How did 'Akane No Mai' (which I'll argue is the best episode of HBO's Westworld to date) avoid cultural appropriation? If you haven't seen episode 5 of the series, you should probably stop reading right now and watch it right this second.
Okay, great! This week was by far my favorite episode of Westworld so far. The show has been teasing hints of Shogun World for the past few weeks, and I have been a mix of apprehensive and excited in the lead-up. Any mainstream portrayal of an Asian culture tends to get me on edge these days, as there's been copious amounts of whitewashing or cultural appropriation. Shogun World was poised to easily fall into that trap, but here's how they seemed to have avoided it.
Guest star Rinko Kikuchi (who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her work in Babel) plays Akane, a Geisha host who is the storyline doppelgänger of Maeve (Thandie Newton). First off, watching the two perform together (and in Japanese!) is like a master class in brilliant acting and storytelling. The way they mirror each other is sensational, and you really get the sense that they are cut from the same cloth and just dumped into different settings.
Kikuchi addressed the concerns of cultural appropriation in an interview with The Wrap, she said the following (through the use of an interpreter, Lena-Grace Suda).
"Of course there were small things, for example, [Kikuchi] felt like, 'You wouldn't necessarily wear a wig in this way.' But those are really just minor things. On the general scale, [Kikuchi] felt as though the creative team had a lot of respect toward Japan, actually. And making a Samurai set, even in Japan, is very difficult nowadays, because it just takes a lot of money. A very high budget. So [Kikuchi] actually feels very honored that she was able to play out a scene like this, such an elaborate scene in 'Westworld.'"
"The fact that a lot of people even think of cultural appropriation, [Kikuchi] thinks that in and of itself is a really brilliant thing because the show gets people thinking and talking. For example, there are other themes, like, 'What's really real and what's not real in this world we live in?' and the relationship that exists between humans and AI. So she thinks the fact that people think about topics like cultural appropriation is a testament to how good the show is."
It also sounds like showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan spent considerable time with Japanese consultants. They cast Japanese actors in the guest roles, and you can tell there's an attention to detail being paid.
For what it's worth, I agree with Kikuchi about the show not culturally appropriating. Do I think there's a sense of Orientalism at play? Absolutely. However, it somewhat makes sense on a show like Westworld. After all, isn't the premise of all the parks to fetishize other cultures? From the wild west to British Colonial India to feudal Japan, it makes sense within the conceit of the show.
Normally I'd balk at seeing the only Japanese characters on a show be geishas, samurai, and ninjas. However, given the context of their appearance in 'Akane No Mai', it makes sense. And given the robot uprising that takes place, it seems like they're all about to be much more than senseless stereotypes. It's also brilliantly set up in that it's basically just a stolen storyline from the Westworld park narratives. Maeve's captive, Head of Narrative & Design Division Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) even admits he borrowed heavily from the Westworld narrative. We've seen these characters and stereotypes portrayed already (multiple times), so it fits that their occupations would be as such given the purpose of the parks.
Again, I can't compliment the setup, acting, and execution of the episode enough. Seeing the Westworld narrative characters meet their Shogun World counterparts was quite the sight to behold. The sense of recognition they portrayed was fantastic.
The more I think about it, I wonder: do the hosts understand the concept of race?! We've never actually had to address the point until now, and I am SO curious as to how or if the show will even bother. I kind of hope not, as I'm loving the dynamic of host to host interactions — except Dolores and Teddy. Over it. Maeve and Akane forever!
Also, at the end of the day I was just excited to see that many Asian characters with speaking roles on such a popular show. Aside from my beloved Felix Lutz (Leonardo Nam), we haven't seen an abundance of Asian characters. Nam also gets one of the best zingers of the episode when asked if he could speak to the Shogun World characters, to which he incredulously responds he's from Hong Kong. I'm hoping we spend a lot more time in Shogun World this season, and if 'Akane No Mai' is any indication, this season of Westworld is going to be spectacular.