I remember the first time I saw Shall We Dance?—I was in my very first Japanese class. I was fifteen and ridiculously excited that my Utah high school taught the language. This one thing redeemed moving from California. At the time, I was unapologetically obsessed with all things Japan. Seriously. I wanted to BE Japanese. I hated my stupid blond hair and big nose. I even had this plan to marry an Asian so I would have pretty babies.
Yes, I know it sounds crazy, but I am not kidding.
My sensei played this movie, Shall We Dance?, in class. I'd seen a lot of anime, but this was the first "real people" Japanese movie I'd seen. I loved it. LOVED. I loved it so much I made my parents rent it, which at the time was difficult. The foreign film section at Blockbuster was rather small, but, miracle of miracles, we found it. And I made my WHOLE FAMILY watch it. Guess what? They loved it, too. We adored this movie. It's beautiful, subtle, perfect. The characters are vibrant and real. It's everything a movie should be and still one of my all time favorites.
So you can imagine my rage when I saw this preview years later:
Let's just say I wasn't too happy. For a lot of reasons. The number one being that the original was perfect. Second, the cultural stigma of dancing doesn't quite work in an American setting. Third, they sexed it up. Fourth, they focused more on the Latin dance than the Standard ballroom.
Basically, they took a movie I cherish and turned it into a cheap imitation.
This seems to happen a lot with Asian-based movies. You may have heard about the whitewashing debacles of Dragonball and The Last Airbender, well, now they're planning to butcher Akira as well.
Look, the whitewashing is bad enough, I could spend a whole week talking about just how much it pisses me off. But the sad thing is it's only one symptom of a greater problem: The complete and utter ignorance of this medium and its fans.
I want to talk about this today because I think we as writers can take a lot of lessons away from these seriously bad examples.
1. Know The Audience
The biggest problem with these films is misreading/complete ignorance to their actual audience. It seems like instead of pleasing actual fans—fans who would support the movie and see it multiple times and make all their friends see it and then raise their babies on it—they are trying to reach a more "general" audience.
Obviously, it's not flying because these movies have TANKED. Why? Well, the general audience still didn't care (Shocker!), and they pissed off their actual audience.
Tip: DO NOT PISS OFF YOUR AUDIENCE.
As a long-time lover of Asian culture, it is downright offensive that Hollywood thinks I need to see white people playing clearly Asian roles. Seriously, it makes me extremely angry. People who watch Asian film—of any race, young and old, male and female—watch it because they like Asian culture. I mean, duh? The fans DO NOT want to see white people! We've spent the better part of our lives deliberately seeking non-white film.
Not only that, but we understand Asian themes and tropes—we LIKE them, even. So it becomes incredibly demeaning when Hollywood says stuff like this:
"Oh, no one will get this, we better make it more accessible to American audiences."
"That cultural nuance isn't important. No one will notice if it's gone."
"We need to spice that up, it's too subtle."
When they do this, they offend their audience to no end. They make movies that were once multi-layered and vibrant into shells of their former selves. We KNOW what's missing, and not only that but it's like they're "talking down" to us. They are making completely inaccurate assumptions about what we like.
There is no better way to turn off your audience than to treat them like they are stupid. Same goes in writing.
But let's look at a good example, too: the new Star Trek. Very well-recieved by the fans! Why? Because they nailed their audience. They delivered what was expected, but in a fresh way. And more than that, they respected the heart of the show. They didn't try to make it something else.
2. Respect The Story/World
Let's imagine for a second that Lucas decided to remake the original Star Wars, except Vadar wouldn't be wearing that "silly suit" anymore. He'd be some hot guy without asthma. Would people be mad? Um, yeah, probably. Because that "silly suit" is symbolic of the samurai culture that the Jedi are based on. Duh.
There are some things you just don't touch, you know? That whole don't-fix-what's-not-broken thing. Fans of franchises are extremely passionate about them. There are things they love and don't ever want to change ever. They know every detail. They adore every detail. You mess with key details, and you will be in BIG trouble.
Hollywood seems to get that with some movies, but not at all in the Asian realm.
There's no Snow White without the apple. No Cinderella without the slipper. No LOTR without the One Ring. And for Pete's sake, there's no Dragonball without a spikey-haired Goku! When you're remaking or re-imagining a story, there are some things that you must treat sacredly. It's a matter of respect for the medium. These stories are popular for a reason, and the wrong change can ruin it.
Once again, we can look at Star Trek—the guy in red, ejecting the warp core, etc.—were all nods to treasured details of the Star Trek franchise. The creators understood the world and what it meant to people. They knew people would hate them forever if they made Sulu white.
Just typing that made me nauseous.
3. You Have To Bring It
If you plan to retell a story, whether in film or book, it has to be freaking awesome. It has to improve on the original in some way, otherwise it's pointless. These whitewashed remakes? They bring nothing new, in fact, they destroy what was so great about the original.
Maybe—maybe—I could get past a white cast if the movies were actually good. But they aren't! They completely miss the mark every time. And I think that comes from Hollywood's seeming determination not to respect these movies or their fans on every level. If they took the time to understand, maybe they'd have more success.
It's totally possible to deliver, but they seem determined not to. It seems they forget the success of, say, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, which made no apologies for what it was. And it was awesome. And people loved it. In fact, people outside the expected audience took notice. Not because it was whitewashed. Not because they "dumbed it down for stupid Americans." No, people took notice purely because it was a good movie. Same with Star Trek, which expanded that franchise's fanbase quite a lot (me included). Heck, even Lord Of The Rings could fall into that category.
If you can't do better Hollywood, please, don't bother.