This guy. Playing somebody named Takeshi, who is specifically described in the articles as being at least biracial Japanese.
In the wake of the Ghost in the Shell debacle and the #whitewashedOUT hashtag, I flipped my lid. But then it was pointed out to me that the casting was technically canon, as the original novel is about super soldier Takeshi being inserted into the body of a white detective, Elias Ryker, to solve a crime. For the first time it was an actual canon-sanctioned whitewashing, and I felt as if I had prematurely jumped to conclusions.
But still, I felt off about the concept. Literature and TV are two very different mediums, with TV obviously being more visual and leaving less to the imagination. A white man playing the part of an Asian man stuck in a white body? How could that not feel ridiculous, at best, and be offensive, at worst?
And did Takeshi’s body have to be white? With only eight percent of the top grossing sci-fi films starring a protagonist of color (Keanu Reeves being the only Asian), and only four percent of any TV characters being Asian, did we really need another show featuring a white guy, especially if it came at the expense of a character’s Asianness being subsumed under a white veneer?
Because let’s be real, Asians are erased pretty frequently when it comes to Hollywood sci-fi adaptations. Firefly, the Star Wars series, and Blade Runner all heavily rely on Asian aesthetics to convey a futuristic feel, and yet there are no Asians in lead roles. Cloud Atlas was about souls reincarnating into any body regardless of race, and yet most of the actors were white, which led them to yellowface when one of the plotlines took place in future Korea. Ex Machina abused and quite literally skinned its Asian robots. The live-action Ghost in the Shell cast Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi. And Battle Angel Alita had a shortlist of four actresses, none of whom were Asian, to play the lead character.
Hollywood definitely has a history of erasing Asians in stories that should reasonably have Asians, and choosing to adapt Altered Carbon felt like a clever way for them to continue doing the same ol’ but without the criticism of whitewashing.
This ate at me, so I decided to just read the first novel and see the Takeshi/Ryker dynamic for myself.
And y’all. Kinnaman should not have been cast. This is still a case of Hollywood whitewashing.
Why? Because the novel is entirely about Takeshi — his mind, memories, and feelings, as well as his distinctly Japanese cultural experiences. The novel goes to great lengths to differentiate between Takeshi’s consciousness and the body he’s inserted into — a vitally important distinction considering he’s inserted into more than one throughout the course of the book. Takeshi is the core of the story; Ryker might as well just be a suit he puts on and happens to wear the most.
By making it more about the body than the soul, I would argue that the adaptation has already missed the point of the novel, before it’s even begun.
Does that sound too harsh? But wait. I come bearing receipts.
To understand the Takeshi/Ryker dynamic I need to explain the body swapping. It’s complicated, so know I’m boiling it down to the bare minimum here. Altered Carbon takes place in the 25th century where humanity has figured out how to store all of human consciousness onto a virtual “stack” in the spine. Because consciousness is now digitized, death is obsolete. As long as their stacks remain undamaged, people can be endlessly “sleeved” into new bodies.
Where do the bodies come from? Well, some are organically grown and others are synthetically made. But it’s the third option that’s the most important: if someone gets sent to prison, only their stack goes; their body, meanwhile, is put on the rack for other people to wear until they get out. (Yes, now’s the time to feel creeped out.)
Takeshi is no stranger to being resleeved. As an intergalactic super soldier, he’s used to being deployed across the galaxy and sleeved into whatever he’s assigned, regardless of how similar it looks to him. It is implied that Takeshi has been in a few bodies before he’s sleeved into the white, middle-aged body of detective Elias Ryker.
Yes, you read that right; Ryker is a middle-aged man. A chain-smoking, middle-aged man with a weather-beaten face and streaks of gray in his hair, so Kinnaman, at 36, is already not “canon.” Hollywood, I see you.
And how do we know Takeshi is not white like Ryker, other than his obvious name? Because he says so.
“I stood there and toweled myself dry, getting used to the face. It was basically Caucasian, which was a change for me.” (pg 41)
“I went to the wall and stared up at the floating sleeve. Slim, hard looking, and brown, with the delicately lifted Japanese eyes on the shelf of unscalably high cheekbones, a thick, straight drift of impenetrably black hair like seaweed in the tank fluid… It was like looking at myself under glass. The self I’d built somewhere in the coils of memory that trail all the way back to childhood. Suddenly I stood, exiled into Caucasian flesh, on the wrong side of the mirror.” (pg 642)
Takeshi is clearly not white, and based on how much he notes the change, I would argue that even if he’s only biracially Asian, he’s not remotely white passing, either.
And for the record, other than a few lines like this, Ryker’s whiteness is not integral to the story. I personally like how the novel plays with Takeshi rejecting the whiteness, but the Ryker sleeve could just as easily have been a middle-aged Asian man, and in fact it would make sense if it was, considering that Ryker lives in an ethnically diverse, future San Francisco. It would still not change the body dysphoria that Takeshi feels because, surprise, it’s still not his original body, and not all Asians look the same!
And then there’s the fact that Takeshi is very much culturally Japanese — something that would’ve been a great step in terms of representation with a Japanese actor, but might feel rather appropriative with a white actor.
Takeshi feels homesickness when he walks by a restaurant that smells of “teriyaki, frying tempura, and the undercurrent of miso.” He spaces out remembering a ramen bar he would frequent. His early memories involve getting caught up in the local yakuza. When he’s unwillingly put on the case, he says he “didn’t ask to join this Noh dance,” Noh being a Japanese masked drama. To explain what the Big Bad of the story reminds him of, he recites a horror story of a Tengu, a Japanese demon. He’s put into a gi to fight in at one point, and at another point mentions that the futuristic armor he’s given feels like “samurai armor.” A character he meets from his past calls him “Takeshi-san” and he notes that she always starts off in Japanese with him to “establish some kind of common ground.”
If they don’t cast an Asian man to co-lead and Kinnaman ends up acting out all these instances, it’s going to be an interesting exercise in how to downplay the fact that he’s going to come off a certain way. There are certain connotations to a white man waxing poetic about all things Japanese, and it is not cute.
And then there’s the fact that Takeshi repeatedly distances himself from the Ryker sleeve throughout the novel, to the point where Ryker’s sleeve becomes something you’re only peripherally aware and reminded of when it causes Takeshi trouble, or when the people around him attempt to engage with Ryker, not realizing someone else is sleeved in.
“I’m not Ryker,” Takeshi snaps numerous times. At one point he speaks and notes that Ryker’s voice sounds “alien to my ears.” There’s a scene where Takeshi actually describes the person in the mirror as “him,” and at the end of it Takeshi notes, “I shifted behind his eyes.”
And then there’s this scene where Takeshi, while drunk, still uses an analogy to make it clear how separate he feels from the Ryker sleeve:
“In a wood-paneled toilet somewhere, I stared into a fragmented mirror at the face I was wearing as if it had committed a crime against me. Or as if I was waiting for someone else to emerge from behind the seamed features.
The mirror didn’t fit its frame; there were pointed jags dug into the plastic edges, holding the star-shaped center precariously in place.
Too many edges, I muttered to myself. None of this fits together.
The words seemed significant, like an accidental rhythm and rhyme in ordinary speech. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to repair this mirror. I was going to cut my fingers to shreds, just trying.
I left Ryker’s face in the mirror.” (pgs 840-841)
The experience of reading Altered Carbon is like playing a first person shooter. You rarely “see” Ryker, other than when the physical body is injured, or when Takeshi walks past a reflective surface. But you’re with, and hear, Takeshi at all times. This works in novel form, where it’s entirely up to you to decide when and how Takeshi versus Ryker materializes in the story — there are certain instances where Ryker is acknowledged more than Takeshi, or when it becomes mind versus body, like when Ryker’s body craves a cigarette but Takeshi doesn’t smoke. That nuance and ability to interpret differently does not apply to such a visual medium like TV. Our mind is not able to superimpose Takeshi over Kinnaman’s face. Unless they cast an Asian man as a co-lead to act out half the scenes, for all intents and purposes this is just another case of a white man playing an Asian character.
The person they should’ve cast first to carry the series is Takeshi, with a white actor as a supporting character who we only glimpse at briefly. Takeshi had sleeves before Ryker, and in the other two books in the series, he certainly has sleeves after Ryker. By prioritizing Ryker over Takeshi, and by announcing a big(ish) name white actor first, they’ve already gone about it backwards. Even if they cast an “original body” Takeshi later, it’s already clear they see this as Kinnaman’s story.
It’s such a terrible missed opportunity, especially in the wake of the Ghost in the Shell casting, as it’s yet another example where people are going to attempt to explain away why an Asian consciousness is being housed in a white body, and why Hollywood can’t really show said Asian.
This is yet another obvious example where an Asian could have reasonably been cast as the lead, and the cinematography could’ve played with that in innovative ways — think how they switch between the sensates in Netflix’s other sci-fi property, Sense8.
And sure, Takeshi is a grade A, stereotypical macho character: incredibly cocky, violent, and oversexed at times. But he’s also equal parts funny, sad, and lost, and he feels deeply protective of the downtrodden and the poor. He’s exactly the type of three-dimensional character that Asians are rarely allowed to be in American TV and films.
And just a note on future castings: Altered Carbon’s main cast in the books is almost entirely comprised of Asian women and one Latina who plays a central role. I don’t want to oversell the novel on this as the way it treats these women varies from mildly to extremely problematic, but it’ll be interesting to see how Hollywood approaches the casting. If the rest of the casting goes the way of Kinnaman, it’ll just be further confirmation that Hollywood ain’t ish.