We Appreciate the Thought…but Let Us Decide.

Nob Akimoto

Nob Akimoto

Nob Akimoto is a policy analyst and part-time dungeon master. When not talking endlessly about matters of public policy, he is a dungeon master on the NWN World of Avlis

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51 Responses

  1. Avatar greginak says:

    Looking forward to the next post about Japanese identity. Sounds really interesting and i don’t know much about it.Report

  2. Avatar Doctor Jay says:

    This is a fantastic post. I’m just really happy that I actually know who Beat Takeshi is.

    The thing that confounds me when I try to think about this in an organized way is this: Does Macbeth have to be Scottish? Does he need to be played by a Scottish actor? Was, for instance, Throne of Blood a legitimate adaptation of it? Is it important that Kurosawa changed the title?

    Yes, I’d like to see more Asian actors on screen. We could do that by not chaining them to parts that are “Asians”. I think a move in that direction would make ScarJo’s casting make a lot more sense.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      I don’t think people are that specific. Plenty of scripts are adaptable but as I said below, the default in Hollywood goes against casting minorities and this is frustrating to actors and they are working against it.

      If it was easier for minority actors to get cast, I think you would see fewer complaints.

      Casting is interesting though. Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia takes place among the gentry in Regency England. I have seen productions that use minority actors and it was fine. Does theatre have more license to do this than movies and TV? Possibly.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      I’m reminded of a tidbit about the movie Nixon where it was decided early on that one thing that was essential was that Richard Nixon be played by an American.

      Which, of course, didn’t happen. They found that Hopkins was the right guy for the job. Given his performance, it was pretty hard to disagree. That said, there was a guy who was perfect to play Nixon and he was in that movie! I suspect he actually got that relatively bit part after trying out to play Nixon. Dan Hedaya would go on to play Nixon in the movie Dick, was was a fun little movie but not the best use of his pitch-perfection for the role.

      I can nonetheless understand why they went the route they did. Maybe they could have made Hedaya’s career with that role, but Hopkins was a name with heft. He was essential for the role that had nothing to do with how well he played it (which was well!).

      This is all easier to stomach when we’re talking about white dudes, though, and there’s no special difficulty for white American actors to find work (even ethnic ones). I can understand why it goes over differently when we’re not.Report

    • Avatar El Muneco in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      We don’t think twice when a Scot plays a Lithuanian submarine captain or an Egyptian metallurgist by way of Spain, an English Shakespeare veteran plays a French starship captain, or a Frenchman who speaks English only phonetically plays a Scot opposite the canonical Scottish actor of our time. Or, for that matter, a pirate from the Guilder/Florin sea lanes playing a Bostonian. It only gets really noticed when it’s funny because they’re horrifically bad at it or they don’t even try.

      Kenneth Branagh snuck Denzel Washington into Much Ado About Nothing, but as elevator casting pitches go, that’s not a difficult one.

      Hell, in Hollywood “sophisticated villain” is a nationality, and it’s part of the UK.Report

  3. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    I think there are lots of competing angles here.

    1. From a pure business prospective, Hollywood wants a star with power and popularity to be the leads in movies. That is Scarlett Johanson to a T. Warner Bros. felt like she would attract an audience bigger than anime fans.

    2. On the other hand, Hollywood has a huge problem with just making white the de facto casting choice. Asian actors might be the hardest hit by this. There has been improvement in recent years but still a long way to go. Why not make this the break out role for an unknown actor? This has happened many times before. Peter O’Toole was largely unknown when he was cast as Lawrence of Arabia. Same with Harrison Ford as Han Solo and Dustin Hoffman in the Graduate. Unknown actors can carry leads in successful movies.

    3. Related to #2. Warner Bros. felt that there was enough of a comics/anime fanbase to justify making a Ghost in the Shell movie. Why not cast an Asian actor as the lead? Maybe have faith that people will see it. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a hit and had an all Asian-cast.

    4. The truth is that color blind casting can be used more often than it is in all things from sitcoms to movies. This makes the default to white frustrating. Why couldn’t Lisa on Friends be played by a non-white actor as an example? Or one of the characters on Girls? I think this makes it incredibly frustrating for persons of color in the arts because the source material is explicitly Asian and the character has a Japanese name and it goes to Scarlett Johanson. They get denied roles where this is some or a lot of justification for casting a person of color. I’d guess this probably happens to Asian actors more than black or Hispanic actors actually.

    5. The only time I can think of a character going from Whitebread to ethnic is in the Graduate. In the book, the protagonist is a blond-haired, blue-eyed Boarding School guy. The movie casts very Jewish Dustin Hoffman as the lead. The famous story is that Robert Redford wanted the lead in the Graduate. Mike Nichols asked Redford “Do you know what it is like to strike out with a girl?” Redford replied “what do you mean strike out with a girl?” Hoffman got the role.Report

    • Avatar greginak in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      Well come on. Of course unknowns can lead big pix. But a proven star is a lot more of a sure bet and that is what the studio wants. A star that can almost guarantee a big box office the first weekend, not a gamble. Why would a studio head give out a lead based on the faith people will go see it. It’s an old anime at this point, yeah it has a following. How many people in america are anime fans? How many around the world?

      Star Wars was a not a big project so giving Ford the lead was not a gamble. Getting Guiness to sign on was the big name. Crouching Tiger was a chinese flick that just happened to do well here. O’Toole was frickin O’Toole, you could see his talent and blue eyes. Also directors were a bigger deal back then. Lean was the name.

      For the record casting SJ in this looks silly and a live action GITS is an even worse idea.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to greginak says:

        …so giving Ford the lead…

        Are we remembering the same movie? The Han Solo character wasn’t even on the theatrical release posters. Luke, Leia, the droids, and an overarching Darth Vader in the background. Give Harrison Ford credit for making the most of it, but the role was a stock supporting character out of traditional American westerns. Indiana Jones was a real leading role, that was originally offered to Tom Selleck, who had to turn it down because of time commitments to the Magnum, P.I. television series. Ford was cast as Indy about three weeks before filming began.Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to Saul Degraw says:


      Hollywood has a huge problem with just making white the de facto casting choice. Asian actors might be the hardest hit by this. There has been improvement in recent years but still a long way to go.

      I agree. When you boil it down, I don’t think this is actually a complaint about cultural appropriation or ethnic identity, so much as it is a complaint about Hollywood’s HR practices. Which is a reasonable thing to complain about, but its a different complaint to the one that’s commonly presented whenever this comes up.Report

      • Avatar Alan Scott in reply to James K says:

        Except that, is it a complaint about cultural appropriation? I almost always see it as specifically a complaint about racist casting practices in hollywood.

        I mean, the ur-example is Shamalayan’s Last airbender movie, to the point that the practice is commonly called “racebending”. If people were upset about cultural appropriation in regards to that though, they’d presumably be complaining about the asian-influenced cartoon created by white animators, instead of the way that cartoon has been cast in its live-action form.Report

  4. Should Kusanagi be Japanese or Manganese?Report

  5. Avatar LTL FTC says:

    Can it be simultaneously true that Hollywood has a problem casting non-white leads and complaining about any specific casting decision is essentialist and unhelpful?Report

    • Avatar Benfergu in reply to LTL FTC says:

      I wouldn’t say that it’s unhelpful; if anything, this particular casting decision serves well as an illustration of the problem. You are right in that the larger problem with acting opportunities for actors of color can’t just be addressed by looking at individual cases.Report

  6. Avatar InMD says:

    I have conflicted feelings on this issue. I can understand the annoyance of Japanese and/or Asian-American actors for losing an opportunity in an industry where they have fewer opportunities to score big roles. I also sympathize with the impulse that, as a multicultural society, our popular culture should to some degree reflect our own diversity.

    However, I also can’t help but see a certain condescension in being wildly outraged on behalf of other people in the realm of art and entertainment. It both fails to grapple with the complexities of another culture (this post was great for bringing Japanese insight into the issue) and assumes weakness in a manner that’s at best pretty patronizing. I’m reminded of the Kimono Wednesday debate, and not only because both involve things Japanese.

    I wonder if it’s really reasonable to expect multi-billion dollar entertainment enterprises to be the bearers of cultural enlightenment. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t criticize racism when we see it but the mission of these films is to make money, not meet the standards of a race-studies department at an American university. I’m baffled that anyone would ever think otherwise.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to InMD says:

      But if we really don’t criticize anti-Semitism, does it actually exist?
      (There’s a rather famous character that’s essentially all anti-Semitic stereotypes rolled into one — originally designed for the NYC set… shows up on TV and nobody bitches…)Report

  7. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    It’s a bit more tricky. While actual Japanese people might be fine with casting Scarlet Johansson as the lead in Ghost in the Shell, many Asian-American could be justifiably angry for reasons Saul outlined. This movie was a potential big brake for them and they can’t have it.Report

  8. Avatar Kolohe says:

    Tangential to Nob’s post (and I too am looking forward to the follow up post), but brought up sorta but some people above, I thought there was a trend to cast *more* Asian (Asian american, east asian and south asian) actors – or maybe just Chinese american and Chinese actors – to generate buzz and ticket sales to boost the world wide gross for big tent pole flicks.Report

    • Avatar greginak in reply to Kolohe says:

      I wonder if ScarJo would be a bigger draw in many countries then other Asian actors. Would Chinese people prefer her over a Japanese actor?Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Kolohe says:

      When done well, you’re pulling off the linguistic signifiers just as well as “who” you’re casting.

      Heroes (first season) had a few Japanese lines that were… completely untranslatable. Totally designed for “Japanese is your first language”
      They were also pulling hard for an Indian audience.Report

  9. Avatar Kazzy says:

    You spoke ill of the FF franchise. This will not stand.Report

  10. Avatar Alan Scott says:


    Japan is making a live-action Fullmetal Alchemist movie. Despite the fact that the main characters are ethnically European, Edward Elric is being played by an ethnically Asian actor.

    I kinda feel the same way about this that I do about SJ in GitS: That it’s racism shutting a minority actor out of a job.Report

  11. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    I’m not actually finding a lot of evidence that Asians are underrepresented in Hollywood. For example, this study found that Asians played 5% of speaking roles in a selection of 500 top-grossing films, which is slightly greater than their share of the total US population. Blacks were only slightly underrepresented (10.8% vs 12.2%), while the most underrepresented groups were Hispanics (4.2% vs 16.3%) and women.

    Edit: Oh, I see from one of your links that they’re underrepresented in lead roles, but not in speaking roles.Report

  12. Avatar Mo says:

    As stated above, this wouldn’t be an issue if there were Asian (or other ethnicities) being cast for white roles. When you have guys like Horowitz saying that Idris Elba is too street to play Bond, people are going to wonder. If only white people can play white roles and white people can play other ethnicities, what’s left for non-whites? If we get to the day where Superman is just as likely to be cast by an Indian actor as would be cast by a white one, then we can talk. I would guess there would be handwringing, but from different corners, if Mindy Kaling was cast in the role.Report

    • Avatar TrexPushups in reply to Mo says:

      For example imagine the outcry from the same people who are totally fine with ScarJo as the major if marvel had cast an Asian/black woman as black widow in the marvel movie.

      Or remember the pout-rage when idris Elba was cast in Thor.Report

  13. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    I’d be willing to give the benefit of the doubt that Scarlett Johansson could play a convincing Asian character if there was any proof that she could play any character convincingly.Report

  14. Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

    Motoko Kusanagi isn’t an “Asian” character, she’s a Japanese one. That distinction matters, and yet even in comments to this post, I see that point keeps getting elided.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      Mine was more of a dumb joke about Ms. Johansson’s wooden acting style than a “comment” on the post, but okay, point taken.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      The distinctions might not necessarily matter as much as you want them to. Motoko Kusanagi is both a Japanese and Asian character from the American perspective. Most people in the United States see the Japanese as a subset of Asians in the same way that Italians are a subset of Europeans. This makes the decision to cast a white actor as Motoko Kusanagi as particularly galling for Asian-Americans because it was a big chance for a break out role.Report

    • Avatar Mo in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      True. But casting a German as a Sicilian in the Godfather would get a different response than casting a Kenyan as a Sicilian.Report

  15. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    Here is an article from way-way-back about a miniature controversy over the character Faith from then-new Mirror’s Edge.Report

  16. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    Also, here’s where I nerd out about this.

    Motoko Kusanagi is a robot. Or, rather, a robot body with a human brain riding around inside. (And the original artist claims that “Motoko Kusanagi” is an alias, sort of like calling herself “Jane Smith”.) She can look like whatever she wants to, changing bodies about as conveniently as you’d buy a new car.

    In fact, the original sources say that her robot body is actually kind of a generic one. There’s an oft-misunderstood scene in the first movie where Kusanagi is looking up, intercut with scenes of her looking down, and what we’re supposed to realize is that she’s looking at another person with exactly the same robot body.

    So, if we go back to the primary sources, it’s not actually required that Motoko Kusanagi be played by a Japanese actress.Report

    • This is actually a little complicated, too. Motoko is in fact a cyborg, and she actually stops really being an individual (or at least how we understand the term) after a certain point in the manga.

      In the manga (and various anime spinoffs), Motoko’s name is written using kanji. Araki’s I think, the only one who also has that distinction. The others in the 9th who have Japanese-ish names like Saito, Ishikawa, and Azuma have their names rendered in katakana.

      So there’s something a little weird going on there, where the idea is for Motoko, as the POV char, is supposed to be distinctly Japanese-ish in how we look at the world. (The fact that Ghost in the Shell’s setting is explicitly Japanese and relies on that fact is kind of connected to that.)

      So yes, her ethnicity as a matter of who portrays her physically isn’t important. But it’s actually kind of important for the actress playing her to be familiar with the differences between, say, Japanese, and American culture and extrapolate on that.

      Rinko Kikuchi could do it. I’m not sure any other Asian-American in Hollywood can. And here’s the thing about ScarJo: She might actually have more experience with this than most other actresses. Yes, Lost in Translation had some serious problems in portraying Japanese characters, but she’s at least had to try to think of the cultural gaps.

      So I agree it’s not necessary for the actress playing the character be ethnically Japanese. At the same time, it would behoove the director and the actress to have some understanding of what “Japanese” can actually mean to portray the character correctly.Report