Feature FilmIdeas/Commentary

The Whitewashing of Avatar: The Last Airbender

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A lot of people online are talking about the forthcoming live-action adaptation of Nickelodeon’s animated TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender and nobody has a single nice thing to say. The source of controversy: the four lead actors cast in the live-action version are all white.

Comic book artist Derek Kirk Kim wrote an impassioned blog entry about the casting choices and explains succinctly why this is such a poor decision on Paramount’s part:

“[Avatar is] wholly and inarguably built around Asian (and Inuit) culture. Everything from to the costume designs, to the written language, to the landscapes, to martial arts, to philosophy, to spirituality, to eating utensils!–it’s all an evocative, but thinly veiled, re-imagining of ancient Asia. (In one episode, a region is shown where everyone is garbed in Korean hanboks–traditional Korean clothing–the design of which wasn’t even altered at all.) It would take a willful disregard of the show’s intentions and origins to think this wouldn’t extend to the race of the characters as well. You certainly don’t see any blonde people running around in Avatar. (I’m not saying that would have necessarily been a bad thing, I’m just stating the facts of the show and the world in which it is set.)”

To rub salt in the wound, this is what actor Jackson Rathbone told an interviewer about how he needs to prepare to play a role in Avatar: “I definitely need a tan.” Unbelievable.

Recently Madeline Ashby penned an excellent thought-provoking piece for FPS Magazine about the growing trend of live-action anime adaptations and the systematic exclusion of Asians from these films (the upcoming live versions of Akira and Cowboy Bebop also handed lead roles to white actors). She also ponders why movie studios don’t actually support the studios making the original works instead of trying to cash in with watered-down adaptations:

The anime industry is barely getting by, at a point in time when its global appeal is most highly recognized. As Roland Kelts points out in Japanamerica, people who believe that anime is a lucrative business for the animators or even directors are sadly deluded…But big names like DiCaprio and Reeves could give the industry a much-needed boost by following the Tarantino and Wachowski method: fund your own anime, rather than commissioning adaptations. For the cost of a Hollywood film, couldn’t you pay the people at Gonzo or Production IG or Bones to animate your own script? What if, instead of meatsack re-hashings of classic anime titles, we got fresh product done by professionals who know the medium inside and out?

Back to Avatar, an online letter-writing campaign has been launched encouraging people to write in about the film’s casting. Concerned fans are being asked to address their letters to Paramount’s head of production, Mark Bakshi, who, in an ironic twist, is the son of Ralph Bakshi, a filmmaker who always dealt frankly and openly with racial issues in his work. UPDATE: It has been pointed out to me that though everybody is addressing their complaint letters to Bakshi, he was laid off from Paramount quite a few months ago.

(Thanks to Anson Jew who brought this story to my attention on Cartoon Brew’s Facebook page)