Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
Next Christmas, Keanu Reeves stars in 47 Ronin, a fantasy film based on the historical event known as Chushingura. In the early 1700s, a group of forty-seven Japanese samurai avenged the murder of their master. 47 Ronin is a major tentpole film and does provide an opportunity for actors of Japanese descent to be featured in a film that will be distributed in America (even if most of the actors are not Asian American and many Asian American actors are still locked out of their home industry.)
The compromise for hiring so many Japanese actors seems to be the addition of Reeves’s character, who is not from the original mythos–his character was created exclusively from the film. Reeves plays “Kai,” a half-Japanese, half-British “half breed” and “outcast” who joins the group of Samurai. His character was created solely for the film, even though the likelihood of such a character existing during the era of sakoku is pretty slim. (Did he replace one of the 47? Or is he 48? Were none of the original 47 worth depicting in the lead role?)
Reeves’s brand new character is considered so integral to the production, that the studio seized control of the production from director Carl Rinsch, reshooting scenes to place more emphasis on Reeves’s character–rather than, say, the titular forty-seven ronin.
“Universal opted to reshoot a major fight scene near the end of the film, as well as a few other scenes to sharpen the focus on Reeves’ character Kai.
“[Originally,] Kai was not even present in the final battle scene, whereas the new scene pits Kai against a supernatural creature.
“In addition, the studio added a love scene, close-ups and individual lines to boost Reeves’ presence.” [source]
Keanu Reeves is 1/8 Chinese and 1/8 Hawaiian. Although Keanu Reeves has built his career primarily portraying white characters, it is important that he has managed to stay in Hollywood while using his real name (rather than the “K.C. Reeves” moniker he has used previously) when so many actors are pressured to change them. It is significant that Keanu Reeves has starred in a number of “cultural zeitgeist” films
What boggles my mind about Hollywood, and about 47 Ronin, though, is not the fictional inclusion of a hapa (hafu?) character, but more the context in which this is framed. I guess I am thinking of another production from a few years ago that wanted to whitewash a Chinese American character. When I spoke with the producer, I noted that the character had a Chinese last name and his entire character arc was about accepting he was Asian and handling feeling different. “How will you explain his last name?” I asked. “How will you keep the story arc of Tommy feeling like an outcast and learning to accept his identity?”
The producer said, “Well, perhaps he can be a white person adopted by a Chinese family. He could be bullied all his life for being white and having a weird Chinese name and feel left out and not truly a part of things.”
What struck me was how horrendously, cluelessly backwards this all was. Here was a production that was deliberately excluding Asian American actors due to their race, their “weird Chinese names” seen as not marketable, etc. While there are countless narratives of transracial adoptees facing discrimination, those children are usually children of color bullied in white communities, not the other way around. Yet, in order to cover for it, one of this production’s ideas was to tell a story of a white man being excluded by Asians. An industry that routinely, systemically casts out Asian Americans in favor of casting white actors wanted to tell a story about mean Asians excluding a white guy.
This was also a part of the character development for the whitewashed Kyo Kusanagi character in the King of Fighters (2010) film adaptation. The character was Japanese in the video games but played by a white actor in the movie. His father was depicted by an Asian actor to suggest he was hapa. The sneering villain, Iori, played by an Asian actor, pejoratively called the hero a “half breed.”
The implication was that Kyo experienced oppression from the bad guy because he was not fully Asian–that he was victimized and targeted for his white side. Yet, newcomer Sean Faris’s white identity was precisely why he was the main lead while all the more-experienced Asian actors played villains or side characters. If it was important enough to change Kyo to explore his experiences as someone of mixed race, why not cast a mixed race actor? While the experiences of people who are hapa are very real, raw, and painful, here it was used to villainize and whitewash.
Hollywood doesn’t just whitewash Asian characters. It makes Asian characters white and then depicts how the white characters face discrimination from Asians. It’s bitter irony. It’s a complete lack of self-awareness. What they do to Asian American actors in real life they depict happening to white(washed) characters on screen. In the story, being part white is depicted as a liability. The people of color in the film are exclusionary. Yet, these films inadvertently demonstrate that in Hollywood, it’s the opposite–characters of color are whitewashed. People of color in the film industry are excluded, even when the main characters were originally people of color.
I suppose the situation with the “Kai” character is somewhat different, because he is written as the son of a Japanese woman and a white British sailor, portrayed by Keanu Reeves and therefore mixed race. It is absolutely true that children who are hapa experience prejudice from both sides. In Hollywood, specifically, though, the portion studios consider to be “the problem”–that part triggers the discrimination– is the part that is non-white. Actors like Daniel Henney and Maggie Q experienced difficulty breaking into Hollywood not because they were part white, but because they were part Asian. In fact, Asian countries’ film industries embraced them more than than the North American film industries they originally hailed from did.
The story of 47 Ronin is of “Kai” being rejected for being part white, yet the film felt that adding a bit of “whiteness” was so important that it could not go forward without it. So important, that reshoots were mandated to emphasize his importance. The fact that the character and actor are part white is precisely why he was welcomed into the American-targeted script. They had 47 Japanese characters from the original tale to pick from for the main character–forty seven!–and still felt they had to create a brand new lead. If the film genuinely wanted to focus on the pain experienced by Japanese people of mixed descent, why not cast award-winning actor Tadanobu Asano–an actual Japanese person of mixed descent–in the role of the heroic Kai rather than as the villain? Presumably, exploring hapa or hafu identity was not why Keanu was crammed into the story. Kai’s “outcast” status is presented as an injustice, but the character is an outcast in more ways than one. He’s the Hollywood self-insertive fantasy. Of course he’s the outcast–he comes not from 18th century Japanese fanciful history, but from 21st century Hollywood studio meddling.
Perhaps this is more of the contradictory and fickle nature of Hollywood. We repeatedly see films where white male leads are depicted as the odd-one-out, the outsider, the tourist who needs must prove himself and take his rightful place as the focus of attention with the chief’s daughter by his side. (Reeves’s fictional character in 47 Ronin, of course, raises the hackles of the other samurai by starting a romance with their master’s daughter. The studio even mandated extra love scenes.) At the same time, these same films are structured in a way that positions the very characters of color who are excluding the hapa lead (because he is white) in a subordinate position–whether they are subjugating the “outcast” or not in the movie, they’re the true outcasts in Hollywood.
Perhaps 47 Ronin is different and a step up from previous iterations of this trope because it depicts a hapa character instead of simply a white male lead. To critique this feels counter-intuitive because the experiences of people who are of mixed race are often marginalized by Hollywood, and this is a rare depiction. On the other hand, does 47 Ronin earnestly intend to explore what it means to be hapa and to face prejudice from the community of color you belong to? Or is the addition of “hapa oppression from Asians” being used to justify why Hollywood felt the need to insert “whiteness” or “white identity problems” into an Asian historical fiction at all? I sincerely hope it is the former–because that is worth exploring, and we don’t see very many hapa heroes–but based on what we’ve seen in Hollywood before, I strongly suspect the latter.
And when 47 Ronin–which is rapidly congealing into a swirling miasma of major delays,unnecessary 3-D, the Hollywood makeover of a classic story, studio meddling, and a increasingly swollen budget— ultimately fails…will the majority-Asian cast take the blame?