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.

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21 Responses to Keanu Reeves as a samurai: Is it still ‘yellowface’ if the actor is hapa?

  1. Naomi Horii says:

    Great piece. Thank you, Gil!

  2. Gil Asakawa says:

    You’re welcome, Naomi! I was glad I found an excuse to write about “Little Buddha,” which I thought was a very odd film.

  3. Alex says:

    Nice observations – I don’t particularly love or loathe Keanu Reeves, but I have a hard time seeing him pull this off. I *was* pretty put off by Last Samurai, however.

    Not really thrilled about the whole ‘stylized’ thing either.

    Bah.

  4. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hey Alex, thanks for your thoughts. I’m a fan of your blog, http://Yellow-Menace.com, btw!

  5. Alex says:

    Thanks as well! I actually found your blog from a linkthrough from your Blogroll to my site – much appreciated…! (You’re on our Blogroll as well…)

  6. Hey, there, Gil. Are you ready for a blast from the past? Jamie Keys and Chuck Schubert of 27 Dreams here! (From the ’85 – ’88 Denver music scene, remember?) I’m also a writer and am writing a book, largely about our musical experience at that amazing time. I came across John Quill’s history of the local Denver music scene, and it got me thinking about you and what you’re up to. You gave us a lot of press back then, and we still appreciate it.

    How are things? What are you up to? We have tons of family in the Denver area and visit there often. We live outside of Philly, and still write and record in our amazing home studio. We changed our name to Karma Chain, and you can check us out on the following websites:http://www.karmachain.com/ and http://www.myspace.com/karmachain. You can also check out my blog (under my real name) at http://debralschubert.blogspot.com/

    For giant sized grins you might like to know that Chuck is a doctor now! But, don’t hold that against him. Music will always be our first love…

    BTW: Love your blog. Great stuff! Anyway, just thought I’d check in. Drop us a line if you’d like, and thanks for the memories!

  7. Mo says:

    “Could it really have been so hard to find qualified Japanese actresses”

    I often wonder the same thing.

  8. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks, Mo.

    Debbie: Wow, ain’t the Internet great? I like Karma Chain’s music — good luck with that, and good luck with the book! Nice blog too….

  9. Tornadoes28 says:

    I don’t know. He is 1/2 Asian but he really does not look Asian. Maybe he can pull it off. Is it the same if a 1/2 caucasian 1/2 African American plays the role of say, MLK?

    What about Ken Watanabe? I guess Americans want to see a famous American actor.

  10. isaac m. says:

    As “progressive” as Hollywood fancies itself to be, it still is clueless and offensive as ever in its casting of Asians. That Keanu Reeves would be the actor of choice for an Asian lead role is dumbfounding, even sickening. I suppose Jason Scott Lee would have been first choice a decade ago, but he seems to have fallen out of favor (is it because he came out of the closet?). We seem to be going backwards here. Pat Morita’s gone, and the most prominent Asian face on the screen now is that stereotypically dorky Hiro Nakamura character in Heroes. Phil Gotanda’s “Yankee Dog You Die” is still as spot-on as it was many years ago.

  11. Gil Asakawa says:

    I think Ken Watanabe is world-class and can hold up against Hollywood’s superstars. But he probably doesn’t have the draw power of Keanu Reeves….. Great point about a part-African American actor playing MLK!

  12. Gil Asakawa says:

    It’s true that Masi Oka’s character in “Heroes” is a stereotypical nerd, but I love that he overcomes his nerdiness as Hiro Nakamura and is one of the stars of the show. I also like that the show includes South Asians in prominent — and mostly non-stereotypical — roles.

  13. Alex says:

    Haven’t seen anyone mention Daniel Dae Kim, from Lost – one of my favorite primetime Asian actors. And definitely not a nerd, on Lost anyway.

    And re: Jason Scott Lee – since when is he gay? Didn’t he get married earlier this year? (to a woman that is – George Takei got married this year too, and he’s definitely gay.)

    Uhm – not that it matters.

    Just sayin’.

  14. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hey Alex, I mean to ask Isaac about that — Lee married a woman in Hawai’i this past June.

    Daniel Day Kim is great. And he’s a good draw, I bet, because of his years on “Lost.” He’s not Japanese, but he’d “pass” for a samurai better than Reeves!

  15. Jan says:

    As far as “Memoirs of a Geisha” is concerned, I guess it all boils down to making money. I, too, was disappointed that they did not use Japanese people in the key roles. Being Japanese-American and knowing the language, somewhat, it was difficult to listen to them speak Japanese with an accent. I thought Ken Watanabe was great. By the way, I enjoy reading your website. I’m in the Southern Cal area. Sounds like Colorado is nice place to visit.

  16. Jan says:

    I forgot to mention ….. Keanu Reeves as a samurai doesn’t sound too promising. Authenticity will be lost.

  17. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks, Jan… I agree about Geishas. The Chinese stars wouldn’t have been so bad, but the accents were so obviously wrong!

  18. isaac m. says:

    oops, chalk up the jason scott lee comment to a baseless rumor i guess. in any event, it seems like he hasn’t gotten a lot of work nowadays.

  19. Lane says:

    The decision to case the Chinese actresses in Memoirs of a Geisha may very well have been financial. Roger Ebert has pointed out that the two leads are bigger grossing actresses in Japan than any Japanese actress.

  20. Sue chan says:

    he plays a hapa in the movie….he is hapa! This hapa is overjoyed they used a hapa actor….

  21. Gil Asakawa says:

    I’m glad he payed a hapa, and that they actually cast a hapa in the part!

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