Asian Erasure in Japanese Manga-to-Film Adaptations

(Photo credit: DocChewbacca on Flickr.)
The Color Purple 2023

Alright, it’s time to confess something I feel is a little embarrassing.

If young adults today remember living near a library or bookstore, chances are you have come across a manga aisle. I was one of those white adolescent geeks perusing that aisle back in secondary school that would be the subject of cringe from my peers.

But life is hard now, time is money and artistic interests shift and grow, OK?

This picture is of the manga book "The Arab of the Future" in a bookshop.
(Photo credit: KARYN NISHIMURA/AFP via Getty Images.)

All jokes aside, manga are Japanese graphic novels or comics created in Japan or by person utilizing the Japanese language. These black-and-white printed stories are commonly translated into English and sold in your local Barnes and Noble.

People of all ages read manga around the world.

Furthermore, it is reported that France represents about 40% of the European manga market and in 2011 manga represented 40% of the comics being published in the country.

These numbers aren’t only here to look pretty. Money talks, and avid manga consumers want their realized tales of metaphysical entrapment in online video games, futuristic androids fighting cyber-crime and that oh, so sweet slice of life that give you chicken soup for the soul.

(Video courtesy of YonkouProductions.)

But wait, there’s more…

The practice of “whitewashing” has become a regrettable, but true norm in contemporary media and film.

While not every comic book aficionado will pay too much mind to the inaccuracies and deviations of manga protagonists translated onto live-action films, there are a number of fans who hold hard stances on whitewashing characters.

Things have improved, but not by much.

These days, yellowface, the use of makeup to make someone of another race appear Asian to mock, belittle or discredit, isn’t usually a problem.

(Video courtesy of As/Is.)

Mickey Rooney be darned! However, “whitewashing” is a racial erasure practice seen far more today in the film industry. The twisted, reverse response to yellowface, whitewashing is a casting practice in which European/Anglo actors are frequently cast in historically non-white roles.

Take the controversial 2017 American film adaptation of the science fiction manga Ghost in the Shell.

The film follows the Major (Scarlet Johansson), a cyborg supersoldier who investigates her past. Based on the Japanese manga of the same name, drama erupted in 2014 when reports exploded, detailing the casting of Johansson as the titular protagonist, Major Motoko Kusanagi.

Photo of Scarlet Johansson smiling to the right at the movie premiere of Ghost in the Shell.
(Photo credit: DICK THOMAS JOHNSON via Wikimedia.)

Although not seen on the surface if you are not looking for it, yellowface and whitewashing systematically silence cultural experiences that shape a person into who they are. It’s a piece of the puzzle in the grand adventure of life.

Anna May Wong, an American actress considered to be the first Chinese American Hollywood movie star, was deemed “too Chinese to play a Chinese” by the overt, outright racist standards toward people of color in Hollywood in the 1930s.

While filmmakers in the 1930s used stereotypes as tools of the trade to portray and discriminate Asian people and culture, Matt Damon is climbing The Great Wall with his Asian side-kicks.

It is noteworthy that Disney made strides to cast a Chinese actor to star in its live-action Mulan (2020) movie, staying true to the source material.

However, it’s all too common an occurrence for Asians not having a seat at the table. Who aren’t allowed to be the heroes of their own stories.

And how could any ex-otaku ever forget the loathsome Netflix film adaptation of the hit dark supernatural thriller manga Death Note. All of which strips the Japanese-driven narrative in favor of a Western, American lens, effacing the clear-cut Japanese culture so important to the story.

Most of the cast is whitewashed from their original Japanese characters, with the exception of L, one of the primary antagonists to Light, who is Black in the Netflix movie.

(Image screenshot from Death Note teaser trailer/Netflix via YouTube)

Overall, audiences struggle to relate to whitewashed comic book or novel to film adaptations. It treats the white experience as universal, and dismisses anything “other.”

This is not only evidence of racial segregation and bias, but creative failure. Not only of filmmakers, but their supporters. People who are just too lazy to produce and fund accurate stories that resonate with specific marginalized identities that share the same relative space.

And let’s face it; nobody wants to see another Dragonball: Evolution (2009).

(Video courtesy of 20th Century Fox.)
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