We have numerous examples to draw upon when it comes to North American takes on Japanese culture. There's everything from Memoirs of a Geisha and The Last Samurai to adaptations of Japanese pop cultural icons such as Godzilla and Astro Boy.
They were all skewed towards and adapted for North American or Western-based audiences and perspectives. Consequently, numerous cultural details were often ignored or mangled in translation. While the casting of Chinese stars in a Japanese-based story, such as in Memoirs of a Geisha, may not seem important to the majority of Western audiences, differences in body language, facial expression, and even facial structure are perceptible to Asian audiences and can subtly affect how audience members identify with characters or interpret the story.
When it comes to examples of the reverse, of North American stories told through Japanese film, hardly any come to mind—besides The Vancouver Asahi.
With Japan's dramatic retelling of the historic Vancouver-based Japanese Canadian baseball team that overcame racial discrimination prior the Second World War, we can see an equivalent of Hollywood's cultural adaptation problems, but this time from a Japanese perspective.
The Asahi lead cast was comprised of Japanese actors. While they spoke a dialogue mixture of Japanese and English, they were clearly not native English speakers by their accents, not to mention how limited their English dialogue was (as the Georgia Straight's movie reviewer Ken Eisner also noted).
My father also took issue with the fact that they bowed so much, which he said the nisei, the second generation (his parents' generation), didn't do. (On a rather amusing note, a friend pointed out he saw J-Pop star Kamenashi Kazuya's trademark eyeliner in a closeup shot, which probably wasn't worn by baseball players at that time....)
While their accents may be overlooked by Japanese audiences, North American audiences won't. And while many North Americans may not think much of this detail, the problem is that the generation that these actors were portraying, the nisei, were Canadian-born or Canadian-raised. As they had grown up speaking English, any Japanese accent left was usually residual or detected more in inflection than pronunciation.
In fact, as the National Nikkei Museum's Grace Eiko Thomson pointed out when I interviewed her, there was a language barrier between the issei (first generation), who spoke and read mostly Japanese and knew little English, and the Canadianized nisei, who spoke mostly English and had varying degrees of fluency in Japanese. She said that the baseball team became not only a bridge between Japanese and white Canadians but between the generation gap and cultural divide within Japanese Canadian families, as it brought them together around a common interest.
To be able to identify the characters are Canadians is essential to understanding the injustice of the Internment (which the film ends with). For it was Canadian citizens, not Japanese citizens, who had their rights taken away and deemed enemy aliens. Their loyalty to Canada was in question. To Canadian-born Japanese Canadians, Japan was a foreign country and Canada was home to them, yet they were being treated as if they were foreigners.
However, casting Japanese stars, rather than Japanese Canadian actors, may have been deemed necessary for a Japanese audience. While big-name Japanese stars were obviously necessary for the Japanese box office, a Japanese audience watching Japanese Canadian actors exhibiting Canadian mannerisms and behaviour, not to mention fluent English, could potentially seem too foreign for them to identify with or relate to.
Canadian audiences, due to our sizeable immigrant population, may be more forgiving at hearing heavily accented English spoken. (That doesn't necessarily mean that the white guy in the film with the uneven accent, who appeared to waver between a Canadian and Australian accent, didn't go unnoticed!) But it would help perceptions of these characters to be recognized as Canadians if they displayed authentic Canadian behaviour and speech.
Probably the best solution would have been to have a mix of Japanese and Japanese Canadian actors, and it could have broadened international appeal.
Another sign of the film being tailored toward Japanese audiences is the absence of any white supporting characters.
While there are a few sympathetic white extras who briefly appear with a few lines, none of them are of any significance.
Though this may be a Japanese Canadian story, it's also a story of how a minority group overcame racial divides. Recurring non-Japanese supporting characters (particularly one whose views change over the course of the film) would truly register the impact of that success, as what the baseball team achieved was proving that Japanese Canadians were equals at a time in Vancouver's history when there was racial segregation in theatres, restaurants, and other public spaces and they didn't even have the right to vote.
The film was also shot in Japan, on sets that recreated pre-Second World War Vancouver. Powell Street, which is straight, is incorrectly depicted as curving. (At least there are the mountains in the background though!)
How cultural nuances can affect an audience's reception of a story is something for North American filmmakers to consider when making a film set in another culture or country.
In spite of these points, the film screening not only became a mob scene when fans turned out in droves to see stars Tsumabuki Satoshi and Kamenashi Kazuya striding upon VIFF's red carpet, but it won over audiences here when it made its world premiere at the 2014 Vancouver International Film Festival and was named the winner of the People's Choice Award. In fact, on its last night of its theatrical run at Vancity Theatre (January 8), it was sold out.
For the full story about the team, you can also watch the National Film Board of Canada's documentary Sleeping Tigers: The Asahi Baseball Story, which is free online.
Overall, the Vancouver Asahi story, both the real-life tale and its cinematic adaptation, is an ingenious way to deliver a history lesson about discrimination couched within the success story of an underdog sports team. It's a way of delivering a difficult and sensitive subject within an accessible format.
It's also one that resonates in the present day as the city continues to contend with interracial relations that often lurk beneath the surface. As much social progress as we have made, history always threatens to repeat itself if we don't learn and grow from the appropriate lessons from the past.