ByKristy Anderson, writer at
Kristy Anderson

When the West makes an adaptation of a Japanese film or series, there are often accusations of the cast — choosing white actors for characters clearly intended to be Japanese. It happened with the casting of Justin Chatwin as Goku in Dragonball Evolution, and it has recently happened again with the casting of as Motoko in the upcoming film.

The sequence of events following these casting decisions is nearly always the same: A wave of complaints, the filmmakers desperately trying to justify their choice, sometimes an apology, a suggestion that things may be different next time (though it rarely ever is). The whitewashing of characters is a vicious cycle that we most definitely need to break.

But why, with the outcry over whitewashing, is it OK for a film made in Japan to do exactly the same thing — constantly casting Japanese actors as characters who were clearly not intended to be Japanese? Where is the uproar then?

Excuses, Excuses

This has happened recently with the live action film, and is happening again in the upcoming adaptation of Fullmetal Alchemist. The two anime series on which these films are based both feature a racially diverse cast of characters.

Fullmetal Alchemist
Fullmetal Alchemist
Attack On Titan.
Attack On Titan.

Sadly, in neither case is this diversity made apparent in the live-action adaptations, with both casts made up of mostly Japanese actors. Like in the West, excuses are made. That if the film is made in the Japanese language, it is too difficult to find a non-Japanese actor who speaks it; that since it it was originally a Japanese series, they should be allowed to do whatever they like with it.

But these excuses are just that: Excuses. Send out a casting call and chances are at least one actor could be found who would be suitable for the role. Letting Japanese filmmakers do whatever they want with a Japanese property may sound reasonable enough in theory, but regarding the films referenced in this article, it has caused a major problem.

They Are Ruining Their Own Great Stories

As mentioned above, the anime series for both and Attack On Titan feature racially diverse casts of characters. In both cases, the story is adversely affected by the absence of this diversity in the live-action adaptations.

In Fullmetal Alchemist, the past war between Amestris and Ishval forms a key plot point, with the ripple effect from this event touching many characters. For a large portion of the series, the main motivation of Scar's character is to seek revenge for the slaughter of his people. Meanwhile, a number of Amestrian characters are seen to be haunted by their actions during the Ishval massacre.

This war is a clear allegory for the Holocaust, with Amestris representing Germany, while the Ishvalans representing the Jewish. Without a clear divide between these two peoples in the live-action film, this meaning may be lost.

In the case of the Attack On Titan film, one of the biggest issues comes with the character of Mikasa Ackerman.

Mikasa in 'Attack On Titan'.
Mikasa in 'Attack On Titan'.

In both the manga and series of Attack On Titan, Mikasa is the final surviving person of Asian descent anywhere on Earth. This greatly effects both Mikasa herself, and other character's behavior towards her. The survival of her race rests squarely on her shoulders. Though she is more skilled in battle than a great majority of those around her, they are protective of her. She is the last. She is precious.

However, in the live-action film:

Absolutely everyone is Japanese, leaving Mikasa's backstory all but ruined.

So, What Should Be Done?

No party is without fault in this situation. Maybe, if Western filmmakers made just a little more effort to stay true to the source material when adapting a Japanese property, and stopped allowing disasters like this...

...or this... happen, maybe Japanese filmmakers wouldn't feel the need to rush off and make their own movie before the Western world gets their grubby hands on it. However, they must try to remain true to their stories too, lest fans the world over be constantly disappointed whenever their favorite Japanese series is made into a film.

It is far past time that whitewashing — or any race monopolizing of a film's cast — stopped being an issue. We all need to do better.


Are you excited, or worried by the upcoming 'Fullmetal Alchemist' Film?


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