However the film turns out, there’s reason to celebrate the upcoming release of David Leitch’s Bullet Train. At a time when few movies other than franchises are making money, thank the movie gods for a big-budget action flick spun off from nothing but a much-loved Japanese novel. And Bullet Train has a good movie star to boot. One of the few still standing. We can spend August encouraging Brad Pitt’s pursuit of divinity. As he nears his 60th year, he can claim the end of summer as his own without the risk of cat-squeals from the orchestra stalls. Right?
Unfortunately, that is not how the discourse works now. Bullet Train has already been mired in controversy for swapping Kōtarō Isaka’s sourcebook Japanese characters with their American counterparts. Joey King, Sandra Bullock and Michael Shannon join Pitt in the frantic story of an assassin trying to retrieve a suitcase from, yes, a speeding train. The film is the latest to be accused of whitewashing – casting white actors in non-white roles.
David Inoue, executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League, outlined the objections to AsEmNews. “I absolutely think the laundering charges are accurate because this is a story based on what was originally the Japanese characters and it stays in Japan,” he said. “Foreigners, or gaijin, remain a distinct minority in Japan, and to populate the film with so many lead roles is to ignore the setting.”
It’s worth clarifying exactly what is happening (and not happening) here. There are two distinct – and, one might reasonably say, not equally unethical – classes of film laundering. Hollywood’s habit of “blacking” or “yellowing” actors to play non-white roles has a long and unfortunate history. In 1938 Luise Rainer, of German Jewish descent, won an Oscar for playing a Chinese character in The Good Earth. Lawrence Olivier hardly thought of blacking out to play the title role of Othello.
The most notorious “yellowface” incident was Mickey Rooney’s turn as Audrey Hepburn’s offensively stereotypical neighbor on Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The veteran actor essentially recreated a racist cartoon – the kind of thing American propagandists might have handed out during World War II.
It’s really only in the last 20 or so years that the practice has become even halfway unacceptable. There was the odd case of Anthony Hopkins as an African-American scholar in the 2003 adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. Basically, the Welsh actor played a man who convincingly passed off as white – so much so that he was accused of anti-black racism – but the cast still felt uncomfortable.
Johnny Depp, who played Tonto in the 2013 Lone Ranger, claimed Native American heritage. A tipping point seemed to be reached when Scarlett Johansson, to many boos, performed “Motoko Kusanagi” in Ghost in the Shell in 2017. That degree of ambiguity is now largely dismissed.
Either way, that’s not what’s going on with Brad Pitt. We’re relieved to confirm that, unlike Sean Connery in You Only Live Twice, he’s not smeared in yellow pancake because his eyes are taped. As confirmed by David Inoue, the characters of Bullet Train are no longer Japanese.
Changing ethnicity remains a fairly common (albeit cynical) operation in Hollywood – especially with Asian sources. In the handsome Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise played an American character who was Japanese in the original novel. The Wachowskis’ Speed Racer, based on a 1960s manga, also replaced Japanese characters with American characters.
While such racial shell games may not be as actively offensive as dressing up Lord Olivier as a “Moor”, they take the work of actors whose ethnic identities match the source characters. Or do they? If stuck in silence, the producers could argue that the bigger-budget English versions of the Japanese originals simply wouldn’t be made without superstars recognizable to American audiences. And few of these actors are currently of Japanese descent.
The response in Japan to the Bullet Train speech has been mixed. The author of the book seems largely at the origin of the project. “What is this Japan!?” wrote Kōtarō Isaka upon seeing the trailer. “Even though I was surprised, I was enthused by the gorgeous actors and their energetic and violent scenes! I hope this will be a fun movie that drives away the dark feelings!
Japan Today curtly noted the liberties taken with their nation in the promo – upside-down signs, an unknown “silent car” on Japanese trains – while failing to find much outrage among everyday punters in comments. “It’s not the same as the original, but it looks like it was adapted for Hollywood without ruining Isaka’s style,” it read.
Nonetheless, Hollywood’s continued insistence on whitewashing Asian characters raises questions about the correctness of the industry’s thinking. The money men thought no black star could open a movie until they finally gave Eddie Murphy, Denzel Washington and Will Smith the chance to prove them wrong. The current mess comes at a time when shares of the movie star concept itself are plummeting. With all due respect to the charming Tom Holland, it was Spider-Man who sold all those No Way Home tickets last Christmas.
Well, we still have Brad Pitt. Where do we do? The Numbers, a website that tracks box office earnings, puts him 43rd in its ranking of the highest-grossing movie stars of all time – with Hugh Jackman just ahead and former wrestler Dave Bautista just behind. Many of those above him have appeared in multiple Marvel movies, but Pitt is still far behind superhero maidens such as Tom Hanks, Harrison Ford, and Steve Carell. Samuel L Jackson tops them all.
The news becomes more depressing when you learn that Pitt is barely in the movie that officially records his highest grossing ever: Deadpool 2. He’s never been in a movie that cost over $1 billion and was only in two – Deadpool 2 and World War Z – which cost over half a billion. It’s the voodoo economy of the film industry. Brad Pitt can make movies. He’s less good at making sure people come to see those damn things.
Nevertheless, we wish Bullet Train good luck.
Bullet Train opens August 3.