Casting Controversy Over Big-Screen ‘Akira’

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Poster for animated version of "Akira."

Racebending.com, the organization that campaigned against the big-screen version of “The Last Airbender,” has established an online petition urging Warner Bros. to cast Asian actors in its film adaptation of “Akira.”

A popular manga series by Katsuhiro Otomo, “Akira” was made into a Japanese animated film in 1988. The story is set in Neo-Tokyo, decades after the Third World War. The protagonist is the leader of a biker gang who must save his friend from a military medical project known as Akira.

According to Deadline.com, the studio has approached Robert Pattinson, Andrew Garfield and James McAvoy for the role of Tetsuo, and Garrett Hedlund, Michael Fassbender, Chris Pine, Justin Timberlake and Joaquin Phoenix for the role of Kaneda. The story will be set in Neo-Manhattan. The director is Albert Hughes of the Hughes Brothers (“The Book of Eli,” “From Hell,” “Dead Presidents”).

“All of the actors solicited were white,” Racebending said on its petition page. “If not in a film called ‘Akira,’ for characters named Kaneda and Tetsuo, when will Asian Americans get to star in a Warner Bros. film?”

Racebending said the virtual petition “will provide us with a headcount so we know how many people feel strongly about this issue. We would like to present the numbers from this petition to the studio to show them that all media consumers — not just ‘Akira’ fans and not just Asian Americans — support casting Asian Americans in the lead roles in ‘Akira.’ ”

It was the “Last Airbender” campaign that launched Racebending. From March 2009 to July 2010, Racebending coordinated the protest against Paramount Pictures and director M. Night Shyamalan, charging that the film discriminated against actors of color and reinforced glass ceilings by casting white actors to play Asian and Inuit characters.

Fans of the original animated series wrote letters to the production and alerted journalists and film critics to the situation. Racebending also exchanged correspondence with Paramount to discuss public concerns about the film, and organized live protests with Asian American community organizations.

On March 29, Racebending and other organizations voiced concerns about the casting process for “Akira” and other upcoming Warner Bros. productions, including adaptations of “Death Note” and “All You Need Is Kill.” The organizations are requesting a meeting with the studio and these productions.

A letter Racebending sent to Warner Bros. Pictures Group President Jeff Robinov was signed with support from the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition (which includes the Japanese American Citizens League and East West Players), Asian American Justice Center, Media Action Network for Asian Americans, National Korean American Service and Education Consortium, Organization of Chinese Americans-Greater Los Angeles, and Taiwanese American Citizens League.

A similar letter was sent to Thomas Tull, chairman and CEO of Legendary Pictures, which is co-producing “Akira.”

The letter points out that in the U.S., Asian Americans represent over 15 million media consumers and that the community will have a spending power of $700 billion by the film’s projected release date in 2013.

Warner Bros. has reached out to the Asian American community and has cast Asian Americans in supporting roles in films, and will be releasing the third installment of New Line Cinema’s Harold and Kumar series, a franchise created before New Line Cinema’s merger with Warner Bros. in 2008. Even so, over the past decade, Warner Bros. has rarely produced films starring American actors of Asian descent in first-billed roles.

Because Asian Americans are present in every major city in the U.S., there is no need to change the ethnicity of the main characters while resetting this story to Manhattan, according to Racebending, which pointed out that one out of 10 Manhattan residents is Asian American and at 41 percent of the population, Asian Americans are the largest racial group in Lower Manhattan.

“Actors like Robert Pattinson and Andrew Garfield have the privilege of playing iconic white characters that Asian American actors would never be considered for,” said Racebending co-founder Marissa Lee. “When white actors are also asked to play iconic Asian characters, Asian American actors lose their shot at starring in anything.”

Actor and activist George Takei has shown his support in interviews and on Twitter.

“They have the experience of Shyamalan’s project, and I would think any savvy production company would learn from that,” he told The Advocate. “So I’m really baffled by the lack of learning from experience. Hollywood doesn’t like failures, and there’s a string of failures in the past. With this effort, I’m trying to warn them of what is likely to happen with this ‘Akira’ project.”

In one of many tweets on the subject, Takei joked, “Live action of anime classic ‘Akira’ will use white actors. In related news, remake of ‘Roots’ to star Mel Gibson.”

Racebending said it hopes to schedule a meeting with Warner Bros. in April.

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3 Comments

  1. Sigh. Do you have to report on rumors that have been debunked already? We know the movie isn’t even green lit – there is no casting going on. Robbert Pattinson denied being contacted about the part. The rumor mill has been attaching every big star to this film for years, and they’ve all denied it. Remember when they said the two main characters would be Leo DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon Levitt back in 2008? Warner Brothers has been stating “no comment” to everyone with inquiries – regardless of who they are. For your research on the subject I give you an F.

  2. Where is your fact checker? There is no casting because the movie has not been green lit yet – it’s still in development hell. Robert Pattison denied the rumors of his involvement with Akira on April 5. Warner Brothers has been replying with “no comment” to everyone who asks about Akira – so of course letters to meet about a film, one that hasn’t been green lit, will be met with no comment.

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