Imaginary Asians

The latest trailer for the upcoming movie The Last Airbender aired as a Super Bowl ad last weekend. Here's the part that shows the Southern Water Tribe with main characters Sokka and Katara front and center:

Frame from the The Last Airbender trailor.

And here's a still from the animated series that inspired the movie:

Frame from Avatar The Last Airbender.

This has given more ammunition to critics of the film's casting choices. Two Caucasian actors (Jackson Rathbone and Nicola Peltz) surrounded by a supporting cast from different ethnicities. Racebending.com has compared this scene to Earl Derr Biggers playing the Asian hero of the Charlie Chan movies of the 1930s.
Eighty years later and still people of color are only allowed in the background. An entire tribe populated using extras from Greenland – a nation that is almost 90% of Inuit heritage – is championed by two Caucasians.

Chan was conceived at the time as a progressive alternative to the Yellow Peril stereotype; but not so progressive that he could be played by an actual Asian person. The Avatar The Last Airbender series doesn't self-consciously portray Asians in opposition to a particular negative preconception, and its treatment of racial issues is rather broad. But the casting choices of its film adaptation not only dredges up Hollywood's long history with Yellowface and the more recent whitewashing of foreign properties, but highlights the problematic nature of translating any animated property to live action.

Despite recent technological advances that allow animators to realistically render characters in three dimensions, most animation still utilizes a relatively simpler "freestyle" manner (to adopt a term from R. Fiore). This has the advantage of allowing for enormous expressive range by using relatively simple linear renditions. But it's also a double-edged sword. What can be magnified isn't just emotions, but physical characteristics. Since the artist decides the characteristics to be rendered, this tends to reflect what the artist perceives as important. When the artist is influenced by particular racial attitudes, the end result can be a portrayal that exaggerates what are in reality only minor differences between individuals. Cartoonists influenced by the Blackface theatrical tradition drew people of African descent with large googly eyes, disproportionately thick lips, and exceedingly dark skin. Those influenced by Yellow Peril tend to depict Asians with narrow eyes and sallow skin. In Japanese manga, it's not uncommon to draw Westerners as tall, clumsy, and blond-haired. This isn't a simple East vs. West thing: It's also not unusual for mangaka to draw Korean characters with stronger "ethnic" characteristics when interacting with Japanese characters.

Emma and Otoyomegatari by Kaoru Mori.
Western European and Central Asian characters from mangaka Kaoru Mori's historically-based fiction.

However it would be a mistake to imagine that all cartoonists are interested in highlighting racial differences. On the contrary, cartoonists can often use a detail-oriented "liberal" approach that can still appear ambiguous. This ambiguity can often lead to confusion and misunderstanding when the audience doesn't understand the conventions that the artist is following. The most obvious example is the “Why do they look Caucasian?” question raised by an audience unfamiliar to Japanese manga conventions. To the Japanese the characters are not necessarily white, but they end up looking so to many Westerners applying their particular expectations to the Japanese market. To quote critic and translator Matt Thorn:
...Non-Europeans living in a European-dominated society absorb these standards themselves, and not only are continuously made to be aware of their “otherness,” but adhere, out of necessity, to the Eurocentric system of signification. If an American of Asian descent wants to create a children’s book intended to build self-esteem among Asian American children and educate other children about Asian American experiences, she must first make sure the readers know that the characters represented are Asian, and so, consciously or not, she resorts to stereotyped signifiers that are easily recognizable, such as “slanted” eyes (an exaggerated representation of the epicanthic fold that is often, but not always, more pronounced in East Asians than in Europeans or Africans) or pitch black, straight hair (regardless of the fact that East Asian hair can range from near-black to reddish brown, and is often wavy or even frizzy). So it is that Americans and others raised in European-dominated societies, regardless of their background, will see a circle with two dots for eyes and a line for a mouth, free of racial signifiers, as “white.”

...Japan, however, is not and never has been a European-dominated society. The Japanese are not Other within their own borders, and therefore drawn (or painted or sculpted) representations of, by and for Japanese do not, as a rule, include stereotyped racial markers. A circle with two dots for eyes and a line for a mouth is, by default, Japanese.

Tails by Ethan Young.
Webcomics creator Ethan Young alters his art in order to clarify his characters ethnicity. Before (left), After (right). Link by Sean Kleefeld.

Avatar is drawn in a style that largely avoids the abuse of exaggerated racial markers; hence the confusion about their ethnic identities. But another aspect of Avatar that is often used by people who defend the casting choices is the fictional nature of the original series. Co-creators Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko have often credited their Asian influences in every aspect of the series design. But the world they create isn't "real" in the literal sense (adopting Fiore): There are no historically authentic Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Inuit, Koreans etc. that inhabit Avatar. And because Avatar is a fictionalized, romanticized and simplified version of Asian culture and history, there are people who feel that they can literally insert a Caucasian presence into it since the series sidesteps the need for historical accuracy. As far as they're concerned, two white guys imagined this, so what's the harm?

Avatar the Last Airbender.
The core characters of the first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Alternate timelines are a staple in many fantasy stories. Many of the most popular Japanese imports are alternate worlds. Take the megahit Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa. It's largely set in a nation called Amestris that's modeled after early industrial Europe and Weimar era Germany. The country is in conflict with its neighbors, including the vaguely Middle-Eastern Ishbalans. Are the Amestrians white? Or more specifically German? Given the style of cartooning, the answer isn't immediately obvious except to people who see manga characters as Caucasian. But looking at the fictional culture they inhabit, there are some pretty strong signifiers for their Western identities: They have Western names; they read and write using Roman characters; they sport Western style clothing; They inhabit European style buildings. So yes, they are imagined Europeans from an alternate universe. But Arakawa is free to incorporate Japanese-style elements into his fantasy world. Anyone very familiar with shonen manga can identify them: The struggle to become stronger; the concept of nakama; the sempai-kohai relationship; a particular attitude to pacifism vs. war. Even alchemy, the story's most publicized element, is fitted to become a mystical form of hand-to-hand combat not unlike the quan-fa inspired bending arts of Avatar. The Elric brothers alchemy is superficially similar to earth bending. To readers of the original manga, they speak Japanese. In the animated adaptation, they sound Japanese.

Fullmetal Alchemist
Amestrian characters of Fullmetal Alchemist.

A similar thing is happening with Avatar. The world is largely a blend of classical Asian elements. The characters posses Asian sounding names; they read and write with Chinese characters; they sport Asian styled fashions; they inhabit buildings that are a fusion of Eastern styles; they know kung fu (sigh...) So yeah, they're Asian, albeit through a fantasy world. But its co-creators freely blend Western elements into the series: The story's slapstick humor, timing, rhythms, and characterizations are more Western than Eastern. While the voice cast is fairly multi-ethnic, the characters all speak with an American patois that would sound anachronistic in a period story. The most touted narrative element of the series (and most vulnerable to accusations of ethnic stereotyping) is the concept of bending, which is organized according to the four categories of Western alchemy.

But the most relevant feauture of Avatar is that it's a Western-style fantasy epic about the struggle against totalitarianism - an aspect of the superhero genre since World War II, and a component of any fantasy that mimics Lord of the Rings. Avatar sidesteps the skin color-defined racial struggle between Caucasians vs. everyone else, found in J.R.R. Tolkien, by inventing a pan-Asian world. Instead of skin color, race is defined more as spirituality manifested by the four nations in their respective bending arts. The most technologically advanced nation (and most Western?) wages a war of conquest based on the idea of its own superiority of its culture to the more "primitive" cultures. This is demonstrated in their rejection of Avatar Aang - a supernatural entity who embodies a mélange of ideas about spiritual wisdom,  harmonious balance, and universal peace. As the main protagonist of the series, Aang combines tropes about Eastern mysticism with that of a conventional action hero - he's a Buddhist saint who kicks ass.

Bryan Konietzko poster
Detail of a Bryan Konietzko poster created after the onset of the casting controversy. The character Aang suddenly acquires stronger Asian features. Photo from flickr.

The loose non-literal style used by most animated serials combined with the  metaphorical inventiveness of fantasy make it easy to create a flexible blend of cultural elements. There is of course an unavoidable commercial aspect to this formula. Even the most exotic imaginary world benefits from characters that the native audience can identify with enough to pay to watch or read about. But no matter how inventive the creators, they can't completely escape their own skin. There's an undeniable viewpoint informed by the creators native background that I think sometimes glibly romanticizes and stereotypes foreign cultures under the heading of fantasy world-building. But as long as these fantasy characters remain cartoons, pinning down their exact ethnic identity isn't exactly an urgent issue, and ultimately beside the point to enjoying the story.

The problem however comes when the cartoon transitions into live action: The literal invades and changes the equation. The actors who play the parts will posses actual ethnic backgrounds, which have political complications. What was loose and ambiguous suddenly becomes concrete and rigid. Thanks to a casting choice decision, Sokka's and Katara's American twang and other mannerisms were given precedence over all the other things that identify them as Asian. And apparently in Hollywood, the default for American is white. But the trailor indicates that the actors who play their immediate family, relatives, and clan members, are people of color. Not surprisingly, this is being justified as a form of multicultarism, and ironically also excused under the pretense of fantasy world-building. While in an ideal post-racial world it would be possible to cast an actor for any part regardless of ethnic identity, in this world the entertainment industry's history of racial discrimination are an inescapable reality. So while Paramount's actions towards the casting conform to standard operating procedure, it would inevitably clash with some of the series more devoted fans who may, or may not, have initially given the issue much thought.

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