Anime Vice News

Shyamalan: "Anime is Ambiguous"

The Sixth Sense director speaks out on Avatar's casting.


M. Night Shyamalan did an interview over at io9 recently about the upcoming Avatar: The Last Airbender live-action film, and in it he extensively addresses one of the long-running controversies of the film: the races of its lead stars.

Actually the initial question didn't mention the word race at all, but asked Shyamalan to "address the fan concerns about the casting" of Airbender. Shyamalan had clearly been thinking about this one because he launched into quite the talk: the overall gist of it is that the races for each group came from whoever he cast as its primary representative. Shyamalan suggests that his Aang, Noah Ringer, has a "mixed" look, so all of the Airbenders are of mixed race. His favorite Katara, Nicola Peltz, "had a lot of Russian qualities," so  the water tribe became very Russian/European. And when Dev Patel was cast as Zuko, the Fire Nation was developed with an Indian and Middle Eastern look.

But the thing that really caught my eye about Shyamalan's response was the absolute first thing he said about it:

"Here's the thing. The great thing about anime is that it's ambiguous. The features of the characters are an intentional mix of all features. It's intended to be ambiguous. That is completely its point. So when we watch Katara, my oldest daughter is literally a photo double of Katara in the cartoon. So that means that Katara is Indian, correct? No that's just in our house.  And her friends who watch it, they see themselves in it. And that's what's so beautiful about anime."


 If Hollywood made an Ikkitousen movie, would they cast Japanese girls?
 If Hollywood made an Ikkitousen movie, would they cast Japanese girls?
Hmmm. Setting aside that he jumps right into "Airbender = anime" (we've had that debate before!), it's true that there are plenty of anime that are racially ambiguous (particularly titles set in other universes). But even titles set in Japan don't necessarily have characters that look strictly Japanese. Unusual hair colors, excessive height, huge breasts, and of course, those enormous eyes-- none of these are characteristically Japanese traits, but they sure pop up a lot.
 
 Left-to-Right: American, Japanese, Chinese-American, American
 Left-to-Right: American, Japanese, Chinese-American, American
On the other hand, there are also plenty of shows that aren't ambiguous at all: Naoki Urasawa's manga and anime Monster are a great example of an anime where characters' races are carefully depicted and a significant chunk of their background. A couple of us were recently talking about Black Lagoon in the office, in which the primary characters all have very specific races as a part of their backgrounds-- and almost everyone else is split into different crime syndicates based on their nationalities.
 
What do you guys think? Is it fair to say that "anime is ambiguous" on race, at least generally speaking?
DeviousRoberton March 31, 2010 at 8:28 a.m.
I'd never really thought about it before, but I suppose Shyamalan's point here does have some merit.  Though the majority of anime characters are drawn with a distinctly Japanese style, they don't exactly look Japanese.  Even when placed alongside American characters, there's not a lot of difference. 
 
Except when there is some difference, as is the case in Eden of the East, the characters simply look out of place.  They don't make me think, "hey, these are some Japanese dudes in America!"  Instead I'm like, "there are some exaggerated differences between that guy and that guy."  
Kelleth moderator on March 31, 2010 at 8:49 a.m.
I`m still out about Avatar being ''Anime'' i still see it as an western cartoon. aside from that i agree with M.Night Shyamalan`s statements about ''races'' in anime even though i never really focus on ''race'' simple because its against my view on the world.
 
*Runs away before BR sees the thread*
Zeouterlimitson March 31, 2010 at 8:55 a.m.
"Is it fair to say that "anime is ambiguous" on race, at least generally speaking? " 
Evangelion live-action movie says no. 
 
It's fair to say that we can put ourselves into the characters but that is us being them, not us in the show per say.
The way I see it is that  his daughter is becoming whatever race Katara is when she is "in that world".
If that makes sense (I'm tired, php has killed my mind).
PureRokon March 31, 2010 at 9:10 a.m.
But... Katara's skin is noticeably darker (at least, from what little I've seen.). What's ambiguous about that? I always felt that Katara and her man friend guy were of some sort of Indian-ish tribe thing, based on how their skin was quite a bit darker than everyone else's, and the fire guys were Chinese, or something. At least, those are the vibes I got. Aang always seemed like he was from Tibet or something.
Sigueon March 31, 2010 at 9:38 a.m.
@PureRok:  While those water dudes were noticeably darker, I wouldn't really say that any of the other "races" in the show really gave off a particularly ethnic feel based solely on the physical features. They all basically look white, in a cartoon kind of way. What gives them their cultural feel is the clothing, surroundings and culture portrayed in the show as opposed to merely how the character himself looks. 
 
It's not like this movie would be magically good if they cast dark-skinned actors for the water dudes, at any rate. Might as well just enjoy it for the special effects ;)
JDon March 31, 2010 at 9:58 a.m.
I've always understood anime as being an animated cartoon made primarily for Japanese audiences, generally under Japanese direction and design.  There is some gray area, but made for Nick doesn't seem to count.  I think the reason why people/companies try to latch onto it is that people see "cartoons" as a derogatory term (i.e. "it's crap, for kids") when I think it's just descriptive.  Anime is treated as a catchy new fad, which is probably why most western attempts at mimicking anime seem to do it badly.  It's not about race, it's about cultural, pacing and storytelling style too.  It bugs me when people try to pass off a western work as anime when they're just mimicking a drawing style, without the rest of the package that interests people in anime.
 
I think Avatar the Last Airbender is very cool though, it has a lot of heart that I rarely see in entertainment, and without being lame or sugary.  I'm not sure if the live action version has the heart.
GodLen staff on March 31, 2010 at 11:26 a.m.
I totally agree with Shyamalan, these characters can almost be anything.
sora_thekey moderator on March 31, 2010 at 12:03 p.m.


I guess I could agree with that! 
 
but one thing I do think is that if the anime includes specific ethnic features (Meaning: This character IS Japanese and this character IS American) then a live-action hollywood movie should reflect it...

 

If the anime mentions it not, then whatever!

Oishi_47on March 31, 2010 at 1:50 p.m.
I always thought the water tribes were more like Inuits or some other indigenous Northern American.
Murasakivieon March 31, 2010 at 1:51 p.m.
@Sigue Saying that they're all "basically white, in a cartoon sorta way" is basically giving in to the though that white is the default.  It's this thought that goes into so much of Hollywood white-washing, and it's usually not conscious.
 
Personally, I think it WOULD have been a better movie if the actors cast resembled the nations/cultures they originally came from.  Considering how big a role nationalism plays into the story (it's the entire crux of the war), taking out or changing calls to specific cultures breaks down the story.  And in this movie, that's not limited to the ethnicity of the characters, but also costumes and world building. 
 
The original ATLA characters and world were so whole and purposeful, and Shyamalan talking so much about how he needs purpose for everything and loves the original so much... That what we're getting is just so soulless.
Actually, it seems like Shyamalan just wanted his own fantasy trilogy and found a cult property he could exploit.  Because if he tried to make an original, given his reputation, NO ONE would've gone to see it.
AHoodedFigureon March 31, 2010 at 4:01 p.m.
I'm still trying to understand what people mean by the term "anime," since I've heard anime creators say that anime is inclusive because the characters featured are often of indeterminate background.  It's not the first time I've heard people say blanket statements by people who work in the industry they're commenting on not quite meshing with others' interpretations.
 
I watched early dubs of Galaxy Express 999, Gatchaman and Battleship Yamato (the latter will always be Battle of the Planets and Starblazers to me), but it wasn't until I was in my teens that fan dubs were first making their way to conventions and BEGINNING to get serious attention.  Back then I pronounced it "æ-naim", knew that it meant Japanese animation, and I thought Akira was the coolest thing I'd ever seen.  Over the years I began to realize things like Akira the works of Miyazaki were the rare exception, and I felt alienated by the ultra-detailed fan knowledge that didn't seem to be following anything that appealed at all to me.
 
I think part of the problem is that there is such a specialized knowledge that goes into this sort of hobby, people forget to bring the rest of those who might find something to like along for the ride.  I liked this stuff back then, I followed it, and now, coming back to it when this site launched, I realized I was left way behind.  You want people to take anime more seriously and stop stereotyping it?  Begin some outreach for old stragglers like me.  Otherwise you're always going to have these sorts of problems.
Bellumon March 31, 2010 at 4:25 p.m.
@PureRok said:
" But... Katara's skin is noticeably darker (at least, from what little I've seen.). What's ambiguous about that? I always felt that Katara and her man friend guy were of some sort of Indian-ish tribe thing, based on how their skin was quite a bit darker than everyone else's, and the fire guys were Chinese, or something. At least, those are the vibes I got. Aang always seemed like he was from Tibet or something. "
 
Katara is ambiguously brown.  I don't watch a lot of anime, but from what I've seen, I think Shyamalan's point is pretty valid. Obviousely there would be examples that contradict it, but to the casual anime fan the observation stands. 
 
Culture in Avatar is not so ambiguous. This doesn't necessarily apply to character design, but clothing design and architecture and stuff. I appload Shymalan for at least trying to address this issue.
 
As far as Avatar being anime? Well, I don't think it's fair to Avatar to compare it to other "western animation". I mean, the great majority of that other crap isn't even on the same league. As far as quality goes, Avatar is certainly more anime. But stylistically, I don't even think it's "anime-esque" as others do. It borrows elements from eastern animation, but it is stylistically very distinct, I think.
Sigueon March 31, 2010 at 4:41 p.m.
@Murasakivie:  Most of the characters have caucasian features. Their skin is white and they have larger eyes. It isn't "white-washing" if they look white to begin with.
00Raiseron March 31, 2010 at 5:35 p.m.
Water tribe Russian? LOL uhhhh more like Native American/Eskimo, just look at the culture. Kind of stupid to cast them like that? He failed on that note.
Konandaon March 31, 2010 at 5:54 p.m.

Shyamalan is kind of right. For the most part usually anime characters seem some kind of ambigious mix of East Asian features and European features. The only time it really differs is if there is a real effort to make a character have facial features that resemble certain distinctions more commonly seen in certain races or if they just pallete swap the kind of ambigious character with either more pale skin, blonde hair and blue eyes or increasing shades of brown or some of the black face kind of stuff that is kind of rare to see.  
 
Although I will say in Avatar the only nations that seemed really that ambigious were the air and earth ones. For the most part the water tribe(s) were brown and the fire tribe looked like a mix of Japanese and Chinese. 
 
I will say though in regards to Aang he probably should stand out some more since a pretty pivotal part of the story is that he is the last memeber of his nation after being wiped out by the Fire Nation and being that it feels like a reference to Tibet's occupation by the People's Republic of China except instead the Fire Nation has more of a Imperial Japan vibe to it than communist dictatorship. 
 
As has been said earlier the really important distinction between the nations is in their cultures.  Personally from what I've observed they seem to run kind of like this: Air = analogue to Tibet, Fire = Imperial Japan, Water = nomadic native cultures that travelled from Asia to North America particularly the Inuit, Earth = Ming Dynasty China

Bellumon March 31, 2010 at 6:39 p.m.
@00Raiser said:
" Water tribe Russian? LOL uhhhh more like Native American/Eskimo, just look at the culture. Kind of stupid to cast them like that? He failed on that note. "
 
There are peoples in Russia who would live a very similar lifestyle, which is what I think he was implying.
Charagonon April 1, 2010 at 6:06 a.m.
"What do you guys think? Is it fair to say that "anime is ambiguous" on race, at least generally speaking?"
 
I don't know, let's ask Sailor Moon?
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Wait a sec, one of these guys is supposed to be Japanese. Right?
sickVisionz moderator on April 1, 2010 at 6:21 a.m.
He's right, in general.  
SimonJoneson April 1, 2010 at 6:28 a.m.
Cartooning in general is an exercise in the reduction of details extraneous to the story-telling.  The average anime character is as racially ambiguous as Mickey Mouse, from a visual perspective. 
However, that is not to say that the creators necessarily intend for their characters to be perceived ambiguously.  More importantly, cartoon characters usually have a cultural identity.  Mickey Mouse is definitely American.
That said, this is mostly a tempest in a teacup, although I've always wondered why Aang wasn't played by an Indian actor, considering the history of Buddhism...
John_Martoneon April 1, 2010 at 12:45 p.m.
 Sometimes I think I&squot;m actually looking at the "real" Goku
 Sometimes I think I'm actually looking at the "real" Goku

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The movie adaptation of "Avatar, the Last Airbender" animated series. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan, the movie will be released July 2nd, 2010 Focused on spiritual enlightenment, and the art of "bending elements," the impossible becomes possible.

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