Yesterday, it was revealed that Hollywood acquired the rights to the 1970s Japanese manga Lone Wolf and Cub. Upon hearing this, my heart sank. There are already a series of wonderful Lone Wolf and Cub films starring Tomisaburo Wakayama, older brother of legendary Zatoichi actor Shintaro Katsu.
My heart sank because Hollywood, no doubt, is going to whitewash this project—just like it apparently tried to whitewash Akira—by putting a bunch of big name white actors in it, giving them Asian names—or just making them white all together. Don't you know? That's what Hollywood does! Don't you remember that Dragon Ball movie?
Hold on there. Not so fast. Not all Hollywood films are whitewash jobs. Some of them are anything but.
Here's a rundown of some of Hollywood's more enlightened ventures—movies that actually cast Japanese actors to play Japanese roles. Keep in mind that some of these movies might not pass the current generation's P.C. litmus test, but for their day, they were incredibly progressive.
And, yes, lots of the time, the Japanese actors were playing subservient females, soldiers, or gangsters—but not always.
Besides the above examples, there are many more examples of Hollywood films that are not whitewashed—even Kill Bill, which stars a white lady and sometimes feels like a pan-Asian buffet, isn't a whitewash job per se. Rather, a filmmaker enamored with Japanese film and culture made it.
So take heart! Maybe Lonewolf and Cub will be like that. Maybe Lone Wolf and Cub won't be a hatchet job. Justin Lin, who directed the Fast and the Furious flicks, is helming the project and the husband and wife team David and Janet Peoples are slated to write it. David Peoples co-wrote Blade Runner, penned Unforgiven, and wrote Twelve Monkeys with his wife. That should count for something, no?
Sayonara (1957) Japanese-born actress Miyoshi Umeki won an Oscar for her portrayal of Red Buttons' bride in Sayonara. Red Buttons also won an Academy Award. Ricardo Montalban of Fantasy Island and Star Trek II fame, however, wore make-up to play Japanese. Yeah.
The Crimson Kimono (1959) The Sam Fuller flick not only featured an interracial love triangle with U.S. born Asian actor (James Shigeta), but an Asian actor who didn't speak in broken English or with a thick accent—something that was quite a head of its time for Hollywood.
Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) When Hollywood decided to make a Pearl Harbor film, it enlisted both American and Japanese filmmakers to tell both sides of the story. Kinji Fukasaku directed the Japanese segments.
The Yakuza (1974) Sure, some parts of it seem very goofy today, but the flick featured Robert Mitchum and Ken Takakura—two of the coolest guys to ever grace the screen. It's from a Leonard Schrader script that was rewritten by Paul Schrader and Robert Towne of Chinatown fame. James Shigeta from The Crimson Kimono makes an appearance. Ken Takakura would return to Hollywood a decade later with Ridley Scott's Black Rain, which was set in Osaka (yet, oddly, none of the Yakuza spoke the Osaka dialect).
Mishima (1985) Produced by both Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, Mishima was entirely in Japanese and featured a Japanese cast, but was directed by Paul Schrader, a Hollywood filmmaker. The movie, however, was banned in Japan, due to the backlash caused by the depiction of Mishima as a homosexual. Schrader considers it the best film he directed. So do I.
Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) Like Schrader before him, Clint Eastwood directed a Japanese cast in a Japanese language film. The movie starred boy band singer Kazunari Ninomiya and was incredibly well received in Japan, where audiences were moved by Eastwood's portrayal and refreshing lack of stereotypes.