A condensed version of this article has been featured on Racialicious!
If you’ll recall, a few days ago, I talked a bit about the all-white shortlist for “Akira”. Now, to ward off any “Why do you always talk about race” naysayers, let me get one thing straight:
Technically, race isn’t supposed to be important in a post-racial world, BUT, we aren’t in a post-racial world yet, not when we still have people in America who believe President Obama is not an American simply because he’s the first American president of known African descent. We call these people “racists”. As far as I can see, race will be a deciding factor in a lot of things for several more years to come, and Hollywood is one of the places it’ll be a factor. This all-white shortlist alone shows that race will still be a factor. Yes, the movie has been changed from the original setting of ”Neo-Tokyo” to “Neo-Manhattan”, but that doesn’t mean that the race/ethnicity of the characters have to change. There are not many roles for Asian actors to get outside of indie films and mainstream kung-fu/martial arts films, so when the time comes for there to be a film that should cast Asian actors, such as Akira and The Last Airbender, the bulk of the roles go to Caucasian actors instead of actors that actually look like the characters. The problem is that a lot of studios still hold on to the stereotypical notion that Asian actors and actresses only sell in martial arts/action films; that they can only be the lead in such a film, not in a dramatic and/or romantic film like “Philadelphia” or “The Notebook”. So, I say all of this to say that race and image in Hollywood go hand-in-hand.
So with that out of the way, let’s get on to the shortlisting! (BTW–I will attempt to pick mostly Japanese actors, seeing how it’s a film based on a Japanese property. However, since Hollywood also goes by the idea that “recognizable stars sell seats” as well as other reasons, which will be discussed below, some actors may be from other parts of Asia.)
KANEDA (leader of a bike gang, handsome, rebel, eventual leader of the resistance against the corrupt government)
John Cho (FastForward, Star Trek 2009, Harold and Kumar films)
I’ll go ahead and get this out of the way, because I’m sure some might think I’m being hypocritical, seeing as I just wrote a huge bit about Hollywood, America, and how race and ethnicity are represented. Yes, I know he’s South Korean, but, like I said above, while Hollywood needs to change the way they play the casting game when it comes to casting unknowns (especially unknown minority actors), they do generally stick with people they are familiar with. To Hollywood, if you’re Asian (any Asian aside from Indian) you can play a Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and even Filipino character. Now, I’m not saying that’s the correct way to do things, because it’s obviously not (remember the flack Memoirs of a Geisha caught when they had Ziyi Zhang, Li Gong, and Michelle Yeoh, Chinese actresses, in the principal Japanese character roles). But, if we’re trying to cast a film for America that’s at least partially accurate, John Cho would go on my list. However, I’ve got plenty of Japanese actors below in this short-list, so a faithful movie can still be cast.
Aside from the culture incongruence, Cho could probably play the role of Kaneda very well; in the film Akira, Kaneda comes off more as the grounded character compared to the out-of-controlness that Tetsuo is. But, Kaneda is essentially more powerful because, due to this friendship with Tetsuo before (SPOILER) Tetuso gains his powers, Kaneda is the only one who can do some damage–both physically and emotionally–to Tetuso. I think Cho can handle that responsibility.
Ken Leung (Lost, Year of the Fish)
Again, Hollywood casts who they know, and they know Ken Leung well. He played in Lost, one of the biggest television events since Twin Peaks (I’m guessing). He also played a quiet role in Year of the Fish, a movie I just reviewed a couple of days ago. Yes, again, he’s not Japanese, but, he’s someone who is established, something Hollywood can hold onto when thinking about marketing strategies.
Derek Mio (Greek, Day One, Day of Independence, Purity)
The first plus is that he’s of Japanese descent! Secondly, while the above actors are great choices, Mio is only a few years removed from high school, meaning it might look more believable to see him riding around on a high-tech motorbike in a red leather jacket and pants combo. Mio is an up-and-comer, starring on the ABC Family show Greek; all he needs is one big movie to make him a bankable movie star, and this one could be it.
Tatsuya Fujiwara (Death Note, Kaiji: Ultimate Gambler)
Tatsuya Fujiwara is probably known to a lot American animephiles as “Light Yagami” from the Japanese film adaptation of Death Note (Hollywood should take a look at this film and its manga form, because this film shows how to do an anime adaptation right). Light is an insane character (well, almost every character in Death Note is insane, as I’ll reiterate later in the shortlist), but he’s also a character of precision, OCD-like intensity, and serious perfectionism, meaning that the actor would have to be deadly serious about his commitment to character. While Kaneda isn’t so much a perfectionist, the actor would have to put a lot of intensity into his performance, and if Fujiwara is able to be this cunning and deadly as Light, then he’s more than capable of taking on Kaneda. His work in Kaiji: Ultimate Gambler, a fast-paced, intense movie in its own right, also reiterates Fujiwara’s ability to take on dramatic, violent roles.
Shin Koyamada (The Last Samurai, Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior)
I honestly thought I’d be seeing more of this guy on the scene than I have. After starring in The Last Samurai and being the love interest in Disney Channel’s Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior, I thought for sure that Disney Channel would have grabbed him up and put him through his paces. But, on the whole, they didn’t, which is a shame, because I think this guy could have brought them some serious coin. Anyway, He’s just the right age and ethnicity (Japanese!) to play Kaneda.
Daniel Henney (X-Men Origins, Three Rivers)
This Korean/Irish-American actor has a huge following in South Korea due to his role in the show My Name is Kim Sam Soon. He played opposite Hugh Jackman in X-Men Origins: Wolverine as Agent Zero, but, one movie I like seeing him in is the Korean film Seducing Mr. Perfect, which is pitch-perfect in its retro rom-com-ness. Like many leading men, Henney seems almost too perfect, too unattainable (all the more reason for women to swoon over him). It’s almost too easy to cast him as Kaneda, but I’ll put him in this category because it makes the most sense. However, if someone wanted to be creative, it might be interesting to see how he’d do if he went the Johnny Depp route and took crazy roles, like Tetsuo. Who knows. But anyways, enough with the wishy-washiness on Henney; below are my definite picks for Tetsuo.
TETSUO (Kaneda’s best friend, psychic, eventual guinea pig of a governmental experiment, destroyer)
Masi Oka (Heroes)
Dare I say Masi Oka could play Tetsuo? I think he could. To me, he’s got the right amount of manic energy needed to play someone who has power they don’t know how to deal with. On Heroes, he seemed to give off that kind of vibe, so for me, he’s perfect. And he’s actually Japanese, so that’s a plus for racially-sensitive casting.
Justin Chon (Twilight films)
Justin Chon isn’t in Twilight much, but he’s good with what he’s given. I’ll paraphrase what studio execs are stereotyped to say: I like the kid. He seems fresh-faced enough to pull off being an unassuming Tetsuo, because in the anime film, Tetsuo does come off initially as unassuming. In fact, the idea that Tetsuo has psychic abilities surprises Kaneda, who is used to Tetsuo being his right-hand man. And, just because Chon’s in Twilight doesn’t mean that playing Bella’s friend is the extent of his talent. Case in point: the late Heath Ledger, who, up until his turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight, was in teen films like A Knight’s Tale and the classic Ten Things I Hate About You. Even his turn in Brokeback Mountain, an Oscar-nominated film, didn’t dissuade people from doubting his abilities to do the Joker justice, but he proved them wrong and then some. Chon, who is also young enough to pull of playing a realistic high-school student, seems like a good potential Tetsuo; don’t hold Twilight against him.
Harry Shum, Jr. (Glee)
Now, some might feel this is a mistake in casting. On paper, Harry Shum, Jr. seems more like Kaneda material than Tetsuo material. But, I think this role might be a fun one for him to do, because, like Henney, he’s just this side of being a too-perfect Adonis figure, and, also like Henney, hunky leading roles could have the potential to look like “safe” roles on him. And in my view, it’ll separate himself from the rest of the Glee pack, since, for the longest of time, he’s just been background fodder, and even though his role has grown considerably, he’s still a tertiary character at the most. By being cast as Tetsuo, which is a seriously demanding role, it will not only cement his name in the movie world, but also show that he’s got more in his arsenal than just looking good.
Kenichi Matsuyama (Death Note, Kaiji: Ultimate Gambler, Gantz)
It’s probably a bit of irony that Kenichi Matsuyama and Fujiwara were in both Death Note and Kaiji: Ultimate Gambler, but these two films are also Akira-esque in their craziness and intensity. As I said, these two actors have proven that they can play insane characters, and in a way, Matsuyama’s portrayal of “L” in Death Note is perhaps the creepiest, yet highly subtle, character acting I’ve seen in a live-action adaptation of a cartoon and/or comic book (L has has odd mannerisms with his hands, feet, stance and gait that Matsuyama got just right). Tetsuo, like L, is a freak, and Matsuyama would be able to get the outwardly creepy aspects of Tetsuo down with ease. The fact that he can act well doesn’t hurt either.
Aaron Yoo (21, Friday the 13 , Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist)
Aaron Yoo is in another movie that has had allegations of whitewashing, 21. It would be nice to see this guy in a movie where he’s shining alongside other Asian/Asian-American actors instead of playing a character who’s second to a character who was originally Asian in the book 21 is based on, ”Bringing Down the House”, but played by a Caucasian in the film. For all intents and purposes, however, he does well with his role in 21, becoming one of the fan favorites. This guy’s also been in quite a few mainstream movies such as The Namesake, Disturbia, and indie films like The Whackness, so he can do the work, if given to him.
Jay Chou (Curse of the Golden Flower, The Green Hornet)
Taiwanese superstar Jay Chou was originally a phenom in China with his music career. He moved into acting with films like the stellar Curse of the Golden Flower, also starring Li Gong and Chow-Yun Fat. He’s finally made his mark on the States with The Green Hornet, and you’d think after starring in a huge blockbuster with Seth Rogen he’d be given a chance to star in Akira, especially since Hornet just came out in January! Nevertheless, Chou has proven he’s got acting talent (if you haven’t seen Golden Flower, go get it!) and he can pull off the acting prowess it’ll take to play a convincing and pathos-laden Tetsuo. And he could make a killer song for the film too, just like what he did for Golden Flower.
So that’s the list! Like I said, some people on this list aren’t Japanese, but, sadly, just to have Asians actually on screen is the goal at this point. Hollywood has proven they can cast Asians for roles other than roles in martial arts films–Sandra Oh has been cast films such as Hard Candy and Under the Tuscan Sun–all minority actors need is for Hollywood to routinely cast minorities in film, not just when they feel someone has “earned it” , is “safe”, or “can do martial arts”.
Who do you think should be cast in this film? And, if you liked these picks, check out this post about who I think can play some of the other characters from Akira!