Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Keanu Reeves as a samurai: Is it still ‘yellowface’ if the actor is hapa?
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Keanu Reeves as a samurai: Is it still ‘yellowface’ if the actor is hapa?

Actor Keanu Reeves, who is half-Asian, will play a samurai in an upcoming move, 47 Ronin.The Hollywood news source Variety reported yesterday that Keanu Reeves, everyone’s favorite hapa actor (his father is Hawai’ian-Chinese) is going to play the lead role in a samurai epic, “47 Ronin.”

The 47 Ronin is the celebrated 18th century story from Japanese history, of a group of masterless samurai who avenged the death of their feudal lord, or daimyo, after a year of planning and then committed seppuku, or ritual suicide, to maintain their warrior code of honor, or bushido. The story’s been told a lot in Japanese movies, in variations of the title “Chushingura.” The most recent remake in Japan was “47 Ronin” (“Shijushichinin no shikaku”) in 1994, written and directed by Kon Ichikawa.

It’s cool to think that Hollywood is going to tell this story, with the the spectacle of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and the star power of Reeves.

Keanu Reeves played Siddhartha in the 1993 film Little Buddha.But it makes me wonder about the choice of Reeves. Yeah, he knows martial arts (and proved it in the Matrix movies), and he’s part Asian. But he’s not Japanese. And, hellooo, he doesn’t look very Asian.

When “Memoirs of a Geisha” was produced with Chinese women in the lead roles, it bothered some in the Japanese American community, including me. (It also caused a stir in China, where the women were criticized for playing Japanese roles.) Could it really have been so hard to find qualified Japanese actresses (which was the filmmakers’ excuse)?

I definitely get that Reeves brings a big name-brand to the samurai film so he’s important. But his one previous role playing an Asian was downright surreal, and it makes me apprehensive about how this one will go.

Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1993 film “Little Buddha” was a confusing mish-mash of a story, inter-cutting the contemporary search for the reincarnation of a Dalai Lama-like character with the historical narrative of Siddhartha and his path to enlightenment as the Buddha.

Reeves played Siddhartha with a Coppertone sheen and eyes cosmetically slanted, and spoke with a vague Indianesque accent. The movie was interesting, but left me queasy about Reeves and his level of self-identification as an Asian American. Not that it matters to anyone, least of all him, I’m sure…

The Variety article says the story of the 47 Ronin is being written to fit Reeves. So maybe he’s going to play a European, or gaijin soldier who arrives in feudal-era Japan and leads the defeated samurai. I hope not.

That’s the typical Hollywood model, the one that was used for “The Last Samurai,” with Tom Cruise miraculously learning Japanese and becoming a master swordsman in several months of being cloistered away in a mountain village.

It’s a theme that goes back to the days of James Michener’s novel and TV mini series “Shogun,” with Richard Chamberlain playing the European who finds himself amongst the heathen “Jappos” and becomes a powerful advisor to the shogun in the unification of Japan. The character is based partially on a historical person, but it’s not accurate.

Don’t get me wrong — I like both “Shogun” and “Last Samurai.” But the convention of having the white guys — in spite of all their faults and character defects — save the hapless people of color gets trite after a while.

OK, I’m ranting. Maybe that’s not what the studio’s planning for “47 Ronin.” Maybe Reeves will simply play a particularly (or peculiarly) Western-looking Japanese warrior. I’d rather have that, personally.

Just don’t tape back his eyes, please.