Avatar: the Lone Asian Character

One recent and egregious instance of Whitewashing in an anime adapted to a live-action film, is Avatar: the Last Airbender. Though it is sometimes contested that this show cannot accurately be classified as an anime because it was created in the United States by Nickelodeon and not in Japan, the style in which it is drawn is clearly at the least a faithful approximation of the traditional style associated with anime and takes place in a world that only contains characters of Asian ancestry and culture. As such, the original show contained many ties to various Eastern cultures, including Japanese, Chinese, Tibetan, Hindu, and Inuit. The music in the show is also heavily influenced by Chinese music and utilizes many different classic Chinese instruments. Among a glut of other shows that are saturated with Western influences and messages, Avatar: the Last Airbender, proved to be a vastly different narrative of Eastern culture than what most audiences were used to – either no narrative at all, or one that says only certain kinds of Asian culture, like Miyazaki films are okay.

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BBda7b9tRdk

“After the miscalculation of making the movie as live action, there remained the challenge of casting it. Shyamalan has failed. His first inexplicable mistake was to change the races of the leading characters; on television Aang was clearly Asian, and so were Katara and Sokka, with perhaps Mongolian and Inuit genes. Here they’re all whites. This casting makes no sense because (1) It’s a distraction for fans of the hugely popular TV series, and (2) all three actors are pretty bad. I don’t say they’re untalented, I say they’ve been poorly served by  Shyamalan and the script. They are bland, stiff, awkward and unconvincing.”Roger Ebert

Shyamalan Addresses Airbender's Race Controversy And Answers Your Questions

Source: http://io9.gizmodo.com/the-ten-worst-examples-of-whitewashing-from-the-last-fi-1749960081

In this collage, the actors chosen for the live action movie are contrasted with their original counterparts from the television show. The side-by-side comparison clearly shows the glaring difference between the original anime and the casting choice. The original characters were based off of Inuit culture and populations, whereas the director cast two Caucasian actors as some of the main characters for the film. From left to right: Actor, Jackson Rathbone; Sokka; Actress, Nicola Peltz; Katara. One of the strong points of the Avatar: the Last Airbender was the incredibly diverse cast of dynamic characters. All of the main characters in the original show were people of color, however in the movie this recasting whitewashes all three of the main characters. The choice to cast all white actors in the major roles is much like what happened to many Vietnamese refugees following the Vietnam war. “The great irony is, of course, that they escaped a war only to be cast in a reenactment that placed them at the margins of their own story.” (Re)Collecting the Vietnam War

When the 2010 live action adaptation of Nickelodeon’s beloved animated series, Avatar: the Last Airbender, was released, it was met with a great deal of backlash. The film received a Rotten Tomatoes rating of only 6%. One of the biggest complaints about the movie was with the overwhelmingly white casting by director M. Night Shyamalan. In a series that draws heavily on the cultures of various Asian countries, the startling lack of Asian American actors was seen as emblematic of the greater lack of minority representation in Hollywood films. Jenn Fang at Reappropriate commented on the casting by saying their choices sent the message that,  “Asians simply aren’t familiar enough — not ‘American’ enough – for White movie audiences to relate to.”

Source: http://moviepilot.com/posts/1162752

This fan-made meme demonstrates the problematic nature of the recasting. By casting Caucasians into the main, protagonist roles, and Dev Patel, the lone actor of Asian decent in a major role in this film, as the main antagonist, M. Night’s movie continued a long and unfortunate Hollywood trend of casting Asian characters as villains. This trend stems from our society’s tendency to code dark skin as bad and light skin as good. A trend which was reversed in the animated series, with the lighter skinned Fire Nation as the antagonists in the series.

The skin color of the characters wasn’t the only thing to change in the adaptation. The pronunciation of many of the main character’s names changed. Much to the frustration of fans who followed the animated series for years, the main character’s name, Aang, was changed from being pronounced so that it rhymes with bang, to rhyming with sung.

M. Night Shyamalan Picture

Source: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0796117/?ref_=nmmi_mi_nm

 Shyamalan defended his pronunciation changes saying:

“You’re coming at me, the one Asian filmmaker who has the right to cast anybody I want, and I’m casting this entire movie in this color blind way where everyone is represented. I even had one section of the Earth kingdom as African American, which obviously isn’t in the show, but I wanted to represent them, too! And I fought like crazy to have the pronunciation of the names to go back to the Asian pronunciation. So you say ‘Ahng’ instead of ‘Aaang’ because it’s correct. It’s not ‘I-rack,’ it’s ‘ee-Rock.'”

The interesting thing about this change, is that Shyamalan made these changes to increase the authenticity of the movie, however by doing so he actually made the movie less faithful to the source material. This choice creates an odd mediation, with the director arbitrarily choosing his own interpretation of the source material to which he remained faithful, at the expense of alienating fans. This kind of acceptance of one kind of authenticity over another is exactly the reason Asian Americans have struggled to make gains in Hollywood. While producers, and directors are more than happy to represent the cute, cuddly Asian culture of Miyazaki movies that is foreign enough to be novel, they are less willing to cast Asian Americans in major roles. They are trapped in the unique position of being too foreign for directors to cast them in major roles, thinking that white audiences won’t be able to connect with a character that doesn’t look like them. Simultaneously, they are also not considered Asian enough to be novel and have their perspectives recognized on the silver screen. Aang is changed to the more “exotic” Ahng, and yet cast as a white actor.

Live-action adaptations aren’t the only translations with problematic recasting of race. Anime movies and shows dubbed in the United States into English almost always utilize an all white cast. With our archive, we hope to shed light on the various shades of grey involved in the re-formation of an original into it’s translation.



Chaobunny12. “Asian Culture in the Avatar World.” YouTube. YouTube, 30 Dec. 2008. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.

Ebert, Roger. “The Last Airbender Movie Review (2010) | Roger Ebert.” Roger Ebert. 30 June 2010. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.

Hudson, John. “Is ‘The Last Airbender’ Racist?” The Wire. The Atlantic, 03 July 2010. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.

Lee, Evan. Digital image. Should The Last Airbender & Dragonball Evolution Get a Remake? Movie Pilot, 02 Nov. 2013. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.

Schlund-Vials, Cathy J., and Sylvia Shin Huey Chong. (Re)collecting the Vietnam War. Vol. 6. College Park, MD: Asian American Literary Review, 2015. Print.

Trendacosta, Katharine. Digital image. The 10 Worst Examples of Movie Whitewashing From the Last 15 Years. Io9, 24 Feb. 2016. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.

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