Memoirs of Japanese Actors

Yesterday, I got into a discussion with a coworker regarding the controversy surrounding Rob Marshall’s latest film Memoirs of Geisha.

Basically, there are a number of people (namely the Japanese people) who are upset that most of the cast is Chinese. (You can read a little more about it here.) My initial reaction was, “Yeah, I can understand that.” He asked me if I thought that a Brit shouldn’t be able to play an American or an American a Brit. Obviously, I wouldn’t go that far.

Even if you don’t feel that the Japanese should have been cast in a film about Japanese culture, could this be misconstrued and therefore fuel the stereotype that Americans think all Asians look the same? I proposed this to him.

Well, this is Hollywood. They’re going to cast well-known actors and good ones to make their money.

So we’re ignorant with a side of greedy?

As far as I’m concerned if there are Japanese actors able to play Japanese roles in a film about Japanese culture, then those rolls should be saved for Japanese people. But I have been known to change my views. Especially views I am not passionate about.

Edited to add: Wow, I just reread this. I accidentally wrote “Yeah, I can’t understand that” instead of “Yeah, I CAN understand that.” Apparently, I was going for a New Yorker type post where my goal is to confuse you and make you ponder, What side is she on anyway? oops.


  1. no, I don’t buy that. The Band of Brothers mini-series, highly lauded. Emmy winning and all that, had a few brits & aussies portraying real american GIs. Real prominent roles. The main guy, Maj. Winters was played by Damian Lewis, a brit. Would the film be any better with Japanese because it’s authentic? I seriously doubt that.


  2. Every actor in the examples you gave speak English. What if Band of Brothers had been played by mainly French actors? Do you think you’d feel the same? Curious.


  3. I will gladly be ignorant if that means that I am completely insensitive to another culture’s racism, which is what the Japanese objection is. We see brits and aussies and canadians playing americans all the time. I wouldn’t care if a frenchman played an american if he can pull off the accent.


  4. Yes. While I didn’t go into much detail about our discussion last night, I have to add one thing before I come off as a nationalist. I recently read an article that illustrated just how hateful many Japanese are toward the Chinese (and Korean) culture. If the dispute surrounds that mentality, then I’d have trouble backing them up on this.

    I remember when broadway cast Julia Roberts (who has zero acting on the stage experience) to play the lead role in a play that hasn’t ever hit the stage. I remember that my first thought was, “Wow, if I were a theater actor, that might annoy me a little bit.”

    I guess that was my initial reaction here, too. But I think I might be alone with my initial reaction.

    Let me see if I can find that NYT article.


  5. I have only one question about the argument that Brits and Aussies playing Americans is the same as Chinese actors playing Japanese characters.

    Isn’t the cultural separation between the Chinese and Japanese – with distinct languages, histories, gene pools – somewhat different than the separation of post-Brit cultures, which have little more than minor recent historical disparities and different accents?

    Does seeing the Chinese/Japanese distinction as analagous to Irish/Scottish or English/American actually pull from the same ‘they all look the same to me!’ mindset Michele mentioned above?

    I don’t see this as a significant political issue, but as an issue of creativity. In some ways, this atmosphere of inaccuracy might be true to the point of view of the author and his outsider role (as I understand it). In others, it might signal a lack of ability to take the story to fruition (in the same way that having the dialogue in English does).


  6. Well, until very recently (in a historical sense) many Americans would argue that there was a distinct difference between people of Irish & Scottish descent, Italian or French or Spanish, or Norwegian and German descent… and don’t forget the Jews, either!

    In the US nobody bats an eye if Al Pacino (Italian) plays Carlos Montoya (Cuban) or Jimmy Caan (Jew) plays Santino Corleone. It’s not just post-brit.

    And flip it around: do Japanese (or Chinese) film makers employ the same ethnic precision in casting Western actors?

    All of this underscores the fact that the concept of race is culturally defined. The Japanese are offended by the idea that Americans would use Chinese to represent them. We replace their racism with our own; the real twist would have been if we had cast Julia Roberts as Japanese. That would have really confused everyone. Think of David Carradine as Grasshopper in Kung Fu. Now there is an effacement of race that was racist!


  7. But would you hire a man with no disaster relief experience to head the largest Federal Relief Organization in the U.S.? I didn’t think so.

    Oh, wait.

    I guess in the U.S. experience doesn’t really matter.

    (kidding. I don’t care about this that much.)


  8. I recently read an article that mentioned that some Chinese people are upset that Chinese actresses are playing Japanese characters. They went so far as to say that the actresses had insulted their countrymen and turned their backs to their country. That’s pretty harsh. I guess the feelings of animosity between China and Japan run deeper than I ever imagined.


  9. Here is another article (not the one I read in the NYT because it’s old and I have to pay for it now) can be found by clicking here.

    Titles like “Hating the Korean Wave” and “Introduction to China” which “portrays the Chinese as a depraved people obsessed with cannibalism. In it, a woman of Japanese origin says: “Take the China of today – its principles, thought, literature, art, science, institutions. There’s nothing attractive.”

    If it’s about that, that’s one thing. But it was my understanding that another group of Japanese actors are upset about the director NOT casting Japanese talent. I am having trouble finding that particular article, however.

    Apparently, I posted this too soon… i do apologize. I should have done my research first.


  10. [No need to apologize, this is a fun thing to talk about … I’ve been thinking a lot lately about issues of nationality and culture]

    Camille: Japan invaded China in the 1930’s (just prior to WWII), and the scars from the occupation of Manchuria are still there in Chinese culture. It’s ironic, however, that the Japanese now outsource a lot of work to China (in northern China, Japanese is the most common 2nd language that students acquire). See Friedman’s “The World is Flat” for more info about that.

    Ultimately, whether Japanese actors’ complaints are motivated by economic self-interest, pride, or indignation, I am reluctant to expect some sort of ethnic or racial alignment between actors and the roles that they play. This reluctance goes also to questions of physical disability and sexual orientation. Should disabled roles only go to disabled actors? Should gay roles only go to gay actors? At what point do you draw the line?

    Finally, is it really (our own) racism that allows Americans to suspend disbelief and watch a Chinese actor portray a Japanese geisha?


  11. nationalism is something americans lack, but what little we do have, it just doesn’t compare to other nationalities/races/cultures.


  12. Well, I do love my nascar. And my fast food. And my strip malls. And my donuts. And my Wal Mart.

    Actually, the part about the donuts is true.

    That reminds me of a link I received from someone yesterday.

    click me.


  13. oops…….charlie, i think americans are just ignorant of the differences between the chinese and japanese, i wouldn’t call it racist. we as americans blanket too much under the racist label when it’s really only national pride.


  14. Renee made a crappy Bridget.


  15. That’s very interesting, Greg. I don’t think it’s racism, either. As for nationalism, I don’t know if I agree that Americans lack it. Perhaps. We are certainly patriotic, but I don’t think that’s what you mean. Perhaps you mean that we don’t have a single shared identity: to be American is to be “[fill in the blank].” Americans are so diverse, and after our Civil War our allegiance has been to a vague federal concept dedicated to ideas (or propositions), but we our identity is decidedly NOT tied to a geography, culture, or way of life. I think we have a clearer idea of what it means to be a Texan or a New Yorker than we do of being an American.

    As Langston Hughes writes:

    Let America be America again.
    Let it be the dream it used to be.
    Let it be the pioneer on the plain
    Seeking a home where he himself is free.

    (America never was America to me.)


  16. charlie, yes, we are patriotic, but be don’t understand nationalism as the rest of the world would. japan is roughly 98% pure japanese blooded people…..that’s amazing when you think about it. americans can pride themselves on being diverse but i think we over step our bounds in wanting to apply that diversity to countries/cultures that are far from diverse(diverse is bad in some situations). for japan to be diverse, is to water down japan. they’ve been changing since the 1800’s and it’s still difficult for a country that shares so many similarities(internally) to deal with our freeform ideas of diversity. peorsonally i don’t like diversity for diversity’s sake, it’s like wedding food, not too salty not too much spicy, unoffensive. it’s a land of boring mediocrity and at times i feel that’s where our country heads when it tries to satisfy every little thing in a standardized way, where everyone is equal in every facet of life, it just isn’t so. and that’s where culture comes from, the separation of haves and havesnot. pretty weird when i think about it.


  17. I was talking about this with momhow last night – seeing if the family wanted to see the movie on Christmas. How strange…

    Anyway – I watched the trailer. And my first thought was, ‘hey, it looks pretty cool.’ Second thought was ‘Ziyi Zhang is so freaking hot.’ After that, though, it got rough. I knew the chinese hottie was doing the lead, but in the trailer I kept seeing Chinese girls all over the place. I thought maybe I was just losing my mind, so I checked out the cast. Sure enough, the three leading ladies aren’t Japanese.

    That kind of bothers me. It’s not a deal-breaker, but I definitely noticed the lack of authenticity. Combine that with the dialouge in english with asian accents and well, you get patrionizing cheesiness… or something. I can’t describe it but it doesn’t feel right. Ideally, I’d prefer japanese with english subtitles and then just go plain english. But poor english spoken with chinese accents to imitate japanese geisha? Well, it didn’t sit right with me.

    I’ll still go see the movie because the book was good (and Ms. Zhang is hot), but now I’ll temper my expectations and prepare to be disappointed.


  18. On the cultural aspects, I have to allow for Japanese to be quite offended. It’d be worse than Bollywood casting Soviets to portray Americans at the height of the cold war – and add in a topic that’s rather sensitive to us, just to stir it up a bit.

    These two cultures have a violent past and historically despise each other more than we really understand. The shrinking globe is bringing them together, just like everyone else, but it’s causing some awkwardness as well. Hopefully an increasingly integrated world economy can diffuse potential future problems.


  19. One more comment – since most people here probably don’t know me, I need to clarify I was mostly kidding about my Soviet Union analogy. I like to absurdly exaggerate (fine until someone thinks you’re being serious – see (a) ). It isn’t that bad to all Japanese. But it’s definitely more severe than French or Australian actors. The French are … well … the French. But Soviets were the enemy.

    (a) the NYSE had severe system problems today. A friend asked what caused it, if we knew – so i told him several theories we created throughout the day: Al Qaeda (mine) and y2k among others. He said Al Qaeda couldn’t do it from a cave and the guy who blamed y2k is an idiot. I then called him an idiot for thinking we were serious.


  20. bkgunner, thanks for your comments. It’s interesting what you said about the fake Japanese accents on top of the fact that they’re speaking in English. I have been slightly irked by this phenomenon in the past as well.

    Like I said, I will see the movie and most likely it will be wonderful. However, I feel that it’s a bit of a copout using predominantly Chinese actors to portray a film specific to Japanese culture.


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