April 14, 2009

Dragonball Evolution

You may have seen previews or read about Dragonball Evolution and thought "wow, that looks really bad." I did. I had no idea, before seeing this film, just how right I could be.

I saw the movie with my lovely co-blogger, who, at one point near the end of the film, just burst out laughing at the sheer stupidity of it. I'm surprised it took one of us that long to guffaw. This movie is, beginning to end, terrible. The dialogue is painful, the acting belongs in a high school play, and the characters are paper cut outs. As far as film quality is concerned, there is nothing good about it. Zero stars.

However, Dragonball doesn't fail its female characters.

To begin with, there are three major females--Emmy Rossum's "I have a Ph.D. in applied dynamics with a minor in tactical weaponry" Bulma, who is part of the "good guys" group searching for the dragonballs, Piccolo's henchwoman, Mai (Eriko Tamura), and Goku's love interest, Chi Chi (Jamie Chung). Bulma, though she is played as a joke quite a few times in the film, is independent, smart, and brave. The device that allows the group to track the dragonballs is her invention. Mai is a role that could just have easily been male--she is treated by Piccolo and acts towards him just as a male henchman might. Even Chi Chi, who is "just" a love interest, holds her own. She's a fighter with her own moves, which we get to see, and the movie ends with her challenging Goku on his assumption that he could beat her in a fight. Taken by themselves, the female characters are surprisingly good. I'd give them three stars.

Dragonball has a major race problem right from the inception. It's another "white boy does martial arts" movie. Goku may have a Japanese name, but he's played by Justin Chatwin, a white Canadian actor. The comic book Goku, on the other hand, is actually from an alien race, but is drawn to appear Japanese. It is clearly more important in Dragonball casting that Goku has the right hair than the right racial heritage. That, as always, bugs. Much of the rest of the cast is actually Asian or of Asian descent: Goku's grandfather, whom we would assume should also be Japanese, is played by Hawaiian native actor Randall Duk Kim. Master Roshi is played by Chow Yun Fat (who really ought to be ashamed to be involved in this). Chi Chi is played by Korean-American Jamie Chung; Mai by Japanese actress Eriko Tamura; and the other "good guy," Yamcha, by Korean-American actor Joon Park. Lord Piccolo is played by a white dude (James Marsters, who is the whole reason I consented to see the movie in the first place), but really, he's green, so who cares? As an extra nod toward racial diversity, the film briefly features a Buddhist monk played by African-American actor Ernie Hudson (thanks to Skye for pointing that out, as I may have missed it). Given the preponderance of other good things it has going on, I give it three stars for race, with just one subtracted for Goku.

So if I give equal weight to the overall film, gender, and race categories, Dragonball Evolution gets an average of .5 stars. I'll be generous and round that up to 1. Which is sad--this would be a three star movie if it didn't suck so very, very much.

11 Comments

I would also have given it one star, as I think it was far too typical in casting the white boy hero. I am noticing that these awful "martial arts" adaptation movies are much more racially diverse than the more mainstream action flix - but who gives a damn if they do the white boy as martial arts savior thing thing? As we discussed on our way home, that digs it a big hole and then it has to crawl back out to earn any stars. I gave the new Street Fighter two stars, it seems only fair that this one has one, for that flawed central casting decision which can't be erased by the other positive (HC-wise) aspects of the film.

I haven't seen the movie and having read the review I don't intend to. That said, two stars does seem reasonable for a film that gets everything else right on race (I don't know if it does, there just weren't any other critiques).

On an economic level, I'm guessing much of the money is reserved for the star, but all the supports do get a paycheck and a bit more experience towards bigger roles in the future. To use a sports term, the secondary roles can be a farm system that allows future stars to emerge and support the careers of the non-headliners. That seems to be worth a bit to me.

Also, in a film this terrible, the standout performance is more likely to come from someone making the most of a secondary role. But that's neither here nor there when it comes to stars.

Hi Guys!

Is that character really supposed to be Asian? Because when I look at him (I did a quick pic check on Wikipedia) he doesn't look Asian - specifically Japanese - to me at all. So wouldn't it be accurate to cast someone at least European looking? In fact that was always what I thought was rather interesting about a good portion of anime - many of those characters look white, or does it just look that way with the style of art? Because if that is how they're drawing them, then the producers et al would have to honor that, right?

Glad to see Randall Duk Kim employed! :p

And you guys should get some kind of medal or something for going to see these really, REALLY bad films for our sake. :)

thx as always!

@ d: I was going on Grace's report about the supposed ethnicity of Goku, who ends up not being of an ethnicity at all in an ending that - even though the movie is so bad you shouldn't see it - I won't spoiler here.

Looking at the artwork, I honestly don't know what to say. I don't know if I'm informed enough about anime to make a call here. I seem to recall something from the hullabaloo about Avatar: The Last Airbender where definitely Asian characters were drawn with less Asian features and that was supposed to provide comfort to those who protested the casting of white people in those roles.

http://aang-aint-white.livejournal.com/1007.html is the best link I can pull up quickly on that front.

I think it's the supposedly Japanese grandfather that tips me over the edge.

That, and the fact that doing a search for "Dragonball ethnicity" brings up a ton of people complaining about how silly it is that anyone cares about the ethnicity of the character or thinks it might be racist in any way. That level of furor tends to make me suspicious.

Addendum:

http://derekkirkkim.blogspot.com/2009/01/new-day-in-politics-same-old-racist.html

http://glockgal.livejournal.com/375625.html

Especially see the second one for the whole "but the character looks white to me" issue.

I just saw the movie, because I knew I was going to see it no matter how bad it was. And it was baaaaad. But one thing that struck me about Chi-Chi was how, despite being the love interest, she was never reduced to being merely a prop in Goku's story. In fact, she followed her *own* story all the way throughout the movie. She was always off doing her own thing. Goku only spent time with her when their paths intersected, first when he happened to go to the temple where she was training, and second when he ended up in the same city that was hosting her martial arts tournament. At no point in the movie did she drop everything to join Goku on his quest for the Dragonballs. Which is what I was expecting to happen... And when it never happened, I was pleasantly surprised. Chi-Chi was Goku's love interest, but she was also an independent character with her own independent storyline. Now I wish that more BETTER movies could have love interests like that!

As for the "Goku in the manga looks white" thing... No. This is simple. Japanese manga artists draw Japanese characters in an unmarked (read: "racial default") state. To Japanese readers, the default racial state (two eyes, a nose, a mouth, and no other "racial" features) reads as Japanese. Most manga characters are Japanese (or pseudo-fantasy-Asian, as is the case in Dragonball) unless otherwise stated. We white people, however, are used to "default" character designs being all white people. So when we see simple default designs in manga and anime, they look "white" to us. But they're not.

Thank goodness someone came along who actually knows something about manga. Thanks Nenena! And your point about Chi-Chi is well taken.

Heh, no problem. Admittedly it's a pet issue of mine, the way that people tend to read "white" racial coding into anime/manga character designs that aren't white at all. For example, the eye shape thing. People look at the big, round eyes on anime characters and say, "They must be white!" Which ignores the fact that things like eye shape are often used to give visual clues about the personality traits of a character, NOT their race. I.E. in Dragonball, Goku has big round eyes because he has a pure, heroic spirit. Yamcha and Piccolo, on the other hand, have narrow eyes because they're darker, more ambiguous characters. It's not just Japanese artists, but Western artists do this all the time too. In Disney movies, the young/cute/pure-hearted characters get big round eyes, and the villains tend to get narrower eyes, etc. This was done a lot in Avatar, too - Aang got the big round eyes because he's young, cute, and pure-hearted. Not because he's white.

And I won't even touch the skin color complaint. I still can't believe that people look at anime characters and argue that they have "white" skin. What, do they honestly expect Asian characters to look yellow?!

Sorry for the derail. But the point is, the original Dragonball characters were not white. And they weren't drawn to look white, either. (Unless you're projecting whiteness onto them.) Which, yes, makes the whitewashing of Goku in the movie very, very disappointing.

Thanks Skye and Nenena for your input. I've started on a couple links Sky, and will have to finish up in a bit.

I have to say I don't know if I can whole-heartedly agree with you Nenena, but I'll completely give it a lot more thought - and can concede it for Dragonball, since I went back and looked and it can go either way.

It was a friend who clued me in on that, and while he wasn't of Asian descent, he wasn't of European descent either - so it wasn't the idea of thinking of white as default, him in partucular.

Also, it wasn't manga, but anime, and maybe there is a difference between the two? Because you will come to very different conclusions about ethnicity (for example) if you look at the x-men comic books verses their various incarnations in cartoons (or the movies for that matter).

While those eyes always seemed so pronounced to me (not just in child characters), I can see that features are features. But there's something about the prominence of the hair color (yeah I know they also have the bizarre colors like blue and purple and such...I think it's kind of tough to illustrate black hair). And something about the pinkishness of the skin (Sailor Moon for example). But in one of the links they talked a lot about Avatar -which I just happened to see recently. And I don't see european when I watch that show - I see the wide diversity of asian looks. That one actually does surprise me that they didn't fill the roles with asian-descented characters.

But I'll try to look at this differently and make sure I don't have any blinders on, or was misinformed by others.

thx! d

Wow, thanks for your expertise, Nenena. Totally makes sense to me now. And as I have next to no manga/anime knowledge, I definitely needed the primer!

I think you're right about Chi Chi, too, and I hadn't really thought of that before. Really, on female characters grounds, this movie does a pretty good job.

Too bad about all the other sucking.

d,

Another link for you:
http://matt-thorn.com/mangagaku/faceoftheother.html

Something else: Dragon Ball is a loose retelling the famous episode Journey to the West (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Journey_to_the_West). Son Goku is Sūn Wùkōng, the Great Sage Equaling Heaven.

So there's no way in Hell Goku should have been played by a white boy.

As for the difference between anime and manga, keep in mind that a lot of anime series are based upon manga series.

As for Avatar, did you know that the casting call specified white actors?

Ok then, Goku is alien.

So since Superman is alien, then the next superman movie they should consider casting an asian actor as Superman because depending on the artist he has looked "slanty eyed" in comics.

But wait! That would never happen now would it!? Because in western films you can have a white guy with Chi Chi, but you can't have an Asian guy with Lois Lane, that would just be unnacceptable.

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