Much of the excitement stems from the fact that Cho, a Korean American actor known for his roles in the “Harold & Kumar” movies, “Star Trek” and “Searching,” is of Asian descent. Though the original “Cowboy Bebop” series was heavily inspired by Americana, it is widely held that the Japanese actor Yasaku Matsuda served as inspiration for Spike. Netflix’s casting call reportedly described its ideal lead as an “Asian (or partially Asian) man in his mid 20′s to mid 30′s.” (Technically, Cho is 46 years old, but Asian excellence knows no bounds.)
Cho’s casting is a step forward for Netflix, which has stumbled in the past when it comes to live-action adaptations of Asian source material. The streaming giant faced accusations of whitewashing when the white actor Nat Wolff was cast as teen serial killer Light in 2017′s “Death Note,” which was originally a manga series written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata. Light is still pursued by the quirky private detective L (Lakeith Stanfield, who is black), as he was in the manga, but the story is transported from Japan to the United States.
Instead of using the new setting to explore American racial dynamics, director Adam Wingard’s “Death Note” opted for a colorblind approach. The Hollywood Reporter’s Rebecca Sun found fault with this, arguing that “great speculative fiction bends physical circumstances and rules while reflecting real-world truths about the human condition and how we interact with one another.”
IndieWire’s David Ehlrich wrote that the “only reason to take such a uniquely Japanese story and transplant it to Seattle is to explore how its thorny moral questions might inspire different answers in an American context, so for this retread to all but reduce America to its whiteness indicates an absence of context more than anything else. . . . Why go through all the trouble of setting ‘Death Note’ in America if you’re not going to set it in the real one?”
The whitewashing accusations echoed those faced earlier that year by “Ghost in the Shell,” Rupert Sanders’s live-action adaptation of the 1989 Japanese manga. The project had attracted controversy since 2015, when Scarlett Johansson was cast in the lead role. The source material’s Major Motoko Kusanagi simply became Major, a cyborg (“shell”) with a human soul (“ghost”). Johansson defended playing the character while promoting the film, telling Bustle that Major “has no sense of her past, her origin story, I guess you would say, and I was really holding onto this universal quest for identity that we all share.”
Mamoru Oshii, who directed 1995′s animated “Ghost in the Shell,” also justified Johansson’s casting by pointing out that, even if her original body were that of an Asian person, Major takes the form of a cyborg. But critics such as Aisha Harris, then writing for Slate, pointed out that Sanders’s film places an emphasis on Major maintaining Motoko Kusanagi’s brain.
“Had the film been just a straightforward American remake of a Japanese film, such as, say, the American remake of The Ring, which starred Naomi Watts and took place in the United States, Ghost in the Shell probably wouldn’t feel as troublesome,” Harris argued. “But by wading into such treacherous territory without really grappling with the implications, the film makes its artistic liberties feel cheap and even more infuriating — like a 21st-century, ‘post-racial’ incarnation of yellowface.”
Since the “Ghost in the Shell” controversy — which produces jokes to this day — some strides have been made. Ed Skrein, who is white, exited the “Hellboy” reboot in August 2017 following an outcry over his being cast as Major Ben Daimio, who is Asian in the graphic novels: “It is clear that representing this character in a culturally accurate way holds significance for people, and that to neglect this responsibility would continue a worrying tendency to obscure ethnic minority stories and voices in the Arts,” he wrote on Instagram. The film, which hits theaters next week, now stars Korean American actor Daniel Dae Kim.
The past couple years have been especially good ones for Asian representation on-screen, with many referring to 2018 as a landmark year because of releases such as “Crazy Rich Asians,” “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” and “Searching,” which made Cho the first Asian American actor to headline a mainstream Hollywood thriller. The achievement came two years after #StarringJohnCho, a meme-turned-movement that positioned Cho as the face of a campaign for more actors of Asian descent to be cast in lead roles.
While promoting “Searching” last summer, Cho chatted about #StarringJohnCho and said that when it comes to Asian representation, “it seems better. I see more performers, I see more writers. I see more directors.” On Thursday, he celebrated the “Cowboy Bebop” news by tweeting the champagne emoji.