It's about how rare it is that non-white actors are cast as MAIN characters. Which, if your name isn't Lucy Liu is still really rare.

    It's a missed opportunity definitely.

    And I'm certainly not going to applaud the Wachowskis for managing to include SOME Asian people in a production of a product designed in Japan.

     
  • At March 21, 2008 4:31 PM, Blogger Ferrous Buller said…

    But the American version never, as far as I know, explicitly stated the characters were white.

    No, but considering the era it was originally broadcast, they didn't have to: I'm pretty sure the vast majority of Americans assumed they were white, since they look close enough to Caucasian by `toon standards and their names were changed. I certainly never thought of Speed et al as anything other than white, and I'm the Resident Token Eurasian! :-) Same with other Americanized anime (e.g., Star Blazers, Robotech): whites were the norm.

    Speed Racer was "de-Asianfied" 40 years ago; I don't really expect the Wachowskis to undo that now. Sure, there's no reason why the Racer family has to be white. There's also no reason why Superman, Batman, Spider-man, Daredevil, the Hulk, or a bazillion other comic book or cartoon characters who have made the leap to the live-action screen have to be white every time - other than they've always been white.

     
  • At March 21, 2008 4:36 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Heh, you've got a fair point there. I still though think it's a missed shot.

    I do admit, the costumes look fantastic. Even if I gripe about the casting choice.

     
  • At March 21, 2008 4:41 PM, Blogger Dane said…

    I learned some interesting things about japanese character art here, but I'm still supporting the Wachowskis casting choices. John Goodman was a left-field, yet awesome choice for Speed's dad. And I honestly have a hard time matching Asian actors to Speed or Trixie's role (I think these worked out great too), but since neither have seen the Asian examples, this is probably best not argued, as it could turn into a subjective argument.

    You mention the fact the main cast from the show had Japanese names (the show may even have taken place in Japan, but I can't for the life of me find a straight answer online), but you also seem to leave out the heavy western influences the creator gained from James Bond movies, the Elvis movement, and the Go Go 1950s American hotrod lifestyle. Is it really that bad to put a Caucasian cast in a show that was derived from American influences in the first place? Especially since this is an American adaptation?

    And all the characters were dark haired and eyed? Trixie and Mom Racer had brown hair. Racer X also had brown hair, and was square-jawed and barrel chested. To be fair, I can see some Asian features in Speed, but there are certainly white American features throughout all of Speed's family.

    http://favoritetoons.com/speed-racer-1.jpg

    Just because a cartoon was made in Japan doesn't mean that the live-action version produced in America has to include Japanese actors. I certainly wouldn't expect nothing but white people if Japan adapted Knight Rider or one of our shows to their culture. The street goes two ways.

     
  • At March 21, 2008 4:43 PM, Blogger Ami Angelwings said…

    I agree with you Kalinara and esp with you Nenena! It rly annoys me when it's just white white white as default. I mean these things were written and created by Asian ppl. Isn't it possible that the Japanese see their heroes as Japanese WITHOUT having to make them OBVIOUSLY Asian or something? To them, THEY'RE the default, not white ppl! Why must we always assume everybody is white until proven otherwise?

    I agree with Nenena, just b/c whiteness is default in the west doesn't mean that b/c characters dun appear obviously non-white to us, they must be white!

    Dragonball and stuff was originally written and drawn for a Japanese audience right? So obv they wouldn't see the need to exagerrate features or anything to make their chars seem "Asian" to them.

    I rly would like to see more Asian heroes and Asian characters (esp when the original characters ARE Asian!) in tv and movies. It's not like there are no Asian-American actors out there. >:|

     
  • At March 21, 2008 4:46 PM, Blogger Dane said…

    I missed Ferrous Buller's post, but it's a good point. Speed Racer, and many other cartoons made in Japan at the time, were made with the specific intention for export audiences. Audiences relate to people better and faster when they share similar features, and the Japanese producers knew this.

     
  • At March 21, 2008 4:55 PM, Blogger Dane said…

    Argh, and last post before I gotta go on a long car trip. I really would like to see more Asian characters in movies and tv, but there are good reasons to not have them in the main cast in Speed Racer, as stated before.

    I also want to clear up my support the idea that "similar colored people connect with similar colored people" idea. No, I don't. I think we all share similar needs and wants no matter where we come from in the world, but that doesn't change how anime producers, movie producers, and yes, even humanity itself so often thinks. I like to think of it as stating a truth of the human condition, but still something we should try to rise above.

    Okay, got a long car ride ahead of me. Great discussion you made here, Kal.

     
  • At March 21, 2008 4:57 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Dane, I think that's very much a stretch. I'm not saying Speed Racer wasn't intended for internation production or anything. But it's fairly clear that by the fifties and sixties, the Disney-inspired Tezuka artstyle had become pretty much THE standard in terms of anime and manga.

    Individual artists had their own take of course. Proportions, lines, dimensions different, but the features that you and others still see as not-race-specific were pretty steadily used even in products that were distributed only in Japan.

    I think Ami's got the right of it really, when she says that it's probable that Japanese people draw Japanese characters without a lot of noticeable racial features. Because in Japan, the "default" is Japanese. You don't need to go out of your way to distinguish racial characteristics of the default race. (Especially considering that while Japan's not exactly the homogenous society their politicians sometimes purport, it's still much less of a melting pot than the states.)

    Heh, if you want something really disturbing, you should see how certain (though not all of course) mangaka were drawing white Americans at the time. Let's just say we wouldn't be mistaking Go Mifune for an white American. :-)

     
  • At March 21, 2008 5:33 PM, Blogger Ferrous Buller said…

    Just to clarify: I'm not arguing AGAINST casting Asians as the Racers - or anywhere else, for that matter - I just find the scope of your argument to be a bit too limited for my tastes.

    You said, "I kind of think that a movie based on a Japanese anime ought to star Japanese-American (or at least Asian-American) actors." You seem to be saying that even though the show was white-washed for American audiences 40 years ago, in the source material they were Japanese and if you squint right they 'look' Asian, so why don't we go back to that?

    My view is that (A) for Americans familiar with Speed Racer, the vast majority of them are going to expect the Racers to be white regardless of what they were in the Japanese original; and (B) if we're willing to defy the audience's racial preconceptions about the characters, why is the only other option being bandied about "Asian?" There's nothing about the Racer family which is tied to their ethnicity, apart from their appearance; so why hasn't anyone pitched the notion of a black or Latino or Arab Racer family? Try thinking a little further outside the box, folks. :-)

    We're essentially dealing with the same sort of legacy issues that superhero adaptations always face: why do we insist that characters are always the same ethnicity through countless iterations? Why not a black Wonder Woman or a Hispanic Batman or an Indian Spider-man? (Oh wait: we have had one of those - never mind.)

    Unless a character's ethnicity is somehow intrinsically tied to their backstory, there's no reason why alternate takes on the same character have to be the same race, apart from tradition: i.e., "S/he's always been white!" Well, it's also "tradition" for most female characters to wind up stuck in secondary roles, but I doubt that would fly in these parts as a justification for keeping them that way. :-)

     
  • At March 21, 2008 5:55 PM, Blogger Will "Filby" Staples said…

    Regarding anime characters appearing Caucasian, there are actually several reasons, many of which have been brought up already:

    1) Most importantly, as Ami said, anime characters are just cartoons intended for a Japanese audience, so there's no pressure to "mark" them as one race or another.

    2) As Kalinara (and Roger Ebert, once) pointed out, the earliest anime was strongly influenced by Disney cartoons.

    3) As Ragtime noted, some early anime characters may have been drawn as "raceless" to improve marketability outside Japan.

    4) That said, light skin and round eyes are considered status symbols in Japanese culture due to the influx of Western ideals of beauty (consider the rash of surgeries removing epicanthic folds over the last few decades, like Ayumi Hamasaki for instance), so some characters may be drawn with that subconsciously in mind.

    5) Finally, some anime characters just are Caucasian.

    On the other hand, many anime characters are clearly drawn as realistically Asian, with tan skin tones, brown eyes, and straight black or brown hair. There's a much wider range of art styles than a lot of people give the anime/manga/game industry credit for.

    As for Speed Racer... well, the creators of the movie were under no obligation to cast an Asian lead, but it wouldn't have hurt either. Besides, it's pretty rare for Asian actors to land leading roles that don't involve martial arts, and this could have been a welcome change.

     
  • At March 21, 2008 9:35 PM, Blogger Ami Angelwings said…

    Besides, it's pretty rare for Asian actors to land leading roles that don't involve martial arts, and this could have been a welcome change.

    Yus. Definitely. *nods* IAWTC

     
  • At March 21, 2008 11:21 PM, Blogger Nenena said…

    Just because a cartoon was made in Japan doesn't mean that the live-action version produced in America has to include Japanese actors. I certainly wouldn't expect nothing but white people if Japan adapted Knight Rider or one of our shows to their culture. The street goes two ways.

    I would argue that the street doesn't go both ways, because the context in each country is different.

    Here in Japan, we're NOT hurting for diverse representations of white characters in all forms of media. My local cable TV networks show more imported American and British shows than they do Japanese dramas and anime. The nearest DVD store in my area has more shelfspace devoted to Hollywood imports than to Japanese-produced fare. And the same has been true since immediately post-WWII, even when Speed Racer was initially conceived. So if Japan were to take a hypothetical American property and recast it with all Japanese actors - like, say, a Spiderman TV show (not so hypothetical, natch) - it wouldn't exactly be a "missed opportunity" because there are plenty of other heroic representations of white characters on Japanese TV anyway.

    The same isn't true of mass-market entertainment in the U.S. As Will pointed out, we rarely get to see *leading* Asian characters unless they're martial artists. And here was an opportunity to change that. And the opportunity was missed. That's a shame.

    or an Indian Spider-man? (Oh wait: we have had one of those - never mind.)

    No we don't, not anymore. He was canceled after only four issues.

    So, still hurting for representation over here.

    One more thought: The "it was made for export, therefore the characters were drawn raceless" argument. That kind of rubs me the wrong way. Because you know what? THIS SPEED RACER MOVIE is also MADE FOR EXPORT. There's a HUGE hype campaign going on in Japan right now. I'm pretty sure there's going to be a simultaneous American and Japanese release. And not just Japan, either - I'm fairly confident that this movie, like most Hollywood blockbusters, is going to be exported all over the world.

    Keep in mind that most of the rest of the world is savvy that Speed Racer was originally a Japanese property. Not every dubbed version localized the names of the characters, either.

    So this is what boggles me. There's this implication that Japanese animators should be expected to draw "raceless" characters if they want to export their shows, so that other countries can look at those characters and see white people (or whatever). But when a Hollywood studio makes a major motion picture for international export, it doesn't matter if the leading cast is "white as sour cream" because white is apparently the INTERNATIONAL default, too!

     
  • At March 21, 2008 11:29 PM, Anonymous suedenim said…

    What REALLY annoys me is that, apparently, the Mach 5 gets replaced by some "kewler" version late in the movie.

    That's just plain wrong. It's metaphysically impossible to get cooler than the Mach 5.

     
  • At March 21, 2008 11:35 PM, Blogger Ami Angelwings said…

    But when a Hollywood studio makes a major motion picture for international export, it doesn't matter if the leading cast is "white as sour cream" because white is apparently the INTERNATIONAL default, too!

    Exactly! You explained what I was fumbling over words for Nenena :D I'm so tired of this "white is default, I'm colorblind, etc" attitude :\

    Also what you said about the differences between representations of minority chars in America and abroad :D Your comment was full of awesome :)

     
  • At March 25, 2008 9:37 AM, OpenID thomwade said…

    "Speed Racer was "de-Asianfied" 40 years ago; I don't really expect the Wachowskis to undo that now. Sure, there's no reason why the Racer family has to be white. There's also no reason why Superman, Batman, Spider-man, Daredevil, the Hulk, or a bazillion other comic book or cartoon characters who have made the leap to the live-action screen have to be white every time - other than they've always been white."

    Stated much better than I...this is partially what I was trying to get at. I can think of other Anime that if they had a primarily white cast for a live action version, i would see a much bigger issue.

     

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