Unseen Japan

The Japan You Don't Learn About in Anime.

How Netflix's MANIAC Makes (Some) Strides Melding Cultures

Posted on October 02, 2018 in news, entertainment, movies, tvJay Andrew Allen

Netflix's MANIAC, directed by Japanese-American auteur Cary Joji Fukunaga, melds Japanese and American cultures convincingly. But in other ways, the series still shows how far Hollywood has to go. Pictured above: Mariko Kai and Sally Field. (Picture: Screencap from series)

One aspect of modern life that I believe remains underappreciated and unabsorbed is the fact that we now have free access to each others' cultures. Worldwide travel means you can pack a bag and be anywhere in the world in a matter of days. The Internet means you can not only talk to people thousands of miles away, but read the same books and news and see the same movies and TV shows that they do. I don't think we've even scraped the surface for the potential of cross-border cultural and linguistic melding. After 100 or more years of such cross-cultural sharing, what will our culture look like? Our language? Our children? In many ways, we stand at the precipice of a brave new world.

Of course, this potential is also fraught with peril. One is cultural appropriation, in which artifacts of a culture are used as props by white people, who otherwise deride their use by actual descendants of the culture as "too ethnic" or "tribal". (Think dreadlocks.) The other issue gaining hordes of attention lately is whitewashing, where great stories are adapted from Japanese and other cultures, but the characters and settings are "whitened" to appeal to the US demographic, with much of the story's cultural uniqueness lost in the process. Both the US movie adaptation of Ghost in the Shell and the horrific Netflix adaptation of the wonderful anime series Death Note garnered loud boos from the anime fandom and Asian-American communities for not even bothering to look for Asian leads.

Despite this, other major adaptations of Japanese works are on the horizon, such as Your Name (君の名は, kimi no na wa), last year's breakthrough animated movie that became the fourth highest grossing film of all time in Japan. At The Mary Sue, Princess Weekes wonders how Hollywood is going to handle not just the casting, but the story, which is intricately tied to Japanese mythology and interwoven with Shinto religious practice. Sadly, given recent history, the answer is shaping up to be: not well. Not well at all.

(EN) Link: Princess Weekes @ The Mary Sue on Your Name and Whitewashing

Before Adapting Your Name Hollywood Needs to Deal With Its Asian Problem

It was with this background that I began to watch Netflix's new series, Maniac. While I don't watch much English language TV these days, one of the cast members - Mariko Kai - is an Instagram acquaintance of mine, and I learned about it from her photo feed. Mariko emigrated from Japan to New York to pursue an acting career, and her work on Maniac is a huge opportunity for her. (Below is a set of photos from Mariko's Instagram from the release party. Spot the celebs!)

View this post on Instagram

Maniac Red carpet. A big step to my dream. I'm surrounded by amazing people. . 今日から公開されるNetflix マニアックのプレミアに招待されてレッドカーペットを歩きました❤️ ニューヨークに来て4年、こんな日がこんなに早く来るなんて夢のようです。 いつも応援してくれる皆さんと、優しい監督やキャストに感謝の気持ちでいっぱいです🙏🏻 まだまだ頑張ります! ちなみにこのキャリーフクナガ監督は次の007の監督をするそうです😉! . #redcarpet #Maniac #premiere #ネットフリックス #マニアック #レッドカーペット #carryfukunaga #キャリーフクナガ監督

MARIKO KAIさん(@marikokai.actor)がシェアした投稿 -

I watched a few episodes, and plan to watch the rest soon, as I find it both perplexing and intriguing. The show plays with traditional dramatic narrative structures by melding a traditional, linear narrative with a psychological, dream-like one that takes place, over the span of several episodes, entirely in the protagonists' heads. It can be hard to follow at times, and requires a skill most American television viewers long ago abandoned: concentration. It's funky and experimental and fun to watch.

But I was most surprised to see Maniac do something I haven't seen done effectively since Big Hero 6: It melds US and Japanese culture in an intriguing, non-derogatory way. In Big Hero 6, this took the form of San Fransokyo, a version of San Francisco that emerged (in the writers' imagination) from the ruins of the 1906 earthquake. Maniac doesn't seem to have an overarching narrative behind its esthetic (at least, not as far as I can tell five episodes in), but it comes across as a highly technological society that, design-wise, is still stuck in the 1970s. A Japanese esthetic dominates, and in the Japanese-controlled corporation where much of the series' dramatic progression occurs, Japanese language signage can be found adorning the walls. Many of the senior staff working for the corporation are Japanese, and feature actors of Japanese heritage, including Japanese-British actress Sonoya Mizuno, and Rome Kanda, a Japanese comedian who lives and works in the US.

Scene from Netflix's MANIAC with Japanese writing on the walls
The writing on the wall reads, "Destiny can be changed" (運命は変えられます).

Of course, I'd be remiss not to note director Cary Joji Fukunaga, the lauded director of True Detective, and the son of a third-generation Japanese-American father. I have no first-hand knowledge of the mechanics behind the scenes, but I can't help to think that Fukunaga's heritage led him to fight for this unique vision, and to get significant screen time for several gifted Asian and Asian-American actors.

With all that said, this is still typical Hollywood: a show that, no matter its Japanese influence, is still helmed by two white stars - Emma Stone and Jonah Hill. This isn't a knock against Stone or Hill, who give excellent performances. In particular, Hill is fascinating to watch as Owen Milgrim, a tender, damaged soul who's cursed with one of the most rapacious and backstabbing families this side of the Sopranos. He's even more fun to watch as Milgrim and his partner-in-crisis, Annie Landsberg (Stone), enter a psychological dreamscape where they inhabit the lives of characters who range across the social spectrum. I hope Hill continues to seek out meaty roles like this in the future, because he's a joy to watch.

Still, I can't help but see more of Hollywood's bias toward white leads behind this decision. Remember, this is the industry where someone tried to convince Crazy Rich Asians author Kevin Kwan that his story would be oh so much better with a white female lead. (Kwan, for reasons that should be obvious even to an amoeba on the cusp of self-awareness, refused.)

['Hollywood initially wanted “Crazy Rich Asians” to cast a white lead actress']
['Kevin Kwan, author of "Crazy Rich Asians," tells Terry Gross about his firsthand experience with Hollywood whitewashing.']

Additionally, I need to take a minute to rant on something that may be slight, but still annoys me: Maniac is not available with either Japanese subtitling or dubbing. This seems unusual, given that Netflix has not only been producing a range of great Japanese native language content - from the reality show Terrace House to the anime Knights of Sidonia to dramas like Switched - but has also been making much of its popular English language content, such as Luke Cage and Stranger Things, available with both JP dubs and subs for the Japanese market. I'm sure this was a pure business decision on Netflix's part that the offbeat Maniac might not play well in the country, but still - it's odd that a show with Japanese culture and language wedded throughout the story can't even get a measly subtitle track. [NOTE: A reader in Japan notes that these are available for Japan Netflix users, so I stand corrected. However, it would be good for these to be made available internationally for the sake of the Japanese expat community.]

It's great to see a cast include more than a token representation of Asian actors. But when will we see more shows and movies like Asians that aren't afraid to let Asian leads hog the limelight? Sadly, I think this might be a battle my grandkids' generation find themselves still fighting.