For My Son’s Birthday
Who would have thought I’d develop a midlife crush on anime?
It’s true that at a recent showing of the New England Anime Society
I felt a hundred years older than the mostly male geek audience. I had to leave within five minutes, unable to sit through the dialogue. An approximation:
“Look at his underpants!” “Ooh, he’s wearing underpants with a heart on them!” (Snigger, snigger.) “Careful, that girl on a bicycle has breasts.”
I won’t claim cartoons like this grip me. I've never been a big animation fan. But The Last Airbender, the epic Nickelodeon series, exists on a different plane altogether. Everyone in my small family—husband, son, me—became obsessed with these Asian-inspired airbenders and firebenders months ago.
So. I finally embrace the strange pleasures of anime
, and what do I get? A controversy over the casting choices in the upcoming live-action movie of The Last Airbender. Reports that white actors will be playing many of the young heroes have sparked vigorous online criticism from Asian Americans.
I am frankly appalled. In a good play on words, critics have called this racial reworking of the movie yet another example of "racebending."
I know I’m on suspect cultural ground here. Yet my son, an Asian adoptee, is growing up in a white American household. The Airbender
cartoons are a hybrid of Japanese anime created by two white American guys with the help of Korean animators—a fitting metaphor for us.
Now here comes a big-budget, special-effects extravaganza of a movie, one my son will surely beg to see, which is another kind of metaphor. It will symbolize why Asian adoptees often feel like honorary white people.
Because my son has just turned eight, I want to celebrate what he so obviously loves about the animated series—the martial arts sequences, complete with lightning and ice arrows; the teenage heroes—and its particular meaning for us as an adoptive family.
I do worry about how my boy will put himself together as an Asian American man; I've come to see his fascination with anime and manga cartoons as a way for him to grapple with his heritage on his own terms.
Shame on you, M. Night Shyamalan. I want to point everyone to Racebending.com for information about the movie protest.
My husband and I can never claim that we have a personal understanding of racism. We could even be accused of ripping off Asian culture in adopting a child from Vietnam. Our family can't be reduced to that, but if I'm mercilessly honest, I have to admit that Asian culture is as appealing to me as it is to other white Americans who dabble in martial arts and yoga, attend anime festivals, and go to Chinese New Year's parades.
That makes it even more important for parents like me to challenge racism, unconscious and otherwise, and to name it for what it is.
When I mentioned to my son that white actors will be playing many of his favorite characters in the movie—including Aang, the last airbender and center of the story—he said, "What? That's weird. That doesn't make sense."
No kidding. Here's a fun YouTube montage from the animated original:
Aang is a bald 12-year-old monk with a blue arrow tattooed on his forehead. He's also a reincarnated spiritual leader known as the “Avatar.” He's the Dalai Lama, not Gandalf.
Avatar: The Last Airbender first aired on Nickelodeon in 2005. Because we watched all three “Books” on DVD long after it was broadcast, we could see as many episodes as we wanted in a sitting. Every time we’d say a collective "No!" at the end of one—my son always adding, "What a cliffhanger!"—we’d look at each other and hit play for the next.
(In case you’re wondering, the Avatar cartoons have nothing to do with the James Cameron movie.)
When the series opens, the Fire Nation is ruled by an evil lord who wants to take over the world. In The Last Airbender universe, benders have magical powers based on the four elements—air, water, earth, and fire. The Avatar is the one person who can bend them all. Aang is very young to become the Avatar. But the Fire Lord is on the march again, and Aang, with the help of his loyal companions, has to learn fast how to bend the other elements.
For those who don't love fantasy, there's no way to avoid the inflated portentousness this gloss implies. It’s manga-meets-The Lord of the Rings-meets Buddhism.
Yet it works. At least the anime version does. Thank God we've watched the cartoons before Shyamalan's epic rolls out. Here's the movie trailer:
Impressive as it looks, it seems too bombastic and literal. As for the racebending casting choices, cartoonists Derek Kirk Kim and Gene Yang have written eloquent posts about why this is a problem, even given the mostly white voice actors in the original animated series. Take these excerpts from Kim's post, written a year ago "on the eve of Barack Obama's inauguration":
"[I]magine if someone had made a 'fantasy' movie in which the entire world was built around African culture. Everyone is wearing ancient African clothes, African hats, eating traditional African food, writing in an African language, living in African homes, all encompassed in an African landscape... It's true that outcries of racism by the model minority are generally shrugged off by mainstream America. This trailer from an upcoming documentary called Yellow Face emphasizes why protesting the racial reworking of a kid's TV show is not just "silly" or a waste of effort.
...but everyone is white.
How offensive, insulting, and disrespectful would that be toward Africans and African Americans? How much more offensive would it be if only the heroes were white and all the villains and background characters were African American? (I wince in fear thinking about The Last Airbender suffering from the latter dynamic—which it probably will....)
But curiously, when similar offenses are committed at the expense of Asian Americans, and Asian American men in particular, this sort of behavior goes mostly ignored by the press and the people involved."
The Shyamalan movie, the first of a planned trilogy, will likely get a big promotional push, especially after the success of Cameron's Avatar. That Shyamalan, an Indian American, went with such casting choices indicates how unconscious racism can be. Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire will play the crucial role of Prince Zuko, but only after replacing the original white actor cast for the role.
Just to be clear: Japanese and Korean creators of anime characters, be they super-ninjas or ghetto-talking African Americans, aren't off the hook for perpetuating racist stereotypes.
These days, there's an endless parade of martial-arts superhero franchises (and action figures and trading cards to buy), but most of this drek never rises above the ridiculously rote. There still aren't many positive, complex images of Asian characters in popular media—people who aren't karate-chopping villains on speeding trains or running nasty industrial cartels.
Which is why it's such a shame that many of the Airbender heroes won't be Asian in the movie.
In the Airbender cartoons we get Katara, a waterbender with healing powers and an appealing maturity, and her brother Sokka, resident goof and complainer. We get Toph, a blind earthbender who can bowl over bad guys four times her size and sees the world through her feet. We get Appa, Aang's flying bison, whom the loyal troupe rides through the air.
There are kick-ass evil girls as well as good ones; soldiers who ride bird-horses; a haiku rap contest; even an old and cold soul in the spirit world who steals people's faces.
There are romantic entanglements, far more than in the buddy-plot of The Lord of the Rings. Aang’s cheeks often turn pink—in best anime style—in the vicinity of Katara.
Most important, there's character development and moral ambiguity, especially in the person of Prince Zuko, the banished teenage son of the Fire Lord. Zuko starts off trying to capture the Avatar in order to regain his father's approval. By Book Two of the series, Zuko is in a major tug-a-war of conscience over which side he's on.
Adults will get more of the satirical references in The Last Airbender cartoons, but I think my son really understands and wonders about the same conflicts I do. To "bend" this story racially in order to appeal to a more mainstream audience is to do a real disservice to the complex questions about history and family the cartoons raise.
In an early episode called “The Library,” Aang and his companions, along with a professor of anthropology, find a legendary library of all the world's knowledge almost completely buried by sand in the middle of a desert.
Once they enter the library through an upper window, they meet an Owl-like spirit who runs it. The Owl is not warm and fuzzy. This amoral spirit looks like a kabuki-painted demon in a black shawl.
Still, the Owl agrees to let them stay as long as they don't take away knowledge in order to hurt other humans. Sokka, in particular, doesn't keep that promise, and then the Owl flies into a scary frenzy. They flee for their lives, just escaping before the library collapses forever into the sand.
On the way out, however, the professor can't make himself leave. He stays behind and disappears with the rest of the library.
"Why didn't he leave?” my son asked. “Didn't he die?"
“Some people will do anything for knowledge,” I said.
He didn’t look convinced.
“It’s hard to explain,” I said. “Some adults just get obsessed.”
"Why?" His voice quivered. “Did he die?”
I wanted to comfort my boy then, as if he were a baby, murmuring it will be fine, it’s all right, you will never lose anybody you love. Ssshh, real adults don’t act that way.
I reached for him, but he slapped my hands away.
“No!” he sobbed.
I stayed with my son as he cried and raged—internally kicking myself. Stupid professor. Except I understood the man’s love of books and his obliviousness, just as my son already knew that some adults really do disappear.
More recently, he and I have talked about which Airbender episodes are the most disturbing. He doesn’t want to watch something like “The Library” again, and I’ve since wondered if I should have spared him the disturbing parts. But on balance, I'd say no.
Birthdays have their own emotional weight for adoptees. My son was an infant at the time of his adoption, so the weight of celebration seems less heavy for him than it might be. Yet birthdays inevitably evoke missing parents, too—and in his case, a missing race and culture. At eight, my son is full of joy. He may also be excited by the prospect of traveling beyond his white American existence, a desire that churns up guilt and grief.
The point is, his journey will be complex. Shyamalan's movie version of The Last Airbender may ask big questions, too, but he's got a hard act to follow.
Late in the animated series, Prince Zuko visits his family’s summer house on a remote island, discovering photos of his mother and father when he was a small child. In the pictures, they're laughing; they seem happy. Teenage Zuko, estranged from his father, his mother gone, becomes more furious and sullen.
As we watched Zuko burn the photos, my son snuggled closer to me.
“It’s sad,” he said.
I nodded my head against his glossy black hair. “It’s very sad.”
Oh, my dear boy. Happy Birthday.
All drawings by my son and used with his permission.