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What to Expect from Altered Carbon‘s “Asian Man in a White Body” Storyline

Will Yun Lee as Takeshi Kovacs on "Altered Carbon"

When news of Netflix’s Altered Carbon adaptation first arrived, I was definitely worried. For those of you who haven’t read the book, it follows Takeshi Kovacs, a man of half-Japanese, half-Slavic descent, who lives in a future where humans can be “sleeved” into new bodies. After being condemned to hundreds of years of imprisonment, which in this society means having your mind stored “on stack” while you’re essentially unconscious, he awakes up to find himself in a Caucasian body, his freedom leased out to a rich man who wants him to solve a crime. (Later books in the series also show Takeshi being sleeved into bodies of other races.)

When we’re talking about representation, this is the sort of premise that works more easily on the page than on-screen. In a novel, we’re inside the character’s head, so Takeshi can constantly remind the reader of his ethnic identity. For example, in one scene he looks down at an Asian “sleeve” in a tank, and he thinks, “It was like looking at myself under glass. The self I’d built somewhere in the coils of memory that trail all the way back to childhood. Suddenly I stood, exiled into Caucasian flesh, on the wrong side of the mirror.”

On-screen, we can’t spend so much time seeing the world from Takeshi’s perspective. The whole show can’t be voiceover, and it’s a simple fact of a visual medium that we are watching him. So when his outer body looks like white actor Joel Kinnaman, we naturally perceive him as a white guy.

As a result, I know that whitewashing and representation were huge concerns for a lot of potential viewers, so I wanted to lay out how they handle it so you can decide for yourselves. I’m personally torn, because I very much enjoyed the performance of Will Yun Lee, who plays Takeshi in his original body, as well as many other members of the refreshingly diverse cast. I don’t often get to see this many women and people of color doing cyberpunk sci-fi action. However, there was undoubtedly something uncomfortable about the execution of this premise, and in 2018 we really do have to ask why we needed to put a white guy in all the promotional materials and also at the center of the story, source material aside.

Now, the good news is that this was not a straight Ghost in the Shell situation. Takeshi appears in three different “sleeves,” portrayed by four different actors, and three of those four actors are of Asian descent. The series even opens with Takeshi wearing his second, still-Asian “sleeve,” played by Byron Mann. Our first encounter with Takeshi is therefore him as an Asian man, so that colors all the scenes that come later. When Takeshi wakes up in a white body a few scenes later, he screams in horror at his reflection.

The series also spends a lot of its screen time on Takeshi’s backstory (which they alter from the books). We see multiple flashbacks to his childhood, with actor Morgan Gao playing young Takeshi in his original body. As the flashbacks jump through different points in Takeshi’s life, we also see actor Will Yun Lee play Takeshi’s original body when he’s grown to adulthood. These flashbacks pepper all the episodes, until Episode 7 is almost entirely in flashback to Takeshi in his original Will-Yun-Lee body.

(Will Yun Lee is great, by the way, and I hope we get to see more of him in other shows and/or a second season.)

That said, the present-day is very much Joel Kinnaman’s story. As Olivia Truffaut-Wong notes over at Bustle, “Lee, as Kovacs’ original self, doesn’t get significant screen time until Episode 7, long after the audience has identified Kovacs with Kinnaman’s white body.” And while he screams at his reflection when he first wakes up, he never mentions the sort of disconnects we see in the book. I understand that this is a world where people switch bodies, and that they therefore experience a sort of disconnect from their own physical identities. But given that Takeshi still delivers a number of voiceovers, I think some reminders would have helped the audience to clearly identity the protagonist as biracial.

And it’s these voiceovers that are perhaps the show’s biggest missed opportunity. They open every episode, and they’re almost always Takeshi speaking to the audience. For example, Episode 3 opens with this monologue: “Humanity has spread to the stars. We set out like ancient seafarers to explore the limitless ocean of space. But no matter how far we venture in the unknown, the worst monsters are those we bring with us.” As Takeshi is speaking, the screen pans over the aforementioned stars and slowly moves down the skyline until it shows the landscape of Harlan’s World, where Takeshi grew up. Then we cut to a scene from Takeshi’s childhood where he’s reading with his sister.

That’s the sort of monologue, clearly taking place in Takeshi’s head and clearly leading us into Takeshi’s memories, that should have been delivered by … well, Takeshi. Instead, we get it in Kinnaman’s voice. The show does all this work to remind us of Takeshi’s past and real heritage, but it still presents Kinnaman as his innermost voice. Come on.

I do understand that this is a complicated one, particularly given the laudable diversity in the rest of the cast and the way the show does set up for Will Yun Lee to possibly take the central role in Season Two. Kinnaman has said he probably wouldn’t return to future seasons, since he was only the “sleeve” for this particular adventure. This leaves Altered Carbon with the opportunity to give Lee the starring role, or to show Takeshi cycling through sleeves of a variety of races depending on the season. That is kind of a cool acting project to imagine, but it also opens up a whole lot of concerns about erasure, representation, and who gets the opportunity to headline a show.

I hope this general outline of how they approached it is helpful for anyone who’s on the fence about watching or not.

(featured image: Netflix)

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