Hollywood’s Asian Omission in “47 Ronin”

“I’m looking for someone who was sold to you, a half-breed banished from our land.”

A voice boomed in the movie trailer that popped up as an ad on a video I was watching. As the trailer played, I found myself quickly growing confused: the movie appeared to be set in Japan and based on something Japanese, but the star of the film was in no way relevant. “Keanu Reeves? What’s he doing on here?” I asked myself.

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Then, when the trailer revealed the movie title– 47 Ronin– I could only groan. Having taken courses on Asian culture and history, I knew that the tale of the forty-seven ronin is a story culturally significant and specific to Japan. So, seeing someone clearly not Japanese as the star of a film that boasted the same name just seemed downright absurd.

One Google search later, I discovered that this film is indeed based on the same tale and that Keanu Reeves’ role as Kai, a half-Japanese, half-British man, was specifically written into the film. Why did the writers add his character in? And why couldn’t the star of this film, originating from a famous Japanese story, be Japanese? While Keanu Reeves’ heritage does have Asian roots, he has no Japanese background, and he usually plays as a “white” male.

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Keanu moving Eastward: as Siddhartha (yeah, that one) in 1993’s Little Buddha

Hollywood did it yet again: pushing Asians into supporting roles in order to give way to a white lead. This has been done countless times before, with Emile Hirsch as the protagonist in Speed Racer (a film derived from a popular Japanese anime), the mainly white casting in 21 (based on a story about a primarily Asian-American blackjack team), and the small handful of Asian actors or actresses seen in The Last Airbender (a film based off an animation series that relied heavily on Asian cultural elements), just to name a few recent examples.

The entertainment industry in America just doesn’t seem to find Asians bankable or palatable enough to mainstream audiences to cast them as leads in films or shows, but doesn’t hesitate to extract and exploit certain aspects of Asian culture to turn a profit.

Judging from the movie trailer of 47 Ronin, the film is rife with elements that bear only a semblance to Japanese culture, such as the glamorous kimonos, flashy samurai armor, shiny katana blades, and colorful feudal-era architecture. These are all things that Hollywood picked out from Japanese culture and glamorized until they became Japanese-esque, but not truly Japanese.

Splashy Universal trailer for 47 Ronin

The same thing has happened with the Japanese supporting characters found in the movie, whose appearances are Japanese but whose dialogue content and actions appear to be the highly fantasized creations of American minds. For example, in the trailer of 47 Ronin, a witch, Mizuki (played by Rinko Kikuchi), uses her magical powers to change herself into an actual dragon, not-so-subtly presenting the Asian woman as the Dragon Lady, a stereotype often found in Western media.

47 Ronin is not the first movie to cast in favor of Caucasian actors and actresses over Asian ones and certainly will not be the last. As Masi Oka, a Japanese-American actor best known for his role in the TV show “Heroes”, puts it, “It’s changed in Hollywood, but only so much. You can’t get Asians cast in leads yet. Maybe as a second lead, but the lead is still going to be Caucasian or African-American. But Hollywood is fickle, it follows trends. If a show or a film did well with an Asian lead, then it would take off.”

My hope is that with the continued success of actors and actresses like Lucy Liu, Steven Yeun, Sandra Oh, John Cho, and Masi Oka in mainstream media, Asian-Americans will be able to take the lead.