Japanese novelist Kotaro Isaka recently responded to backlash against the decision to cast non-Japanese actors in “Bullet Train,” the Hollywood adaptation of his 2010 novel “Maria Beetle.”
David Innoue, the executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League, claimed that the casting for the Brad Pitt-led thriller is an act of “whitewashing,” or casting white characters in non-white roles, which undermines the film’s cultural inspirations.
“This is a story based around what were originally Japanese characters and it remains set in Japan,” Innoue told AsAmNews. “Foreigners, or gaijin, remain a distinct minority in Japan, and to populate the movie with so many in the leading roles is ignoring the setting.”
In an interview with The New York Times, Isaka revealed that he considers the assassins dwelling in the high-octane world of his novel to be “ethnically malleable,” as they are “not real people,” and that the blistering action sequences are far more important to the story than its Japanese setting.
“I don’t have any feeling of wanting people to understand Japanese literature or culture,” Isaka was quoted as saying. “It’s not like I understand that much about Japan, either.”
As it turns out, many of Isaka’s stylistic inspirations purportedly stemmed from American culture, from Western pop culture references – such as the inclusion of an assassin with an obsession with Thomas the Tank Engine – to “American movie-style” dialogue.
“When you watch the dubbed version of Hollywood movies, the Japanese can sound very unnatural, and that’s how I always imagined his books and what his characters were saying,” book critic Atsushi Sasaki told The New York Times.
Sasaki shared that he used to dream about one of his novels getting a Hollywood adaptation one day, and a mixture of his work’s cultural underpinnings and Western influences have given studios the freedom to film “Bullet Train” with Western blockbuster flair while paying homage to the source material’s Japanese roots.
Recent responses to criticisms of casting white leads in ethnically diverse films have revealed that the issue is more nuanced than it may appear. Ken Watanabe, for example, defended his film “The Last Samurai” from white savior criticisms by citing the opportunities the film gave to Asian American actors.
“Bullet Train” might have a similar effect on Isaka’s novels by generating enough interest to help them break into the notoriously difficult foreign literature market.
“The [film’s] name recognition will at the very least get publishers to say, ‘Hey, let’s look again at these other Isaka novels,’” Philip Gabriel, Isaka’s longtime translator, told The New York Times.
“Bullet Train” will be storming into theaters on Aug. 5.