Mortal Kombat: An Appropriation Without Appreciation
Where are the Asians in the MK Universe?
When the release of the fighting game Mortal Kombat not only swept arcades and consoles, but also spawned sequels, movies, and a television series during the ’90s, it secured a brand recognition that’s endured to present day; a ninth Mortal Kombat game hit shelves in April, while an MK web series is currently running on YouTube. Regrettably, Mortal Kombat‘s wide spectrum of exposure suffers from racial pratfalls that sully each of its entertainment mediums, raising questions about its architects’ commitment to the Asian essence of its universe.
Mortal Kombat‘s two white creators, Ed Boon and John Tobias, brought a deliberately Asian air to the first game in 1992, and built upon it in their follow-up games. Elements related to or inspired by Far East culture, such as the use of certain symbols (specifically the trademark dragon logo and the taijitu yin and yang pattern), environments (involving imperial architecture and décor), the garb and appearance of pivotal characters (distinguished by the likes of the conical hat, sash, ninja mask, high ponytail, or long and thin beard) and even the soundtrack (including imitations of the gong, traditional plucked instruments, etc.) contributed to an unmistakably Asian atmosphere. With those qualifiers in mind, the indelibly Eastern mark stamped on the world of Mortal Kombat makes the whitewashing of its characters–in other media as well as in the games themselves–particularly objectionable.
Thunder and “whitening”
Most outrageous is the translation of the game’s character Raiden to film and television. A god of thunder, his name and divinity have roots going back to the Shinto god of the same name (or “Raijin”). While the Shinto deity has no human form, Boon and Tobias gave their character one for the Mortal Kombat games, clothing him in a way that made his connection to Asian mythology extremely obvious, from his conical hat in the original to a Chinese character for “thunder” on his sleeves in the sequel (right). Yet for some reason, when Mortal Kombat was adapted to film in 1995, the character was played by white actor Christopher Lambert.
While it’s certainly possible that Boon and Tobias always envisioned Raiden as someone of Lambert’s ethnicity, their racial bias would have been a bit difficult to prove based on the ’90s games alone, since the graphical limitations of consoles at the time rendered Raiden’s skin somewhat ambiguous (albeit certainly on the light side). However, the casting of Lamber in the film received no protest from the game’s creators, and proceeded to define every live action version of the character from the character from then on. This included the white Raidens of the film’s sequel (James Remar) and the prequel television series (Jeffrey Meek).
In theory, a new opportunity to switch up Raiden’s race arose when Asian director Kevin Tancharoen took the reins on the currently running web series, Mortal Kombat: Legacy. Tancharoen landed the gig by directing a low-budget, yet highly acclaimed, passion project named Mortal Kombat: Rebirth, a short film that leaked on the web and gained a heap of positive buzz in 2010. Before Warner Bros. gave him a go at the web series, an interview with The New York Times revealed his confusion over the casting of Lambert as Raiden in the first film instead of an “Asian or Japanese” actor. But after being offered the director’s chair on the web series, and collaborating with Boon in creating its story, yet another white actor was cast as Raiden.
To say these actors are out of place representing an Asian deity is an understatement, and more unnerving is that Raiden’s whitewashing is no isolated incident among MK‘s live action incarnations. In the 1997 movie sequel, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, Raiden interacts with Elder Gods, beings who reside at the top of the spiritual hierarchy. In human form, these gods are white as well.
Despite the absurd whitewashing among the immortals in the movies, the films kept the games’ Asian portrayals of the human Liu Kang (Robin Shou) and Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), the respective hero and villain of the first motion picture. Except while Shou and Tagawa’s central roles might seemingly indicate an appreciation of Asian involvement, their inclusion doesn’t completely dispel a sense of tokenism in theMortal Kombat films. Like the games, the movies are steeped in Asian ambiance, from set design to costumes to music, but Shou and Tagawa are the only two Asians with speaking roles in the first film. In the second, the number of major roles expanded while the number of Asians among them decreased, leaving Shou as the only Asian lead. These casting choices counter basic reasoning that suggests the use of significantly Asian influences would invite significantly Asian casting. But the overwhelming whiteness in both movies reflect a perfunctory Asian presence rather than a primary one.
Humans stripped of heritage
Another case in point would be Annihilation‘s mortal Emperor Shao Kahn. Kahn is based on the villain of the Mortal Kombat II game who wears a mask, but (despite the strange decision to forego the historically Asian military title “Khan” in favor of “Kahn,” a French non sequitur of a surname) the Chinese origins of “Shao” would make it reasonable to assume an Asian face would be behind the guise. Yet white actor Brian Thompson was cast to play the emperor in Annihilation, and another white actor, Aleks Paunovic, was chosen for the same role in Legacy. Both perpetuate the stapling of white faces on what logically should have been Asian characters in positions of power.
Even so, where Legacy copies the movies’ mistakes with Raiden and Shao Kahn, it does considerably better with the character Kitana, a human princess with a personal grudge against Kahn in both versions of her story. Presumably, the Japanese origin of her name, coupled with the war fan (or tessen) she fights with in the games, makes her ripe for an Asian interpretation in any live action adaptation. However, the movies used actress Talisa Soto, who is of Italian and Puerto Rican descent. While it’s nice that Soto is an actress of color, being “brown enough” to pass for a race other than white still disrespectfully disregards the core cultural signifiers that shape Kitana’s character. On the other hand, Legacy employed Asian stuntwoman and actress Sam Tjhia as Kitana, averting what could have been yet another example of race-bent ridiculousness.
While whitewashing is easiest to spot in live action treatments of Mortal Kombat, the issue is still a problem in the games themselves. For example, the 2006 console release of Boon’sMortal Kombat: Armageddon revealed the identity and human form of the MK universe’s most powerful Elder God: Lord Argus (left). The fair skin of the character, along with the Greek origin of the name Argus, certainly begs the question of whether the deity was definitively designed as a white man. A closer look at the roots of “Argus” betrays several connections to Greek mythology, one of them being its use as the name of a son of Zeus, lord of the Greek pantheon of gods. Given that Argus is the lord of his own pantheon in the game, a name that associates him with Olympian lore, and thus a white ethnicity, is unlikely to be coincidental. That likelihood lessens even more when considering Argus’s mate, Delia, also has a name of Greek origin related to the same mythology. But in truth, speculating on the “probability” of Argus’s whiteness is to assume that Boon considered this exercise in white superiority a subtlety, secret, or shame. It’s possible that to Boon and his team of designers, a white god felt “right,” even in a completely Asian-derived universe.
Unfortunately, Argus’s appearance is not the first instance of an important character being preposterously designed as white in the video games’ track record. Sub-Zero, one of Mortal Kombat‘s most beloved fighters, is a more grievous example of forcing whiteness where diversity would have been natural. The original Mortal Kombatgame established Sub-Zero as a masked ninja of the Chinese Lin Kuei clan. The 1993 sequel unmasked the character, reconfirming his Asian roots (right).
Then, in 1995, Sub-Zero was again unmasked, except with a distinctively white appearance. According to Wikipedia, Tobias told the Electronic Gaming Monthly magazine in 1995 that the character’s look in MK3 was purposefully used to stimulate speculation on his background. In any case, the sacrifice of Sub-Zero’s Asian features was later explained away with the back story of 1997′s spin-off game, Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub- Zero (left); in short, his father was Asian, but his mother was white. From then on, the fully white appearance and half-Chinese background of the character was kept as canon, leaving his originally Asian look in obscurity, as well as the idea that he could remain as interesting resembling a person of color.
Still, the film sequel Mortal Kombat: Annihilation did happen to cast the half-white, half-Japanese actor Keith Hirabayashi Cooke as Sub-Zero, and the Mortal Kombat: Legacyweb series has realized the character with Japanese-American actor Kevan Ohtsji. It’s simply a shame that on the whole, the franchising of Mortal Kombat has stumbled on nearly every level where it should have been easy to include Asian characters or Asian-American actors. Altogether, Boon and Tobias’s ambitious borrowing from Eastern arts, history, and legends seems to stop just short of what it should be honoring: the people behind the culture they’ve cashed in on for their livelihoods. Despite decorating the MKuniverse with an Asian feel, Boon, Tobias, and their creative collaborators have kept the soul of it conventionally white-centric, and their anemic approach to characters who are some of the most powerful and popular has grown frustratingly familiar over the 19 years of the games’ lifespan. Lamentably, as long as Boon and fellow creators use their power to continue reinforcing white favor and marginalizing non-whites in Mortal Kombat, their adherence to the concept of Caucasian gods is probably appropriate, after all.
Photos courtesy of New Line Cinema, New Line Television, Warner Bros. Pictures, NetherRealm Studios, Flavor Wire, Giant Bomb, Mortal Kombat Wikia, Mortal Kombat Online, Wikipedia, Horreaur.Net, IMDb, and SnesOrama.
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