Monday, March 20, 2017

Anime That Could Be Done in Hollywood Without Whitewashing

With Ghost in the Shell ramping up its PR engine in advance of release, and thinking about all the other attempts by westerners to do live action adaptations of anime, I started wondering, why do they love to choose the ones with a Japanese cast?

Because that's what sets off all the whitewashing problems.

Right now we have Ghost in the Shell coming to theaters, Death Note is in production for Netflix, and it's hard to forget early forerunner Dragon Ball.

But there's a lot of good anime out there that has a multi-national or even completely non-Japanese cast, and I'm not sure why Hollywood hasn't picked those up. Some of them have had or will have live action versions themselves, but Japan's own movie industry doesn't have the deep special effects pockets and expertise that Hollywood does.

So I thought about five series that could be great with a Hollywood budget and casting directors wouldn't have to jump through hoops for. I'm also primarily picking older properties (because Hollywood people with the clout and money probably favor things from their younger days, like James Cameron's persistence with Battle Angel Alita) and series with crossover potential since popularity in Japan alone doesn't carry much weight in the US.

#1 - Attack on Titan

Let's get the behemoth out of the way! Attack on Titan is a freaking juggernaut. It's the highest anticipated anime series for spring 2017 (when the long anticipated Season 2 begins). Volume 1 of the manga was on the New York Times bestseller's list for 81 weeks! You could buy Attack on Titan clothing at Hot Topic (maybe with the new season around the corner you still can). Anyone vaguely current on anime in the past 5 years will have heard of Attack on Titan.

It takes place in a world where humanity lives inside three gargantuan concentric walls that are all that protect people from the titans who would otherwise devour them. The only vulnerability titans have is a small space in the nape of the neck that must be cut out, otherwise the rest of the body will regenerate, so the soldiers who fight them zip around on vertical maneuvering gear that works like a pair of gas-powered grappling hooks.

The animation looks amazing and captures the feeling of what it's like zipping and flying through a cityscape to fight giants as tall as buildings, but getting that level of fidelity in live action would difficult to achieve without lots of special effects experience and budget. The live action Japanese version doesn't come close. Hollywood probably could do it though.

And for casting, the people inhabiting the world of Attack on Titan are fair-skinned with Germanic (occasionally English) names for the most part. Hollywood can have a cast largely populated by white people and no one would think anything of it. The only explicitly diverse character is the biracial Mikasa, whose father is from the majority ethnic group and whose mother is Asian.

#2 - Cowboy Bebop

To be honest Cowboy Bebop isn't my cup of tea, but I know it's a lot of other people's. It's one of the biggest series of the 90s, putting it in the zone of Hollywood's current nostalgia cup, and it's a series I still hear about from time to time. Usually in the form of "You haven't watched it yet?!" until I finally did.

Cowboy Bebop is a work of near future science fiction where tech has been discovered allowing people to jump around the solar system, though not to other stars yet. You have your badass crew of bounty hunters that's constantly low on funds and needs to take on more jobs to make a living. And that's without getting into Spike's backstory.

Cowboy Bebop is not too out there, it's not too anime. It's one of those series where if someone told me it was more popular in the west than the Japan I'd believe it, because you can see the influence, and there's not really any fanservice beyond Faye's outfit, which fits her character without being too ridiculous. I think people who enjoyed Firefly would find a lot to like about Cowboy Bebop as well.

We don't have canon ethnicities for any of the Bebop crew, though Faye is probably Asian. To be honest, I think a casting director could go wide with the Bebop crew and cast just about anyone regardless of ancestry into any role and it would work out just fine, because the Bebop crew visually doesn't look like they have to belong to any particular group. Ed especially with her brown skin and carrot colored hair (dyed?). It wouldn't be great if Hollywood cast this all white, but they could arguably have a leg to stand on.

#3 - Fullmetal Alchemist

Fullmetal Alchemist is set in an early 20th century style world in a European-inspired country, where alchemy is practiced and can be used as a form of magical combat based on the law of equivalent exchange. Something cannot be created from nothing, but it's possible for an alchemist to change one thing into another.

The story follows the titular Fullmetal Alchemist Ed and his brother Al, who are trying to find a way to restore their bodies after their badly botched attempt to resurrect their mother. (Something can't be pulled from nothing, so you can see how this was a bad idea.) But there's a lot more going on than their quest to fix themselves, since Ed is also a state alchemist and there is something very rotten going on in the government.

Like Attack on Titan, Fullmetal Alchemist is a series built for Hollywood special effects with all the different alchemical abilities. Though there is a live action Japanese movie in the works, it won't have the look and the budget that Hollywood would be able to pull off.

And again, most of the cast can safely be white. There are Chinese and Middle Eastern-inspired characters in supporting roles, which Hollywood is generally decent about filling without whitewashing (because they're not the protagonists), but all the major characters are of European equivalent descent.

#4 - Vision of Escaflowne

This was a 90s juggernaut and a crazy genre mash-up involving a girl with powers to influence the future, steampunk mecha, portal fantasy, and the lost civilization of Atlantis. You couldn't trip over a 90s anime fan without some knowledge of Vision of Escaflowne and this is one instance where a little something for everyone really worked.

Hitomi initially appears to be an ordinary schoolgirl who happens to like fortune telling with tarot cards, but when she gets transported to the world of Gaea, she learns that her powers can have a real influence on the world and she gets caught up in a crazy war.

The titular Escaflowne is a transforming mecha that can change from its humanoid shape to a dragon with its pilot riding on its back. Her travelling companion, Prince Van, can fly with feathery wings that sprout from his back when he needs them, and there are a multitude of fantastical non-human characters she meets along the way. This is stuff that would be great with the right budget and special effects crew. (Though the wings could still look terrible, since Hollywood has still put out some cheesy people with wings shots.)

Other than Hitomi and the people she leaves back home in Japan, the rest of the human cast is non-Japanese and most could safely be cast as white without much protest.

#5 - Bacanno

Okay, this last one is not that widely known, but I'm including it because it's one of those series where everyone who sees it likes it, but not enough people have seen it. Bacanno takes place in Prohibition America and involves three different plotlines in three different years that weave together to form a single story. It's really quite brilliant.

At the core of it, there were a bunch of alchemists who discovered the means to achieve immortality, and the only way they can be killed is if one of them "eats" the other. Thanks to shenanigans (Bacanno is a master at the domino effect, where one little thing sets everything else in motion), the immortality-bestowing brew ends up in the hands of a lot of people who haven't a clue what it is and well... there are more shenanigans. With three plotlines it's actually hard to say what the overall story is, save that it's what happens when people who really shouldn't become immortal end up doing so.

If you like gangsters, immortality, and crazy plot reveals (because the story is told in a non-linear fashion), Bacanno is pretty amazing and it should go over well with people who like puzzling out what everything means and what's really going on.

Since it's set in the US, most of the characters are white, though there are minor roles of other ethnic groups. If they include more of the books they could even bring in Maria Barcelito, a Mexican katana-wielding assassin.

Ideally, I'd prefer Hollywood movies to be more diverse, but if they're gonna do anime, at least choose something that would work well with the casting choices they're likely to make. We'll get Japanese Death Notes with an all Japanese cast out of Japan, but Hollywood offers the possibility of translating some material to live action that Japan actually can't do as well on its own.