Hunger Games and Akira: A Tale of Two Race Issues

There are two major kerfuffles going on at the moment involving movie adaptations of beloved tales. The first is the casting of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. The second is the choice of all white males to audition for the roles of Tetsuo and Kaneda in the adaptation of Akira.

I’ll tackle The Hunger Games first. Apparently, unbeknownst to this writer of interracial/multicutural tales, many, many fans assumed that Katniss was a mixed race character and feel totally betrayed by the casting of Jennifer Lawrence (of Winter’s Bone fame). In this case, I’m going to have to call a racebending fail. Katniss is described as olive-skinned, as are most people in the Seam, the coal-mining district where she lives. Olive skin != mixed race. When I write olive-skinned characters, and when I read about a character described as having olive skin, they are white. There are plenty of white people who are not mixed who have olive skin. Absent other signifiers of race (which Author Suzanne Collins provided for every other character of color), you cannot assume that olive-skin somehow represents a mixed race heritage. Especially as it does not make sense, setting wise. The Seam is a stand-in for the Appalachians, and coal mining has historically been a job performed by white Appalachians. Collins appears to have used at least a basic history template for each of the districts (e.g., District 12 being the home of black migrant workers), so why would she have the Seam populated by mixed race people only? i may be wrong, but this doesn’t make sense. I read the books twice and never got any indication that race was an issue for Katniss. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think Collins would have spent at least a little more time on the subject if that were the case. This is the kind of thing that undercuts the legitimacy of the racebending movement and the gains made after The Last Airbender tanked.

The bigger problem is Akira. This anime classic, which was the first anime I ever saw and was the gateway film to the genre for many Americans of a certain age, is being made into a live action film. Not very promising, but OK, I can deal with that. What I can’t deal with is the actors who are up for the role. ALl fo them are white. Every. last. one of them. Neo-Tokyo is going to be Neo-Manhattan. Tetsuo is going to be named Travis.

I could go on for days about why this is wrong, but I’ll keep it brief:

  1. There are plenty of hot Asian (if not Japanese) actors who could carry this film. They don’t even need to be super famous. A beloved film + awesome effects guarantees this film will make money. Is having Asian leads really going to stop someone from seeing a kickass sci-fi film? No. Is whitewashing the film and pissing off the film’s fanbase going to stop people from seeing the film? Yes.
  2. Even if the setting is changed to Neo-Manhattan, guess what? The characters still wouldn’t be wihte? They would more likely be Hispanic or Black. Despite what you see on television, Manhattan is not an exclusively (or even majority) white enclave. They may as well start casting Donald Glover as Kaneda if the setting is their excuse. (I would pay to see that, wouldn’t you?)
  3. Where does it end? This isn’t the first whitewashed anime, but it’s the first of a slew of popular animes being made into live action films. Bleach and Battle Angel Alita are already in the pipeline. If these casting choices are seen as Americanizing the film (although a few of the actors aren’t even American, just white), every film that follows has no reason to try and break the mold. 
  4. Obviously, first and foremost this will reinforce to Asian-Americans that Hollywood doesn’t thitnk they matter. But it matter for all POC who are into anime and mangaWhen I go to Japanese/Anime/Manga events in the NYC area there is a HUGE contingent of fans of color. My little sister and her friends who are all into anime and manga are all fans of color. If this casting decision stands, it tells them that not only are they underrepresented in the Japanese animes (which makes sense culturally, duh), but they aren’t seen as part of the American versions either.

OK. End rant.

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