Tokyo Film Festival: Masi Oka Says He Wants to Be "Japan's Cheerleader"

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Masi Oka

The star also discusses diversity, whitewashing and pitching Japanese source material in Hollywood, addresses where the planned 'Mega Man' movie stands and talks about turning his house into a manga library.

Actor and producer Masi Oka (Heroes, Hawaii Five-0, Death Note) has been working to build bridges between Hollywood and Japan.

Beyond working on projects based on known Japanese franchises, he serves as an advisor to the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), a Japanese government-related organization that promotes trade and investment relations with other countries.

Oka this week hosted in Tokyo, where he was born, a session at the annual Japan Content Showcase, which is affiliated with the Tokyo International Film Festival.

He spoke to THR about his love for manga and other Japanese content, the challenges of bringing it to Hollywood, as well as the ongoing debates about diversity and whitewashing.

You have made a name for yourself as a key connector between Hollywood and Japan. How easy or challenging have you found it to pitch ideas based on Japanese source material in Hollywood?

I don't think it is ever easy per se, but a lot of the studios these days are looking for source material. I understand. You want a built in fan base, you want something known, IP. So they do go after some of the big names. In that sense it makes it easy, because there is a need for it and desire from the U.S. side.

What's hard is that the business practices of the Japan side and the U.S. side are very different. That's always the tricky part. But I think a lot of people are really interested in a lot of the Japanese IP. I am very happy to help share the great treasure trove of Japanese content with the western world. 

You're an avid manga collector. Any current favorites?

There is a lot out there that is great. I don't want to be biased. My house is like a manga library in many ways, and it's great because I get to call it research. These days, I actually like to read them in real time, so I still subscribe to magazines and read them in real time. So I get a sense of what's cool before it makes it to the U.S. market.

It seems manga is easier to pitch in Hollywood. You never hear much about a Japanese drama series being adapted. Any thoughts on that?

I just think that manga series have been printed in many different languages, and people see it as something different. 

In film, it's actually difficult adapting manga a lot of times, because sometimes a series goes on for 15 volumes, 30 volumes or 100 volumes, and you have to condense that into a medium like film. But I think it's easier with manga and animation, because it allows a lot of room for the imagination. 

The reality is there is a difference in the budgets [for dramas and the like]. U.S. shows travel worldwide, so the budget is a lot higher — it's in the millions. In Japan a typical episode is in the six figures. So right there it's hard. 

There is also the language barrier. Sometimes it's not subtitled well, versus with animation, manga and anime it is easier to translate. With manga, you're reading the words. With anime, it's dubbed, so you are getting over a lot of that barrier.

Also, the formats are different. Here in Japan we don't have sitcoms. Comedy is weird, because it is hard to travel. Humor is always different. If you look at Japanese drama, I think there is definitely a treasure trove of it, but I just don't think that people know about it. It's got to be pitched and presented better. Now that there is more of an appetite for Asian content, I think there is an opportunity. 

In the past, people may have been saying "well, we don't know, we're all looking at the crazy variety shows that Japan has." As things are getting better, I think people will now be looking at the TV dramas.

Any other Japanese source material that could be interesting to adapt?

There are a lot of great novels in Japan, but there's not a market right now for a lot of translated Japanese novels. So it's hard to say "hey, just trust me." Versus in manga, there is already a pipeline now everybody wants to consume, so that's why it's easier. There is a support structure for manga and anime where you have a bunch of fans. Sometimes there are illegal translations, but it can be seen around the world. No matter how good the content, if it doesn't get seen, nobody knows about it, then it can't be adapted. 

Any new projects you are developing based on Japanese source material?

Nothing I can talk about. We have been going out with a couple of them. Some of them are successful. It's a learning process and educating for both sides.

At the end of the day, no matter how great the content is in Japan, if people don't know about it in the U.S., you can't do anything about it. I might watch it or see a manga in real time, and I love it. But no matter how much I pitch it, people say "can we see additional material?" And if it's not subtitled ... they can't. 

How good or bad is Hollywood at adapting mangas? You are a fan and worked on Death Note, and even then there was criticism ...

I am a big fan. I grew up reading this, so I want to protect it, I want to take care of it. Every property is different. Particularly Death Note has been done so many times in Japan, I think our director wanted to try something different. That was also something the senseis were open to. That's a big thing. Film is a director's medium. You want to support the director's vision, but you never want to ignore the fans. So it's that fine line. You don't want a film that only caters to a fan, because the whole idea of creating a movie is to open up the fan base.

So we want to have more people interested in Death Note — whether it's the movie or they are curious enough that they go back to the original and fall in love with the anime. Whether it's our or the Japanese version, it doesn't matter. If they love the franchise, that's great, because that means the fans win at the end, because the creators win. It allows the creators to be more inspired to write more material. So more fans of the franchise is a win for us.

I wanted to make sure the creators were happy with it, because the creators know the fans best. So my job was to make sure the creators were satisfied and hopefully in turn the fans would be satisfied. That's my approach to adaptations.

Any word yet on a possible sequel to Death Note?

You have to ask Netflix about that.

Are you still planning to do a movie about video game character Mega Man?

Yes, we're doing it. That's still in development.

How good or bad a job has Hollywood done casting Asian talent given the ongoing debate about whitewashing? 

It depends on the project. When it's based on Asian material and you are in America, you can cast any way you want, including Asian Americans. Asian Americans are Americans as well. For me, as an Asian actor, I want to try to give more opportunities to Asian talent, so I naturally tend to say "hey, should we put these people on tape." But at the end of the day, casting is a collaborative process. Even the director might feel strongly about someone, but it still has to go through all the producers and all the studios. At the end of the day, the best person does win the role. What we can do is we can definitely take more care in terms of going around. 

Also, this is a business. If fans are willing to crowdfund a movie, then I think they should have all the casting choices. When a studio takes a shot and makes a project with people who aren't as well known, and it doesn't do well at the box office, it hurts everyone's cause. It is a business. We can all say we want more representation and diversity, and I'm of course all for that. We just got to get everyone to come out and support that and put their money where their mouth is. So there are a lot of factors and you can't say one solution fits all. It's a case by case kind of thing.

How often do you come back to Tokyo and anything you like in particular or any changes you notice?

I just love the people here, they are just wonderful. I'm Japanese, I have a Japanese passport. I think like an American, but my heart is Japanese. So when I come here and work with people, I am not full-time here, but they still welcome me and open their hearts to me. That's really great to have that bond. There's a passion and energy right now, because of the Tokyo Olympics. I come back maybe six times a year, because I consult for a lot of Asian corporations here and I have a lot of business here. It's always fun to come back. 

Because of the lack of reward and risk here and risk taking, it takes a long time to build up trust and relationships in Japan, and often that trust is built by going drinking or having dinner, the face-to-face time. That's what makes Japan fun. 

Anything else you'd like to mention?

In a world where there are so many things going on, any kind of discrimination I think comes from a lack of understanding. And that's why I just want to open up and introduce Japan to the world. We as a nation tend to be very reserved. We don't like to gloat about our stuff. Being the American thinker, I want to gloat for them.

I think Japan has the best content, and I want to share that with the world, and I hope the world embraces it. I want to be Japan's cheerleader.