Naoki Urasawa’s Monster at HBO: an opportunity for progressive casting

Deadline has revealed that HBO and director Guillermo del Toro are developing a series adaptation of Naoki Urasawa’s manga thriller series Monster. While intriguing news for existing fans, what’s most significant on an industry level is the possibility of HBO subverting the exclusionary standards for how Asian actors are cast in non-Asian television shows.

But first, the manga. The 18-volume series begins in Düsseldorf, where visiting Japanese doctor Kenzō Tenma chooses, against orders, to save the life of a young boy rather than the mayor. Years later, Tenma learns that the boy, Johan, has grown into a psychopath of immense ambition and influence. With no-one believing his story, Tenma takes it upon himself to discover Johan’s origins and take him down.

Although I’d read Akira and watched a lot of anime, Monster was the manga that revealed the medium’s power to me. Urasawa is such a fine artist, each panel precisely composed but still bursting with life. Manga tends to be more propulsive and streamlined than American comics, and Urasawa’s work sets a benchmark for that. His writing is exemplary too, gradually layering in more characters and backstory to complicate and deepen an ostensibly simple story.

Monster is such a towering work in its original form that a live-action adaptation feels somewhat pointless. Nonetheless, I got a buzz when I first read the news, and a long-running Euro-thriller from HBO sounds pretty enticing. And although I doubt it would have quite as wide an appeal as Game of Thrones, Monster‘s mysteries are just as absorbing. Urasawa’s technique of suddenly following new characters and slowly revealing their connection to the larger story would also be a fun alternative to the typically linear approach to serialised television narrative. These stories would simultaneously lend themselves to stand-alone episodes or mini-arcs that would make Monster a tad more accessible than other HBO shows. Plus, Johan could make a sensational villain with a pop culture impact. He’s a silent shark swimming through the narrative, surfacing occasionally to do something alien and unpredictable.

Del Toro’s involvement is encouraging too. Granted, he attaches himself to a lot of projects, but they all have integrity and he champions underdog causes, such as his quest to make not one but two Hellboy films. Most intriguing is that, according to Deadline, del Toro had to doggedly reassure Urasawa of, presumably, the merit of a live-action adaptation and that his manga will be treated respectfully.

This detail is what leads me to wonder whether HBO will go against the conventions of American television and allow the Tenma character to remain Japanese. The series is set almost entirely in Europe, and although Tenma’s nationality is not fundamental to the narrative, to retain it would be even more progressive for that very reason. HBO would be making a powerful statement, given how popular and visible their shows are, that they are willing to provide leading acting opportunities to Asian actors or actors of Asian descent, even when the story doesn’t absolutely demand it. Although Asian actors appear in plenty of supporting roles on TV, I’m hard-pressed to think of many current or even historical examples of American shows with an Asian actor in what is unquestionably the lead role. The best example I can think of is Lucy Liu as the co-lead in Elementary, but doesn’t the character of Watson define ‘second fiddle’?

What would make this statement by HBO even less ambiguous is that the rest of the cast is European. They could quite easily make the entire cast white with only one change: Tenma. If they don’t, that single character throws down the gauntlet for racially diverse casting in Hollywood. Not only is a Japanese actor in the lead, casting them isn’t tokenism either.

And frankly, HBO is in a position of such influence that it is almost incumbent upon them to keep Tenma Japanese if they are the trailblazers they claim to be. They have subverted so many of the paradigms of what audiences expect from television in terms of narrative, characterisation, and production values, that for them to not subvert this one as well would be almost hypocritical.

Innovation and boundary-breaking are part of HBO’s brand. If they capitulate to the focus group thinking that American audiences need a white or, at best, African-American lead – the same thinking that generates the cookie-cutter television they refuse to make – it will undermine that brand entirely. Not to the majority of the audience, sure, who won’t be aware of Tenma’s nationality in the manga. But a media campaign from a vocal minority could certainly bring this inconsistency to wider attention. You can bet that would be all over this.

But of course, the issue is largely moot for the time being on two grounds. One, HBO may be bound by their agreement with Urasawa to keep Tenma Japanese, or they are happy to do so anyway. Second, this is a pilot development deal, which is a long way from a series greenlight.

However, it remains relevant if there is any chance that the Tenma question may stop the series from being made and providing this tremendous opportunity for a Japanese actor or an actor of Japanese descent to prove that nationality doesn’t need to matter in Hollywood casting.

So keep an eye out for news on HBO’s Monster, and start laying some groundwork where you can. Make noises that Tenma has to remain Tenma, and that you will actually be more interested in the show if they cast a Japanese actor, not merely just as interested. Let’s convince HBO in this development period – or, hopefully, merely reassure them – that the Tenma question is both vitally important and that it doesn’t matter at all.


4 thoughts on “Naoki Urasawa’s Monster at HBO: an opportunity for progressive casting

  1. produdfctititty says:

    On a complete side-note, because Monster was one of the few main manga around this period that I didn't read: doesn't the character of Watson define 'second fiddle'?Only in a sense. Watson is also the narrator of all but a very small percentage of the series, which means he has the power to make you think he's any of the fiddles, or even a cello, if he chooses. 🙂

  2. Jack Reed says:

    That's true, but the popular understanding of the character is that he's there to support Holmes, not that they're of equal standing. That's the key point regarding the the casting of an Asian actor as Watson, because common conception, not fidelty to the original text, is what executives will be relying on when devising a show like Elementary and determining what 'demographic' should be cast in each role. There's no way an American show would cast, say, Benedict Wong as a British Holmes and someone like (I'm just grabbing at a name here) Katee Sackhoff as Watson, which is, of course, a huge shame.

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