'Avatar' an Asian thing- why isn't the cast?

Thursday, January 29, 2009


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When is an Asian cartoon not an Asian cartoon? The answer to this Zen dilemma is at the heart of the latest high-octane kerfuffle clogging the Intertubes - one that's pulled into its vortex two of the most celebrated Asian American creators in comics: Gene Yang, National Book Award finalist for his graphic novel, "American Born Chinese," and Derek Kirk Kim, whose work has won comics' most prestigious laurels, the Xeric, Ignatz, Eisner and Harvey awards.




That's because the two happen to be passionate devotees of Nickelodeon's animated TV series "Avatar: The Last Airbender." The show completed its third and final season last year only to have the cable network green-light a live-action, big-screen adaptation, which was greeted with both anticipation and anxiety by the show's burgeoning fan base.

Last month, with the unveiling of the film's principal cast, the fans' worst fears were realized, prompting self-proclaimed "Avatards" - chief among them 'toon titans Yang and Kim - to launch a protest that's generated torrents of both support and criticism.

The whole controversy might be trivial if it weren't for the fact that "Avatar" is a genuine pop-culture sensation, acclaimed by critics, adored by fans and, yes, wildly profitable.

One reason Asian Americans such as Yang and Kim have been drawn into the show's orbit is that it has hit it big despite - many would say because of - its richly Asian-inspired setting. The core ideas are drawn from Hindu, Taoist and Buddhist philosophy; its character names - Aang, Katara, Toph Bei Fong - incorporate Chinese, Japanese and Southeast Asian phonemes; and its visual identity is modeled on traditional Asian iconography.

So when the core cast of the "Avatar" movie was revealed, hard-core fans recoiled - not because the actors are mostly unknowns, drawn from open auditions across the country, but because, well, they're white.

This is far from the first controversy regarding the casting of Asian roles with Caucasian actors. Last year saw an outcry over the "whitewashing" of "21," the film about blackjack prodigies whose real-life counterparts were a group of Asian American MIT undergrads. But for fans of "Avatar," this casting is an even greater affront, not least because the show's primary target audience is 6- to 11-year-olds - kids who may not know the specifics of its references but are undoubtedly aware of and attracted to its cultural origins.

"These are kids growing up with manga," Kim says. "They're not only comfortable with Asian concepts, they're fascinated by them. To think that they won't come to a live-action version unless it's cast with white actors - that's really a shockingly ignorant viewpoint. These kids aren't watching Jackie Chan movies and thinking, 'Yikes! I wish he were a white guy!' "

But here's where the plot begins to snarl. "Avatar" isn't meant to mirror existing Asian history, imagined future or mythological canon. It's clearly set in an original fantasy world - invented by two white Americans, Bryan Konietzko and Mike DiMartino. Many of the voice actors for the original series are white as well. And though the actors selected for the big-screen version are white, the director who chose those actors is one of the few top-tier Asian American filmmakers in Hollywood, M. Night Shyamalan.

It's an object lesson in how hard it is to maintain claims of authenticity and cultural ownership in a world where boundaries are rapidly beginning to blur. If it's all right for white guys to come up with an "Asian" story and even voice it behind the scenes, why is it not all right for white guys (and girls) to portray that story onscreen?

But there's more to the argument against the casting of "Avatar" than a claim to racial justification. In fact, it's arguably a more powerful case than the one against "21." The creators of the series have stated that the show was designed from the ground up as an elaborate homage to the culture, ideas and artists that they revered, an "epic, Asian, martial-arts fantasy/action/adventure/comedy/drama" celebrating the likes of anime legend Hayao Miyazaki.

The movie "21" was a reimagining of real life, not a documentary, and thus free to remake truth in the pursuit of what its producers thought was commercially viable. By contrast, the "Avatar" movie is being presented as a direct translation of its source material - which by definition demands adherence to the series' internal, spiritual truth.

It's hard to imagine the "Harry Potter" films working with characters that don't visually fit the books' British boarding school sensibility. "And I don't think it would've been true to the spirit of 'Lord of the Rings' if the movie hobbits had Asian features, given the strongly Anglo-Saxon tradition of those books," Yang notes.

In short, these casting decisions ring false to the show's spirit; the very spirit that has transfixed millions of young fans and brought legions of Avatards together into a passionate community.

"What frustrates us most is that you had this amazing opportunity - you've got a nation of fans who love this quintessentially Asian story," Kim says. "This could have broken down every barrier in the business, proving you can have an all-Asian cast and score three blockbuster successes. Instead, we just get three more chances to cringe."

E-mail Jeff Yang at datebook@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page E - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle


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