Keanu Reeves is…The Last Airbender.
Oh wait. Wrong movie.
Keanu Reeves stars in 47 Ronin, a fantasy film based on the historical event known as Chushingura, when a group of 47 samurai avenged the murder of their master. Reeves plays “Kai,” a half-Japanese, half-British outcast who joins the group of Samurai. His character was created for the film.
Um, Keanu is half Chinese/Pacific Islander. It’s still sketchy that they created his role for the film, but don’t erase his heritage to condemn it.
I definitely should have mentioned that Keanu Reeves is 1/8 Chinese and 1/8 Hawaiian in the original post. Although Keanu Reeves has built his career primarily portraying white characters, it is significant that he has managed to stay in Hollywood while using his real name (rather than the “K.C. Reeves” moniker he has used previously.)
It is also significant that 47 Ronin provides an opportunity for other actors of Japanese descent to be featured in a film that will be distributed in America (even if most of the actors are not Asian American and Asian American actors are still locked out of their home industry.)
What boggles my mind about Hollywood, and about 47 Ronin, though, is not the fictional inclusion of a hapa character, but more the context in which this is framed. I guess I am thinking of another production from several years ago that wanted to whitewash a Chinese American character. When I spoke the producer, I noted that the character had a Chinese last name and his entire character arc was about accepting he was Asian and handling feeling different. “How will you explain his last name?” I asked. “How will you keep the story arc of Tommy feeling like an outcast and learning to accept his identity?”
The producer said, “Well, perhaps he can be a white person adopted by a Chinese family. He could be bullied all his life for being white and having a weird Chinese name and feel left out and not truly a part of things.”
What struck me was how horrendously, cluelessly backwards this all was. Here was a production that was deliberately excluding Asian American actors due to their race, their “weird Chinese names”, etc. While there are countless narratives of transracial adoptions facing discrimination, those children are usually children of color. Yet, in order to cover for it, their plan was to tell a story of a white man being excluded by Asians. An industry that routinely, systemically casts out Asian Americans in favor of casting white actors wanted to tell a story about mean Asian characters excluding a white guy.
This was also a part of the character development for the whitewashed Kyo Kusanagi in the King of Fighters film adaptation. The character was Japanese in the video games but played by a white actor in the movie. His grandfather was depicted by an Asian actor to suggest he was hapa. The sneering villain, played by an Asian actor, pejoratively called the hero a “half breed.” The implication was that Kyo experienced oppression because he was not fully Asian—that he was victimized and targeted for his white side. Yet, the actor’s white identity was precisely why he was the main lead while all the other Asian actors played villains or side characters. While the experiences of people who are hapa are very real, raw, and painful, here it was used to villainize and whitewash.
Hollywood doesn’t just whitewash Asian characters. It makes Asian characters white and then depicts how the white characters face discrimination from Asians. It’s bitter irony. It’s a complete lack of self-awareness. What they do to Asian American actors in real life they depict happening to white(washed) characters on screen.
I suppose the situation with the “Kai” character is different, because he is the son of a
Japanese woman and a white British sailor and therefore mixed race, and it is absolutely true that children who are hapa experience prejudice from both sides. In Hollywood, specifically, though, the portion studios consider to be “the problem”—that part triggers the discrimination— is the part that is non-white. Actors like Daniel Henney and Maggie Q experienced difficulty breaking into Hollywood not because they were part white, but because they were part Asian. In fact, Asian countries were more embracing of them than the North American countries they hailed from were.
The story of 47 Ronin is of “Kai” being rejected for being part white, yet the film felt that adding a bit of “whiteness” was so important that it could not go forward without it. The fact that the character and actor are part white is precisely why he was welcomed into the American-targeted script. They had 47 Japanese characters from the original tale to pick from for the main character—forty seven!—and still felt they had to create a brand new lead.
In the story, the fact that Kai is part white is a liability. The people of color in the film are exclusionary. Yet, the film inadvertently demonstrates that in Hollywood, it’s the opposite—characters of color are whitewashed. People of color in the film industry are excluded, even when the main characters were originally people of color.
Perhaps that is the contradictory and fickle nature of Hollywood. We repeatedly see films where white male leads are depicted as the odd-one-out, the outsider, the tourist who needs must prove himself and take his rightful place as their leader with he chief’s daughter by his side. (Reeves’s fictional character in 47 Roninof course, raises the hackles of the other samurai by starting a romance with their master’s daughter.) At the same time, these same films are structured in a way that positions the very characters of color who are excluding the hapa lead (because he is white) in a subordinate position—whether they are subjugating the “outcast” or not in the movie, they’re the true outcasts in Hollywood.
Perhaps 47 Roninis different and a step up from previous iterations of this trope because it depicts a hapa character instead of simply a white male lead. Does it earnestly intend to explore what it means to be hapa and to face prejudice from the community of color you belong to? Or is the addition of “hapa oppression from Asians” used to justify why Hollywood felt the need to insert “whiteness” or “white identity problems” into a historical fiction at all? I sincerely hope it is the former—because that is worth exploring, and we don’t see very many hapa heroes—but based on what we’ve seen in Hollywood before, I strongly suspect the latter.