‘Bullet Train’ Director, Writer and ‘Maria Beetle’ Author Explain Choice to Cast Non-Japanese Actors: The Characters Are “Not Real People”

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The Maria Beetle author, alongside the director and writer of its big screen adaptation Bullet Train, have opened up about the film’s decision to cast non-Japenese actors in the upcoming Sony feature film.

In an interview with The New York Times, author Kōtarō Isaka was asked about how his story — which was originally published in Japan in 2010 and had its English language debut in print last year — has been adapted by Hollywood.

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According to the Times, the author regards his characters as “ethnically malleable,” and maintains his original Japanese setting and context do not matter as much, as the story’s ragtag crew of killers are “not real people, and maybe they’re not even Japanese.”

Bullet Train, Sony’s big screen adaptation of the story about a high-speed rail full of assassins, features a cast of Black, Latino, Asian and white talent from the U.S., U.K. and Japan. That includes Brad Pitt, Sandra Bullock, Michael Shannon, Brian Tyree Henry, Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Andrew Koji, Zazie Beetz, Karen Fukuhara, Hiroyuki Sanada, Masi Oka, Logan Lerman and Bad Bunny.

Sanford Panitch, president of Sony Pictures Entertainment Motion Picture Group, said Isaka’s stance on Bullet Train‘s casting “gave us comfort in honoring its Japanese soul but at the same time giving the movie a chance to get big giant movie stars and have it work on a global scale.”

For Bullet Train screenwriter Zak Olkewicz, the decision to cast beyond Japanese — or even more broadly with different Asian talent — “just shows you the strength of the original author’s work and how this could be a story that could transcend race anyway.”

The decisions around the film’s casting choices have been heavily criticized online, including by Asian American media and cultural groups, who have argued that the movie whitewashes the original story’s ensemble of Japanese assassins by casting non-Japanese actors in many of the film’s most prominent roles. (The exception is Japanese actor Koji, who plays Kimura, one of the main assassins in the movie out in theaters on Aug. 5.)

Speaking to AsAmNews in March, David Inoue, executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League, echoed sentiments that the movie’s casting was an act of whitewashing, as Bullet Train is a story that remains set in Japan and is based around characters that were originally Japanese.

“Foreigners, or gaijin, remain a distinct minority in Japan, and to populate the movie with so many in the leading roles is ignoring the setting,” he said, before speaking to how the film undermines recent progress made in Hollywood around casting Asian and Asian American talent. “This movie seeks to affirm the belief that Asian actors in the leading roles cannot carry a blockbuster, despite all the recent evidence indicating otherwise, beginning with Crazy Rich Asians and extending to Shang Chi.”

While speaking to the New York Times, Bullet Train director David Leitch noted that a discussion around whether to keep the story in Isaka’s original setting of Tokyo was broached, but he ultimately decided that “Tokyo is as international of a city as anywhere.”

“We had conversations like, ‘Maybe it could be Europe, maybe it could be a different part of Asia,'” Leitch said. “Where could we see all these international types colliding?”

And while the movie remains set in Japan, it wasn’t actually filmed in Tokyo due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, it was captured on a sound stage, shifting it into “Japan’s future or like a Gotham City,” according to Isaka, who says he was “relieved” Bullet Train is now based in “a world that people don’t know.”

As for how the movie features its Japanese characters, according to the Times, Olkewicz said the team worked to “preserve” the three generations of one Japanese family featured in Isaka’s novel — though they are not at the center of the film like many of the other characters are.

“People who haven’t necessarily seen the movie will be surprised to find out that the plot pretty much kind of is about the Japanese characters and their story lines getting that resolution,” Olkewicz said. “We were all really aware and wanted to make it super inclusive and international.”

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