Representation! The internet cries for all to hear, and in fairness who can blame it? In big blockbusting cinema these days there’s an active, and very positive move to make the world of action and adventure more inclusive for everyone.
And, in fairness to big movie studios, they’re making some positive steps. Try to count all of the important female or black characters in the Marvel Comics universe or the DC Comics universe and you’ll likely forget one, but sadly, of all races, there’s not much attention given to Asia. Take, for an example, 2016’s Doctor Strange, a film that was very well received by critics upon release (for good reason), and one that took a butt load of cash, but there was controversy. Yes, it was very good of them to make Mordo an African American, and even better to make Wong the sort of drill sergeant of the sorcerers, but Tilda Swinton’s caucasian The Ancient One was a poor choice. Talented as she is, and she is, there could have been any number of better Asian actors for the role, male or female.
This month sees the release of Marvel and Netflix’s Iron Fist, another story inflected by Asian iconography taking as its inspiration kung-fu movies from the likes of Bruce Lee and others. The issue came from Finn Jones’ casting as Danny Rand the titular hero; while by no means an awful actor, a story so very much steeped in the culture and history of East Asia would really need an East Asian actor to make that story work. The final defender is just another white boy. Put up against Charlie Cox’s Daredevil, Krysten Ritter’s Jessica Jones and Mike Colter’s Luke Cage, Jones’ Rand looks like… well, a wet blanket. But, as many people pointed out, the influx of brilliant (and super hunky) Asian men who could have tackled the role of Rand is only rising. Fan favourite being Godfrey Gao, and yes Jessica Henwick being Colleen Wing is fine, but it still damages what could have been a fair, representative world.
All of this comes to a head in Ghost in the Shell. Based on the manga and the anime adaptation, Ghost in the Shell is solid gold. Taking place in a cyber-punk future, Major Motoko Kusanagi is a cyborg-cop on the trail of an ever unfolding conspiracy. The stuff of sci-fi nerd’s dreams. A film, surely then, would have something for everyone. A strong female lead, busting balls, fighting bad guys, plenty of Asian influence, techno-music, cyber-punk robotics, enough of that strange Blade Runner look people fawn over, and a great live action movie.
But what made the Major such an interesting character was that she wasn’t just a conflicted hero, or an interesting woman, it’s that we were being shown Asian women in a flattering light. Unfortunately, in recent years, much like our over reliance on the magical negro trope, we’re developing one in the west for Asians, a sort of spiritual Asian if you will. Where does this come from? Well probably 80s classic The Karate Kid, after all, Pat Morita is the quintessential mentor figure, his Miyagi is quoted by every football coach across the world, and every parent with a kid called Daniel, will at some point refer to them as “Daniel-san”.
That’s not to say that the idea of a racially diverse future is bad. If anything, director Rupert Sanders’ diverse future says something rather positive about the way the world is going, but for The Major, there’s a feeling that there was a chance for a big shift in women in cinema. Scarlett Johansson is solid gold assurance, no doubt, but if the film has spectacle then it will do fine regardless. And in a film where the supporting cast has actors as great as Chin Han, Rila Fukushima and Takeshi Kitano (yes, that Takeshi!) why couldn’t they have cast an Asian actress for the lead? After all, Pacific Rim soared in the scenes with Rinko Kikuchi (an oscar nominee also), or even Karen Fukuhara salvaged Suicide Squad with her stoic Katana.
After all, much like the J-horror remake craze which either forgot the Asian influence or just went straight for white people in Asian hell, this might be the first in a long line of Anime on screen. Already the more kiddy end of the spectrum has seen two colossal duds: Dragonball Evolution and The Last Airbender. The choices to make the lead white was done for money reasons, let no one tell you differently, but both tanked harder than that scene in The A-Team. They stunk up cinemas and torched the actors careers (except Dev Patel, who is solid gold in everything). The slate of anime in the pipelines are varied, the other hallowed ground piece is of course Akira which has been thrown around directors for years, an Asian Watchmen of sorts, while Hayao Miyazaki’s collective works have been eyed up for remakes, especially his more beloved works My Neighbour Totoro, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke, all of which cry out for Terry Gilliam or Guillermo del Toro style storytelling.
And sure, there’s nothing wrong with casting big names for those films, and even for Akira. But when your mega budget films have supporting characters who are getting all the attention (like a certain Donnie Yen in Rogue One) then why would you even go near a white person for big roles? Again, the diversity of the film is not an issue, frankly we at No Majesty would love to see Mike Colter or Dave Bautista in the role of Joker, but for characters like our hero, or The Colonel, it’s major that their ethnicity be kept, not just as respect but because the culture becomes something important to the overall tone and feel of the film (and Ken Watanabe was born to play The Colonel).
People might baulk at the idea that Asia isn’t beloved in the Western World, after all we all love The Raid, and The Ring and Oldboy, but if you think about our homegrown films with Asian leads, how often are they the drawing power? Yes, Jackie Chan was at one point up there as one of the most bankable actors in the world, but his films rarely, if ever, featured him holding the film up on his own. Rush Hour left it to Chris Tucker for the comedy, while Jackie Chan did the stunts, Shangai Noon and Shanghai Knights paired him with Owen Wilson. In other films he’s been supported by Steve Coogan, Jennifer Love Hewitt and Billy Ray Cyrus. Despite his best films being the ones where he’s left to do his own thing (Who Am I?, the first couple of Police Story films).
This has come from the same arguments that plagued the gender equality side of things and the plights of the black person, that there wasn’t enough entertainment featuring them in leading roles. In recent years we’ve seen a steady, and rather positive rise. After all there is a strong argument made for a female Doctor Who, and an even stronger one calling for Idris Elba to don a tux for Bond. It’s not that the films featuring black leads or women leads are duds because of that, it’s that the films that flop were flawed to begin with. But, given the right story they can do wonders, currently our cinemas are crowed with awards darlings Moonlight, Fences and Hidden Figures, all talking about different issues and stories, with different tones, but all of which are striking a chord not just with the black community but with all communities, because the storytelling is rich.
Case in point, the internet has gotten to a point where people can call for what they want and producers can, if clever, listen. If Ghost in the Shell does well it could open the doors for more anime-live action films, which is fine, but it’s time for us to admit we’re racially skewed. To say that there isn’t an audience for Asian lead entertainment is plain wrong, after all, some of the most marketable animated content is anime, Bruce Lee decades after death is still a major box office draw, his films considered classics and regularly shown in cinemas for adoring fans. The Harold and Kumar films have continued in the Cheech and Chong vein and elevated both leads to mainstream success, even on the small screen, even the harshest of critics have conceded that Ming-na Wen’s nuanced portrayal of hard-nosed veteran agent Melinda May is one of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s strongest elements, and of course comedy Fresh off the Boat is doing for the Asian community what Everybody Hates Chris, Black-ish, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and the brilliant Desmonds did for the black community, taking the format of the white family flashback sitcom (currently done very well in The Goldbergs), but tailoring it for a different community, but again, with universal mainstream appeal.
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There’s only really one plus side to all of this Ghost in the Shell business, and that’s that if it is a success, which is very well might be, it, along with the MCU and Lucy will cement Scarlett Johansson as a box office draw to rival Angelina Jolie in her prime, and will give them no excuse not to fast track a Black Widow film. In the end big producers can throw as many reasons as they want at you for not making Asian lead films, it comes down to a lack of faith. Give the right actor the right material and they’ll make it work, for proof, look at The Walking Dead. It lost a huge percentage of it’s viewership after they did the unthinkable to Steven Yeun’s brilliant Glenn, possibly the shows biggest folly yet. Why? Because he was compelling, likeable and we loved him.
Paul Klein is a Film Studies Graduate from London, former writer at The Metropolist.