Lost in Translation: American Remakes of Japanese Media

rbg8337We’re all aware that Hollywood can be fairly problematic; from the continual scarcity of recognition for coloured actors, to the almost complete lack of roles for actresses who couldn’t also be found working for Victoria’s Secret. Yet one area of Hollywood’s failings that is often less discussed is the way in which it has turned to remaking Japanese media over the past couple of decades. Rather than creating adaptations that do justice to the often critically acclaimed texts, the American film industry has ended up plundering narratives and returning them to the screen without the culture that is so integral to its original form. In doing so, these typical Hollywood wrongdoings of negatively representing race and women are being re-established in texts that had previously sought to abolish such limited portrayals.

This all kicked off after the ten billionth sequel to John Carpenter’s Halloween, when the American horror film industry in the 90s was desperate for something new; their answer- JAPAN! With the success of Ringu, Hollywood saw an opportunity to finally return to a more horrifying form of horror without actually having to think up new storylines themselves, and the unknowingness of this foreign culture made it all the more terrifying for viewers. Thus films like The Ring and The Grudge hit the screens; and while they were not terrible remakes, both being successful profit-wise, the key elements of the original films were lost in their newfound Americanness, leaving films that were originally complex social commentaries without any of the cultural influence that gave the film meaning, demoting it back into the realms of the simple American horror plots.

The key problem with adapting these J-horror movies is primarily in regards to the new versions’ portrayal of women, which American adaptations have consciously chosen to ignore or change for the worse in favour of a plot which is regressive to the empowerment of women. Firstly, a core difference is seen in the way in which the spirit is ‘dealt with’. In Western horror, the standard conclusion to the film involves defeating the ‘evil spirit’, whereas spirits in the Japanese narratives are not regarded as enemies, but as a co-existing being amongst us. The folklore surrounding the basis of the now iconic J-horror ‘ghostly female with long black hair’ is lost on the Western world, and the once justified avenging spirit becomes pure evil, re-establishing a link between femininity and evil as opposed to sympathy.

But secondly, and most importantly, these films featured female leads for a reason. Films such as Ringu and Ju-on: The Grudge revealed the fears held towards the growing rejection of tradition in Japan, resulting in an increase in divorce rates and shifts in gender roles. The female protagonist were single mothers and career women, notions that had caused tensions in Japanese society, and so were being played upon within the horror genre. While the Japanese originals of these films can be seen as offering more progressive representations of femininity, the remakes for Western audiences have resulted in a regressive portrayal of women, instead conforming to the usual depiction of them as victims and sexual objects. Unlike the Americanized versions, J-horror instead centres the narrative on the female figure, through which the concerns held by Japanese society are projected. These women are independent, and patriarchy is often criticised. However over in America these women are presented differently, undermining the progressive, strong female characters in favour of re-establishing ideals that align more with the patriarchal ideology held by Hollywood. These once independent women are made weaker and more reliant on the men who had previously abandoned them. They need to be rescued by, and seek to return to their prior relationships with, the men who had wronged them, re-establishing the ideas of nuclear families and weak women that the Japanese had been working to abolish years before. Yet there is no social motivation behind the American remakes, merely to cash in on the ideas of others when they have been seen to be successful, revealing how Hollywood deliberately chose to reassert the patriarchal hierarchy that Japanese horror strived to critique.

While the craze of J-horror remakes seems to have been left behind somewhere in the 2000’s, recently the American film industry has been adapting a different kind of Japanese media, in the form of anime turned into live-action feature films. This time however, the issue is all about the representation of race, in particular that of Asian (specifically Japanese) people. Hollywood is notorious for whitewashing the casts of their products, and this is made very apparent in their anime remakes. If you are not aware, whitewashing is a bizarre phenomenon in which ethnically diverse characters are for some reason consistently and unjustifiably played by white actors.

When Japanese source material, involving Japanese characters living in Japan and doing things that are mostly only relevant in the context of their Japanese society and traditions is remade featuring ninety-nine percent white people and none of the essential cultural aspects, it’s not really surprising that many people get up in arms about it. And yet it happens time and time again.

Jaume Collett-Serra, the director of the on-again-off-again-will-it-ever-happen remake of beloved anime film Akira stated that he believed the original characters were not ‘interesting’, because Japanese culture, in his mind, does not make for ‘strong characters’. If there is this much misunderstanding of and lack of respect for the original texts, then being responsible for remaking them should be out of the question. That way mistakes like Dragonball: Evolution and Avatar: The Last Airbender can be avoided.

All of this can perhaps best be demonstrated with the upcoming remake of popular anime series Death Note. The series is centred around Light Yagami, who comes across a Death Note, a notebook which leads to the death of anyone who’s name is written within it. These notebooks are controlled by death gods, or Shinigami. The entire concept of the Shinigami is clearly firmly based in Japanese folklore, and the decisions made by Light are clearly seen to be influenced by the traditions known to him as a Japanese person. Death Note is rich in its cultural influence, through its mythology and characterization, and to remove this sense of culture would be to erase the beliefs and intentions of the original text merely to better appeal to an American audience. But surprise surprise, Light Yagami is being played by white actor Nat Wolff. And his name is now Light Turner. Not only this, but none of the main cast are Asian.

There are already a very limited number of roles made available for Asian people within Western media, so when Asian characters are made available to be acted out, they should be cast in those roles, rather than have to witness them being whitewashed and replaced by white actors who already have far more opportunities within the acting world without having to dip into the pool of available roles for people of colour too. But this isn’t a case of directors auditioning actors and picking someone white because they were the best. Edward Zo, an Asian-American actor, revealed his attempts to audition for a number of roles within the upcoming Death Note film, only to be told that he was ‘too Asian’ and that they knew from the beginning that they didn’t want any of the Japanese character’s to be played by Asian actors. The roles available for Asian actors are so lacking already, and so harmfully stereotypical that a role in such a film, where characters are so complex and multi-dimensional, would be one step closer to the much needed visibility for a group that has been extremely marginalised by Western media. Yet this opportunity to break stereotypical barriers has again not been taken, and so Asian people will continue to be misrepresented and lack in roles destined for them until Hollywood gets the hint that whitewashing Japanese media and putting an Americanised twist on it will only cause the film to bomb. Hopefully they’ll learn their lesson soon.


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