The question is: How can you have a film set in Japan and have the central characters be White or Black? “Bullet Train”* never convincingly explains this although the film’s script desperately tries. I seriously wonder if either the director or screenwriter did due diligence in their research of Japan or just wanted an exotic background here one could be unconcerned about the carnage. That seems to say in so many ways that East Asian lives don’t matter. The catastrophic casting is unfortunate because this could have been a good action film if one didn’t care about the larger issues. But I have lived in Japan, I have cousins who still live there and I have been on the Shinkansen.
The characters** for this film based on a Japanese novel that is still set in urban Japan are as follows:
- American actor Brad Pitt is Ladybug, an American assassin
- American actor Joey King, 23, is Prince, a British assassin posing as a schoolgirl.
- English actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who is Jewish, is Tangerine, a British assassin.
- African American actor Brian Tyree Henry is Lemon, Tangerine’s associate.
- Japanese British actor Andrew Koji, who previously played a Chinese man in “Warrior,” is Yuichi Kimura, a Japanese assassin.
- Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada is Kimura’s father.
- American actor Michael Shannon is White Death, the leader of a criminal organization.
- Puerto Rican actor Benito A Martinez Ocasio (aka “Bad Bunny”) is The Wolf a Mexican assassin.
- American actor Sandra Bullock is Maria Beetle, Ladybug’s handler.
- Berlin-born African American Zazi Beetz is Hornet, an American assassin
- American actor Logan Lerman is White Death’s son.
- Japanese actor Masi Oki is a conductor on the train.
The film begins with Ladybug (Brad Pitt) getting introduced to his new code name. He’s shambling through what is supposedly Tokyo, on his way to the beginning point of the “Yukari,” a Shinkansen (“Bullet Train”) that runs between Tokyo and Kyoto. Ladybug is talking to his handler, Maria Beetle (Sandra Bullock). Ladybug considers himself singularly unlucky, many of his “easy-peasy” assignments have deadly complications although Ladybug seems to help out people in the end. He’s an assassin with a heart, with a therapist who doesn’t know what his line of work is and with quotes that seem derived from some Zen-adjacent philosophy. His first mishap is losing the key to a locker after running into a scruffy Japanese man, Kimura (Andrew Koji). Via the locker, Maria provides Ladybug with his requested work supplies. He still gets into the locker at the station, but, despite Maria’s insistence, he decides not to take the gun.
Ladybug’s mission is to get a silver combination briefcase with a train sticker on its handle and get off at the next station. He finds the briefcase, but he’s detained.
The briefcase was brought on to the train by Tangerine and Lemon, who are supposedly twins in a way that is forced binary Black and White diversity humor. Taylor-Johnson is White-passing Jewish. Henry is African American. Tangerine decided to stow the briefcase with the other luggage in an unattended area of their railcar. The case holds the ransom money that the White Death paid for his son who had been kidnapped. Tangerine and Lemon sprang the relatively useless son and are taking him to Kyoto to handover. However, when Tangerine and Lemon look for the briefcase, it’s gone and when they return to the son, he’s dead.
Obviously, this means that Ladybug will be pursued by Lemon and Tangerine, but these three aren’t the only assassins on this train. And then there’s the man, Kimura, who inadvertently caused Ladybug to drop the key. He’s also on this train, taking to his father, the Elder ( Hiroyuki Sanada), looking for the person who pushed his only child off of the department store roof, the Prince (Joey King).
Director David Leitch (“Deadpool 2” and “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw”) keeps the plot clear despite the furious and sometimes fantastical, inventive action scenes. The dark humor mostly works and there’s wit and clarity in Jonathan Sega’s cinematography (“Deadpool 2” and “Transformers: The Last Knight”) , but the sense of place is never quite there and that’s mostly because of the questionable casting. The soundtrack attempts to be clever, but I also found it jarring and after a little internet research, disturbing. Further, the decision to change the gender of “The Prince” impressed me as a continuing inability for White (and to a certain extent Black) men to deal with baby-faced East Asian men. Sara Evelyn’s costume design and King’s too mature appearance (King is 23) already sets her up a manipulator who definitely is too far past the age of uniformed schoolgirlness. Her clothes do not resemble what one usually associates with Japanese school uniforms and the skirt length insinuates that King’s character is determined to excite male fantasies of school girls.
The blinding binary of White and Black (plus Latino) diversity makes you wonder why they decided to keep this bullet train in Japan. There was definitely an opportunity missed when the Latin American connection has nothing to do with Japanese immigrants and instead, a Latino who does not appear to be of East Asian descent (and his family) is introduced. Why not Japanese Brazilians or Japanese Peruvians? Or even Japanese Mexicans? Instead, the option chosen is non-East Asian Latinos.
Even the annoyed Shinkansen passenger is White (Nancy Daly). There are a lot of East Asian sounding names listed under uncredited cast as well as stunt performers. That seems to effectively make the majority of cast members of East Asian descent decorative set pieces and cinematic canon fodder. Asian lives are cheap in this film.
There are other high-speed trains in other countries. This diversity casting would make more sense on the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) which I also have ridden on in France. The LGV Nord (Ligne à Grand Vitesse Nord) goes from Paris-Nord to Calais and commonly carries tourists. The plot could keep the element of organized crime, but would have to drop the samurai swords unless the writer decided to invent a Japanese martial arts dojo and the casting director wouldn’t even have to think East Asian for the dojo leader in France or the UK.
When I was an exchange student in Japan, I took the Shinkansen down to visit my maternal relatives in Osaka a few times. I’m familiar with the route although I have not been on the train since 2014 when I last visited my cousins there, traveling from Tokyo down to Osaka and then to Fukuoka. Just this weekend, I’ve given my husband a good reason to visit Japan. Riding the Shinkansen usually means that the passengers are predominately Japanese or at least East Asian. White and Black people stick out. I’m not sure if you’d want to send an assassin that would be the center of attention for either their height or their race or their linguistic problems.
Last year, after watching “Hit-Monkey,” I began to wonder how these assassins who seem to have no linguistic talents can work as assassins when they don’t know the language. “Hit-Monkey” has a very White person with minimal education as a hitman in Japan. He is part of a failed political coup and ends up in the Japanese wilderness amongst a troop of Japanese macaques. Yet I wondered: Just how can he drive around Japan?
I’ve gotten around Japan, before and after I learned the language. You think driving in Los Angeles is hard, you have no idea what it would be like in Japan, particularly older areas like Kyoto or crowded urban areas like Tokyo. With “Bullet Train,” this is just one of the problems with this specific binary Black and White diversity casting. I am never convinced that the White and Black characters can speak Japanese, that they could stealthily navigate Japan without attracting attention to themselves even when they are ordering food. The script doesn’t add those linguistic ticks of people who are fluent in Japanese and English (including the pronunciation of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka) and code-switch between the two with varying success and fluency.
Others have made issue with the casting before the film was out and the answers have already been published.
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The New York Times reported:
In writing “Maria Beetle,” a thriller about multiple assassins trapped on the same high-speed train, Isaka created a motley crew of characters who are “not real people, and maybe they’re not even Japanese,” Isaka, 51, said during a recent interview in the lounge of a hotel restaurant not far from his home and just steps from the local shinkansen — or bullet train — station. The novel, which was originally published in Japan, debuted in English last year.
“I don’t have any feeling of wanting people to understand Japanese literature or culture,” Isaka said. “It’s not like I understand that much about Japan, either.”
Turning Isaka’s novel into an American-style action movie with a mixed cast from the United States, Britain and Japan was part creative license, part business decision. Despite the popularity of manga graphic novels and anime cartoons outside Japan, few live-action movies or television shows with all-Japanese casts have become international hits in recent years. Unlike global phenomena from South Korea like “Squid Game” and “Parasite,” Japan has enjoyed art-house acclaim for films like the recent Oscar winner “Drive My Car” and the Cannes Palme d’Or-anointed “Shoplifters,” but rarely international box office success.
Writer Motoko Rich makes an unfair comparison here. “Squid Game” and “Parasite” are a more accessible genres. “Squid Game” is a bloody survival drama. “Parasite” is a black comedy thriller. Both involve a slight trespass into the horror genre with gory deaths. “Drive My Car” is a drama inspired by the short stories of Haruki Murakami and you need to be familiar with “Uncle Vanya” to better understand it. Does anything scream art house film more than a film that draws on the work of a dead foreign playwright? And I mean not only foreign to North Americans, but foreign to the film’s land of origin, Japan. Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) wrote “Uncle Vanya” in 1897. We’re talking Victorian era literary references.
“Shoplifters” is a drama about a poor family. Neither “Shoplifters” nor “Drive My Car” involve multiple murders. As a family-focused drama, “Shoplifters” is more like the 2019 Chinese American film “The Farewell” or the 2020 Korean American film “Minari” except the American productions were based on real experiences. In the Japanese film, the family is makeshift. It’s a small human drama.
Japan did produce an internationally influential horror series. The novels of Koji Suzuki are a different kind of ring cycle than Wagner. The first book was published in 1991 and was adapted into a film by Hideo Nakata in 1998. The cast included Hiroyuki Sanada. The American version, directed by Gore Verbinsky, was released in 2002 and has spawned sequels. The global reach of Netflix which started in 1997–only a year after the Japanese film “Ring” premiered–is largely responsible for the success of “Squid Game.” It’s somewhat noteworthy that Hiroyuki Sanada has a major role in the original Japanese “Ring” film.
“Squid Game” benefited from the Netflix international production and algorithms. There are no international stars in the TV streaming series “Squid Game.” A Hollywood production company like Columbia Pictures didn’t gamble with “Squid Game.” It was a production company, Siren Pictures, founded in 2011 by Kim Ji-yeon. “Parasite” was produced by Barunson E&A, the entertainment division of Barunson, a South Korean company. Again, this wasn’t a Hollywood or American company that decided to champion an Asian production with an all-Asian cast. For that reason, Rich’s comparison doesn’t make sense.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, screenwriter Zak Olkewicz said the decision to cast non-Japanese actors “just shows you the strength of the original author’s work and how this could be a story that could transcend race anyway.” I don’t buy that. That statement reeks of White privilege. The setting is Japan. The suggestion of Olkewicz’s script is that a White race infiltrates a Japanese crime organization. And, as with the “Black Panther,” that White people and Black people can cause destruction in a highly trafficked, high-end place without much interference by the East Asian people there. In “Black Panther,” it was a secret high society gambling den. It’s as if East Asian cultures are too easy to understand and glide through for these White and Black assassins. Students of Korean (“Black Panther”) and Japanese who have actually lived in Japan or South Korea might feel differently. I do. As a woman, I found traveling alone in Japan extremely safe compared to New York and Paris.
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The author of the original novel (“Maria Beetle), Kôtarô Isaka, is no doubt happy to be able to sell his story, but he’s not a minority in Japan. Yet he doesn’t feel the constant anti-Asian sentiment in American and British films. He is an outsider to the US culture which produced the film “Bullet Train.”
Granted there are even people of East Asian descent who don’t care if their story becomes whitewashed as with the 2008 heist drama “21.” For the film, the main characters were White but the film was inspired by the true story of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Blackjack Team. In real-life, the team members were mainly East Asian American. The producer wrote, “Believe me, I would have LOVED to cast Asians in the lead roles, but the truth is, we didn’t have access to any bankable Asian-American actors that we wanted.” I’m guessing he probably now regrets casting the very White Kevin Spacey and I don’t believe him.
Somehow, director James McTeigue gathered up enough people of Asian descent to make the 2009 “Ninja Assassin,” with K-pop musician Rain in the lead role. Rain was also in the 2008 “Speed Racer.” Another possible link to K-pop fandom would have been the casting of American-born Jay Park (박재범; Hanja: 朴載範) in “21.”
Moreover, it’s as if “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” never hit the screens in 2000. It seems disingenuous to suggest that the reason for the success of “Squid Game” and “Parasite” is because they are Korean. That doesn’t explain the previous success of the 1993 “The Joy Luck Club” or Ang Lee’s film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” was based on a 1940s book of the same name and produced by Columbia in conjunction with other production companies. “The Joy Luck Club” was produced by Hollywood Pictures, adapted from Amy Tan’s book of the same name.
With a really great story, you don’t need an A-list actor in the title role. Ang Lee’s film “Life of Pi” featured a relative unknown actor, Asian Indian actor Suraj Sharma, in the title role. “Life of Pi” was adapted from a French-Canadian author ‘s eponymous book and the film was produced by 20th Century Fox.
If “The Joy Luck Club” and “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” are too far in the past, what about the 2018 “Crazy Rich Asians”? That film wasn’t produced by one of the traditional Hollywood companies, but it was distributed by Warner Bros. What about Marvel’s 2021 “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”? And what about this year’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once”? Does anyone want to suggest that a Japanese cast would fail where a Chinese or Korean cast would not? We are going to get a predominately Japanese cast for the remake of an adaptation of a White British (James Clavell) author’s novel: “Shogun.” The lead protagonist is, as with Tom Cruise’s 2003 “The Last Samurai,” White: Cosmo Jarvis. Hiroyuki Sanada has a major role in that limited series.
But to address the kind of racism in the production of the film “Bullet Train,” I’d like to propose a different scenario. A Black South African author writes a story about a high-speed train between Pretoria, Johannesburg and Durban. Chinese banks provided a loan for the railroads. The focus is on several generations of Black people in Johannesburg and their relationship and dealings with the Chinese bankers. The story is bought by an American production company and set in Sub-Saharan Africa, but all the main characters are played by White people. Even the bankers are played by White people. Would people, including Black people, be okay with it? And if people objected, would they only object to the whitewashing of the Black people?
I understand that these characters in “Bullet Train” are not real, but other characters that aren’t real are Black Panther or Blade or Black African Vikings. Things that are real are black Asian Vikings and MIT students of Asian descent who had a Blackjack team and that the majority of riders on the Tokyo-Kyoto Shinkansen are not Black or White.
With the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes, theoretically spurred by the association of COVID-19 with China, I would conclude that a large number of people in the US and elsewhere don’t differentiate between East Asians and even East Asians and Pacific Islanders who could pass for East Asian. The original novel being Japanese really shouldn’t be such a deterrent from casting Japanese actors, particularly since it wasn’t Hollywood’s usual players behind the casting and production of “Parasite” and “Squid Game.”
The curious change of the Prince’s gender makes me think this is tied of White perceptions of East Asian men. If I used a Bruce Lee Litmus test, the film’s casting becomes murkier. Bruce Lee was about 26 when he played Kato in the TV series “The Green Hornet” (1966-1967). That’s only three years older than King. In 1987, Johnny Depp was 24 when he began “21 Jump Street.” Dustin Nguyen was just a year older than Depp. Lee was 5-foot-8 and 141 lbs. Tom Holland is about the same height and weight. You might wonder where I’m going with this.
Would Bruce Lee be cast in the remake of “Kung Fu”? No, that role when to an Asian American woman, Olivia LIang. Likewise, in “Bullet Train,” if we overlooked that Lee was Chinese and not Japanese, could Bruce Lee be cast in the role of an assassin who looks like a schoolboy? No. That went to a White woman, Joey King. Are there Japanese and East Asian men with followings that could pass for a schoolboy and have movement training? Certainly, if one drew from J-pop and K-pop.
Let’s not forget that the boyish Tom Holland can be a superhero as Spider-man and an adventurer as Nathan Drake in Columbia Pictures “Uncharted, ” but could a current day Bruce Lee? I think not.
The MVP for API representation is a twofer–both Black and Pacific Islander and he’s 6-foot-5 Dwayne Johnson. Dave Bautista and Jason Momoa are both is 6-foot-4. Bruce Lee was taller than Tom Cruise. If you want to object and remind me that Lee had an accent, so did Argentine actor Fernando Lamas and Mexican actor Ricardo Montalbán. And so does Hiroyuki Sanada in the film in question, “Bullet Train.” Goodness. This is California. This is 2022. Jackie Chan had an animated series for five years (2000-2004), “Jackie Chan Adventures.” We had a governor with an Austrian accent (Arnold Schwarzenegger). The accent isn’t the problem. The prejudice toward the people with a specific accent is.
You might want to protest that few East Asian actors have proven talent and that means you probably missed Andrew Koji’s “Warrior” which also features Dustin Nguyen. Yet Tony Award-winner BD Wong is about the same height as Kevin Hart. Hart was featured in two action comedy films: the 2019 “Jumanji: The Next Level” and the 2022 “The Man from Toronto.” Did the writers of “Jurassic Park” or “Jurassic World” stop and think: We have this major talent. Maybe we should center a story about him. No. They continued to focus on White characters and brought in people of Sub-Saharan African descent to play new characters for diversity in the 2022 “Jurassic World Dominion.” Ke Huy Quan is the same height as both Wong and Hart. Quan had stopped acting due to lack of opportunities until he was inspired by the success of “Crazy Rich Asians” to return. I don’t think it is a matter of coincidence that one of “The Daniels” ( “Everything Everywhere All at Once”) is of Chinese descent (Daniel Kwan 關家永).
If you want to question the popularity or attractiveness of East Asian men, including those with baby faces and more slender body types closer to Tom Holland than Dwayne Johnson, remember that in 2019, BTS performed a sold out concert at the Pasadena Rose Bowl and made Time’s list of the 25 most influential people on the internet (2017-2019) and were on the 100 most influential people in the world list for 2019. There’s even a nice tie in with the title. BTS or Bangtan Sonyeondan (방탄소년단; Hanja: 防彈少年團) literally means “Bulletproof Boy Scouts.” In Japan, BTS are known as Bōdan Shōnenda (防弾少年団) which also translates as “Bulletproof Boy Scouts.”
The casting “Bullet Train” is a symptom of a larger problem: A new kind of racism that defines diversity in terms of Black and White whereas previously racism was defined as Black versus White (despite things like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and various Alien Land Laws) and this new racism allows for underrepresentation and misrepresentation of East Asians in the countries where they are the majority. It allows for opting for White or Black characters where an East Asian character would make more sense (e.g. the Black dojo sensei in “Enola Holmes” ) and it allows for excuses for exclusion.
“Bullet Train” premiered on 1 August 2022 at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.
*The original book title in Japanese is “Maria Beetle.” In English, the title was changed to “Bullet Train.” The word for “bullet” in Japanese is júdan (銃弾). The word used in the promotional posters for “Bullet Train” is Dangan ressha (弾丸 列車). Dangan also means “bullet.” Ressha means “train.” However, the train that in English that is commonly called the Bullet Train is pronounced in Japanese “Shinkansen” (新幹線). “Shin” means “new.” “Kan” means “stem” or “tree trunk” and “sen” means “line.”
**This is 12 people. Five are White. That’s 42 percent of the top cast. One is Jewish. One is Latino. That’s 8 percent each. Two people are Black for 17 percent. Three people are of Japanese descent for 25 percent. According to Diversity Abroad, the ethnic make up Japan’s population is: “Japanese 98.1%, Chinese 0.5%, Korean 0.4%, other 1% (includes Filipino, Vietnamese, and Brazilian) (2016 est.)” Further, “in 2015, less than 2% of the Japanese population included foreign-born nationals, but many Japanese are concerned with the amount of Japanese leaving Japan for jobs overseas.” That’s not including Sandra Bullock.