Netflix’s Altered Carbon and Asian Consciousness in White Bodies

A few weeks ago it was announced that Netflix is adapting Richard K. Morgan’s 2002 sci-fi novel Altered Carbon, and that the main character, Takeshi Kovacs, will be played by Joel Kinnaman.

© Brian To/

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.

Blade Runner © Warner Bros. Ent.

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.

tumblr_inline_ne84rqccJB1qlhvpzTo 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 Carbons 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.

28 thoughts on “Netflix’s Altered Carbon and Asian Consciousness in White Bodies

  1. Really nice post, just discovering your guys’ blog and I’m a fan! Do you ever share your work on any film sites?

  2. I like the actor who played Robocop on the reboot and he was in The Killing but I will NOT support this film at all due to the “whitewashing.” I have learned to be stingier with my dollars and not so apt to run an go see any and every sci-fi, space fantasy, drama, action pic, or super hero flick if it engages in outright whitewashing.

    NO MORE. (Although that movie Snowpierecer could have fallen in that category it had good Asian representation in the film even though it starred Chris Evans.)

  3. well what should be done for the adaptation is to cast a japanese man for takeshi as the lead. then when he is in other bodies we the viewers would be shown the body he is getting into (in this case a white man) but once takeshi is inside we see him as takeshi. there is this little show called quantum leap that did this same thing for YEARS. he would go from body to body and except for when he would look in a mirror we would see the lead actor playing all these different people. movies have done it too like the film r.i.p.d and im sure many more. so why not do it for this show? cause white hollywood be feeling themselves. white washed 100%

  4. Tricky. There is a way they could’ve gone about this. In that Ryan Reynolds film, RIPD, he is reincarnated into the body of an old Asian man. To the world, he looks like an old Asian man, but to the audiences, he looks like Ryan Reynolds. They could’ve done a similar casting. In the film wherein he stares into the mirror, or when someone is looking at him, they could show the white face, but they could’ve cast an Asian man in the role.

    This is awful. The lack of imagination (though I believe it’s deliberate on their part. If they managed to keep Reynolds white, though he’s in the body of an Asian man, then why not keep Takeshi Asian though he’s in the body of a white man?

  5. Yes, I read and loved the Altered Carbon series, and was excited when I heard they were going to make a movie, but that was when I was naive enough to think that an Asian man would get the role. Boy!is there pie on my face!

    I’m getting pretty stingy with my money too and I’m already not interested in paying money to see this.

    1. Yes, Ikeke35, when Hollywood pulls moves like this it sends a message loud and clear that somehow Asian actors are not banakable. BOO! (Not true.) And just how the hell is an Asian actor supposed to gain a foothold when no one casts Asians in lead roles? This does not happen with white actors. Someone takes a chance, gives them a shot or two or even three and they put them up there on the marquee and let the audience goers decide. This disparate treatment really sux like a roomba.

      1. In some cases white actors keep getting chance after chance after chance, until the public accepts them as a star..Notice how there’s been almost no WoC represented in heroic films (i cant even think of any Latinas in heroic movies) but we keep getting ScarJo and JLaw in everything.
        Any one of the movies they keep shoving these actors into could have been starred an Asian woman.

        I’m getting the impression that Hollywood just hates Asians and Latinx.

      2. Agree, Ikeke35! Can you imagine JLO playing Wonder Woman or better yet Fawn or Dyna Morisi of the FEMFORCE? Recall Dyna Morisi (Rayda) was a former United States soldier who was mutated in the 1990s, while involved in Operation Desert Storm.

        Can you imagine an all or partial WoC FEMFORCE? That would be da bomb!

        Who would you cast for the following 16 or so roles?

        Miss Victory: Real Name: Joan Wayne. Powers: Superhuman strength, flight and invulnerability. Based on the original Golden Age Miss Victory. Team leader.
        She Cat: Real name: Jessica Hunt. Powers: Enhanced strength with advanced agility and reflexes. Based on the Harvey Comics version of Black Cat.
        Nightveil: Real Name: Laura Wright. Powers: Sorcery, flight, dimensional travel. Originally a gun-toting heroine named Blue Bulleteer. The Blue Bulleteer identity is based on the Fox Feature Syndicate version of Phantom Lady (not to be confused with the Quality Comics/DC Comics character of the same name).
        Rio Rita: Real Name: Rita Farrar. A spy from Spain, she retired and was eventually succeeded by her granddaughter. She had no powers. Based on Fiction House’s Senorita Rio.
        Synn: Real name: Silva Synn. Powers: Illusions, flight, matter manipulation.
        Tara: Real name: Tara Fremont. Powers: Size changing, ability to communicate with animals. Inspired by a number of Jungle Girl characters of the 1940s and 1950s.
        Rayda: Real name: Dyna Morisi. Powers: Electricity manipulation, enhanced reflexes.
        Stardust: Real name: Dr. Mara. Powers: Flight, superhuman strength, energy bolts.
        Colt: Real name: Valencia Kirk. Powers: Espionage, weapons technology. Temporarily took over as team leader after the original Miss Victory became the villainess Rad; was later replaced as team leader when Joan Wayne’s daughter, Jennifer, became the new Ms. Victory.
        Firebeam: The ghost of a woman killed in a house fire, whose spirit can now control fire.
        Ms. Victory: Real name: Jennifer (Wayne) Burke. Daughter of the original Miss Victory, Joan Wayne. Later became the anti-heroine Rad. Powers: Superhuman strength, flight and invulnerability.
        Dragonfly: Real name: Nancy Arazello. Powers: Superhuman strength, telekinesis and flight.
        Thunderfox: A fictional comic book character brought to life by Nightveil’s magic. Later fades from existence when her comic is cancelled. Powers: Superhuman strength and invulnerability.
        Other notable characters:
        Garganta: Real name: Carol Heisler. Powers: Size-changing, telepathy. Originally an enemy, later made an auxiliary Femforce member.
        Yankee Girl: Real name: Lauren Mason. Powers: Flight, superhuman strength, invulnerability. Based on the original Golden Age Yankee Girl.
        Fem Paragon – A fascist tyrant from another dimension and leader of the armies of Rur

  6. For those who have not read the book, I think this column amplifies Japanese cultural elements in the book to advocate what is a justified case for more Asian actors in English language movies and series. Maybe this would have been a good series for this, but to imply the book and main character are primarily Japanese in looks and culture-focused distorts somewhat.

    Altered Carbon is a 515 page book which is set over 1,000 years in the future with a hybridized culture appropriate for the distant future (we aren’t living in 1016). Takeshi Kovacs is from a planet colonized hundreds of years ago by people from both Japan and Eastern Europe. Their primary culture is the hybrid culture of the planet they live on, not ours. Everyone is mixed race there–“Takeshi” and “Kovacs”. Takeshi Kovacs’ ancient earth ancestry is part Asian, part Caucasian, but mostly he is a man from another planet who has never been to earth, and is placed in a white man’s ‘skin’ throughout the book. There is a reason for why he is in this particular skin. Existing in someone else’s skin is the MAIN point of the book series. The book is also written by a white Englishman from Cambridge, in English. It’s culturally a lot from white perspective to me.

    Also, other than announcing Kinnaman, not one thing has been described about how this series will work that I know of, and no other casting has been done. Maybe things as speculated by people here will be done, but people are writing as if they already know all about the whole series (inside scoop, anyone?). Kinnaman has a known name within Netflix (The Killing, House of Cards), a big movie (Suicide Squad) and we all know studios will go with known names to announce new projects. Given his known movie series, his time with the series may be limited. But how do you all have knowledge of what won’t be filmed for months yet?

    Kinnaman’s heritage counts for nothing here–the failure to cast Asian-American actors in English language entertainment is what is addressed in this article. But here is ‘Swedish’ Kinnaman’s ancestry from a tumblr site anyway for reference. He is part Eastern European, so the ‘Kovacs’ ancestry part fits. Like Kovacs, he does know upheaval and human suffering, probably more than many of us:

    “His mother is a psychotherapist and is of Ukrainian Jewish descent. Her ancestors left the Ukraine to move to Sweden in the mid-1800’s. Anti-Jewish riots started in 1821 in the Russian Ukraine and pogroms against Jews continued through the mass exterminations of WWII.

    His father is from the USA. He was drafted into but deserted the US Army when he was stationed in SE Asia during the Viet Nam War. He voiced opposition to the war and was being harassed for it. He lived in in SE Asia a couple years after deserting, until he had to flee because the Army was intent on tracking him down. He went to Sweden where he became a notable anti-war activist helping others who immigrated to Sweden because they opposed fighting in the war. He chose to remain in Sweden after receiving US amnesty because he was already raising a family there. Through the years he’s been the subject of a number of articles in US papers about the Viet Nam war and its consequences.

    Joel is married to Cleo Wattenström, a Swedish tattoo artist and model of Greek and Ethiopian descent.”

    1. Spot on. His last name is kovacs. Slavic. He makes a point through out the book when ppl don’t pronounce it correctly.
      The op is over cooking the Asian angle. This is NOT white washing
      I’m looking forward to see how that tackle this series because there are alot of themes worth exploring like the Catholics, gender etc.

  7. You know, Ian Anthony Dale would have been PERFECT for this role (biracial Japanese American) but oh wells. Bang job casting directors, you get a GOLD STAR!

  8. This was super well written – thanks for sharing. Taking the time to be open and do the digging is important, too, in that it helps stay the hands of the reactionary people that want to pretend like whitewashing is something minorities made up to find something “new” to be upset about. This stuff is important and I’m glad this site exists as a place to share thoughts on this (and all other nerd-dom) from voices that aren’t generally heard. In a small way, we’re playing our part in building towards a future where this will be a relic.

    One thing I thought might be interesting – it probably wasn’t intended to be an overt statement, but wouldn’t the potential for the Twin Peaks/RIPD-ish morphing be a powerful, if subtle, statement at whitewashing? I mean, the potential for where this show could go politically would have been great if the, presumably, white creators didn’t just go “this is a dope book about someone from Japan – let’s cast a dude like us!”

  9. Do you think that the in the future live-action adaptation of Pokemon,the main protagonist should be asian,considering it’s a japanese game although it doesn’t take place in japan?

  10. I’m not sure how I feel about this as a concept. Although I’m absolutely all for the fact that whitewashing does occur. I’m not sure it is the case here.

    Tak’s ‘sleeving’ isn’t down to his choice in the first novel. But canon implies that the Riker sleeve is white. Shoehorning an Asian actor in seems like an unecessary choice. That being said, the tech ninja sleeve from later in the novel IS Asian, so there would need to be some suitable casting at that point.

    Here’s the interesting point though: in the second Kovacs novel, Tak where’s a sleeve that is neither white, nor Asian. Indeed the outward appearance is that of a man with an African descent.

    In the third novel, Tak does reside in an Asian sleeve for the majority of the book.

    That Tak takes on the appearance of several races would seem to suggest that there’s no whitewashing going on here. Indeed, the racially diverse cast in all 3 novels would seem to suggest the opposite.

    To criticise the author for being white and educated is somewhat flawed. Morgan being a notoriously liberal left wing writer. The guy has written a fantasy trilogy where his main protagonist was a gay sword wielding warrior.

    Hope you don’t think I’m being to rude here guys, but I think there are legitimate targets for your frustration.

  11. Like Riki101 said, the Quantum Leap mirror trick is one of the oldest in the TV book, and from what you said about Takeshi being the important one in the books, not Ryker, especially given that Takeshi is supposed to use other sleeves, they should have used it here. This casting, as you said, obviously prioritizes Ryker over Takeshi. That and the fact that he’s not middle aged.

  12. Don’t all the film versions of Heaven Can Wait (including Chris Rock’s version “Down to Earth”) feature the “inner” person as the star over the actor that plays the “outer skin?” Not sure why this film would take a different tact.

    I mean, other than the obvious reasons.

  13. Read the book. He’s specifically sleeved in Rykers body to spite the lead detective on the case of the missing catholic girl. Her and Ryker are lovers and Bancroft knows this so he leases Ryker’s body for kovac. Ryker is charged with a crime so his body becomes forfeit and can be hired.

  14. I am Asian, I have read the book. I don’t feel like this is a case of Hollywood whitewashing. Apart from the prologue, Kovacs spends the entire book in a white man’s body. That’s how everyone sees him, that’s what he sees in the mirror. If we’re going to be faithful to the book, Kovacs is going to appear white for the entirety of the story. The only time we get to see his Asian appearance would logically be at the start of the story, and if we’re going to insist on it, on any dream sequence or some such thing. You could argue that Kovacs could’ve been put into another Asian body, but then, that’s not what happened in the book, and we wouldn’t have that dichotomy that Kovacs undergoes, his disorientation and unease of being an Asian man placed into a white, foreign body, which we feel throughout the book. This is not whitewashing like casting Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily, or Johnny Depp as Tonto, casting white actors for obviously Asian roles. Casting prioritized Ryker because it’s Ryker’s appearance we get for like 95% of the book. I would like for the show to acknowledge that Kovacs is Asian once in a while by showing him appearing Asian, but it’s not something that’s got to be there every 15 minutes in every episode. Frankly speaking, it doesn’t really make much sense to push for an Asian actor to play Kovacs when in the book he’s an Asian man placed in a white man’s body, and it’s a white man everyone sees. I think, in this case, we’re picking a fight where there isn’t any.

    1. Allya your spot on. Just keep it as close to the book as possible. Riker should be white, Ortega should be Hispanic, and Kovacs should be Asian when he’s not in Rikers body.

  15. They have cast Byron Mann an Asian actor to be Kovacs when he appears in the digital jail (Can’t remember it’s name)

  16. Hmmmm, and who will play the female version of Kovacs when he is being tortured in the virtual world. I would assume that would be an young, middle eastern woman . . . No one has even mentioned that . . .

    1. Yeah if that plays out like the books. it’s going to be f’d up. There’s some full on torture in these books.

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