By David Schwartz and Chris Hadley
Note: A version of this article was previously posted on The Huffington Post, and can be viewed here.
Despite the enormous progress achieved by actors and filmmakers from various racial, ethnic and gender backgrounds, mainstream Hollywood film does not give us an opportunity to see Asian characters as powerful and unique individuals.
Luckily, indie web series are leading the way in giving actors and filmmakers from all backgrounds opportunities for success that would otherwise have not been provided to them by the big studios. Two standout examples of this are the hilarious comedies ALMOST ASIAN and YUKATA COWBOY.
YUKATA COWBOY follows the often awkward, but always humorous, adventures of “The Most Mistaken Man In The World” (played by series creator Atsushi Ogata, who also portrays a variety of different characters throughout the series) as he faces both culture shock and mistaken identity during his travels around the world.
Created by and starring Katie Malia, ALMOST ASIAN is a series of ‘slice of life’ style comedic vignettes that memorably capture the ups and downs of daily life for mixed race millennials in Los Angeles. Shows like YUKATA COWBOY and ALMOST ASIAN give viewers an accurate view of the struggles and successes of Asians in today’s society, as seen from the viewpoints of Asians.
For Ogata and Malia, creating their series has also provided them with the opportunity to defy Hollywood’s tone deaf stereotypes, while giving fellow Asian actors, writers, producers, directors and other filmmaking talent the chance to build their skills in the industry. “I think Asian indie web series are taking creative action,” Malia remarks. “They’re creating shows starring Asian talents, both in front of and behind the camera.”
“With web series, creators themselves are in the position of power to decide what race/gender to cast. If they can keep the costs low or raise funding themselves, they can create their own series and potentially reach a large audience,” adds Ogata, who describes how bringing YUKATA COWBOY to worldwide audiences has also increased his series’ success. “Through international web series festivals, I was able to meet like-minded creators, journalists and programmers from all over the world. Seeing their works and collaborating with them has been inspiring.”
For Malia, ALMOST ASIAN’s honest portrayal of the experiences of half-Asians, including herself, serves two purposes: smashing stereotypes, while at the same time giving viewers the chance to overcome their own personal prejudices and misunderstandings of other cultures and backgrounds.
“By using this half-Asian narrative, I think my series comments not only on the gross stereotypes that limit the Asian identity but also on how damaging these stereotypes can be to the ignorant mind,” she says. “I was completely and totally ignorant to how offensive Asian stereotypes were because I was never, ever ethnically enough to be anything; and because I wanted to identity with and feel accepted, I thought they were a means to feel culturally recognized. Needless to say, my series addresses them head on.”
Ogata achieves the same objectives through playing multiple roles in YUKATA COWBOY. “I’m playing characters who represent all kinds of people from around the world. These are characters that many people in America couldn’t see an Asian person playing, at the same time that many people in Japan couldn’t see a Japanese person playing,” he explains. “By being true to my own cross-cultural, cross-national life experience, I’m automatically defying stereotypes.”
“Honest storytelling is paramount, and because my stories are identity driven, it is critical that my cast and crew respectfully understand and embrace the complexities of race and culture,” Malia responds. “Ethnicity plays a major part of my casting. I always write with a specific actor in mind. If I can’t get that person, rarely do I shoot the episode. A line delivered from a Japanese actor is going to tell a much different story than from a Taiwanese, Southeast Asian, Middle-Eastern, Black, White or Latino.”
Citing their own successes, Malia and Ogata encourage future actors and filmmakers of all backgrounds to make their voices heard. “Keep creating. Your voice is unique and a vehicle for change. The only way you will continue to be underrepresented is to keep sitting on the couch,” says Malia. “Pick up a microphone, find a stage, write a sketch, shoot a video, and connect with like-minded creative individuals. There are so many platforms now to tell your story. Just do it. And do it well.”
“Try to find your own voice. Even if you first imitate existing shows in terms of formats, genre or style, I think it’s important to try to find and keep your own voice. That way, it will at least be “authentic” to you and your experience,” adds Ogata. “Perhaps it will be more difficult to find your audience, at least, at first. But if you persevere, at least you have a chance of reaching the audience with what is true to you and not just what is considered ‘popular’ or trendy.”
“The only way I know how to increase awareness right now is to create content and make noise,” Malia says. “The more we create visibility, the more opportunity for Asian recognition and change, and the less the industry can ignore us.”