Early last week, white British actor Ed Skrein joined the cast of Neil Marshall’s upcoming “Hellboy” reboot, a casting choice that was immediately derided for its whitewashing of Skrein’s character, a Japanese-American Marine named Ben Daimio (whose family tree includes no less than a famous Japanese spy and war criminal, who also appears in the John Arcudi and Mike Mignola comic book series). In short order, Skrein did something wholly remarkable: he dropped out of the project after learning about Daimio’s heritage.
In an official statement, the actor made it clear that he believed the choice was what was “right,” noting that portraying the part in “a culturally accurate way” was clearly important for audiences (Skrein also pointed to his own “mixed heritage” family in the statement, which you can read here). In a statement published by The Hollywood Reporter, producers Larry Gordon, Lloyd Levin, Millennium, and Lionsgate came out in support of Skrein’s decision: “Ed came to us and felt very strongly about this. We fully support his unselfish decision. It was not our intent to be insensitive to issues of authenticity and ethnicity, and we will look to recast the part with an actor more consistent with the character in the source material.”
While the producers have promised to find a new actor whose background is “more consistent” with the source material, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll opt for an actor of Japanese descent. Too bad, because we’ve already got five possibilities lined up. Get to know them below.
Skrein’s casting was a surprise for another reason beyond his ethnicity: his age. In the “Hellboy” comic books, Daimio is a seasoned Marine who has, in no uncertain terms, been through some stuff. He’s got a slew of military missions under his belt (including one that actually killed him, sort of) and was a faithful soldier for years before rising to the rank of Major. In short, he’s no kid, and while Skrein recently turned 34, there’s plenty of wiggle room for producers to cast someone even older for the role. Again, this is a dude who basically rose from the dead after a mystical mission gone awry, and he’s got the mileage to show for it. Why not opt for a respected class act like Watanabe? The Japanese actor is no stranger to action-heavy roles, from turns in “Godzilla” to “Inception,” “The Last Samurai” to “Letters from Iwo Jima.” He’s even got comic book movie experience, having appeared in “Batman Begins” back in 2005, when he played Ra’s al Ghul’s decoy. No slouch off the screen, Watanabe is also a Tony nominee for his work in the revival of “The King and I,” having picked up a nod for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical, making him the first Japanese actor to be nominated in the category. You want a Daimio that’s got gravitas? Watanabe is the guy.
Also on the older end of the spectrum is Nagasaki native Yakusho, best known to American audiences for his work in such dramatic fare as “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Babel” and the beloved comedy “Tampopo.”A long-time mega-star in his home country, Yakusho has done it all, from stage to screen to television (and picked up a ton of accolades), though his early career was marked with a slew of samurai roles. Yakusho has always shown a dedication to craft and an interest in changing up his game, perhaps best evidenced by that time he helped inspire no less than a country-wide dance craze with his turn in the smash hit “Shall We Dance?” Now approaching the fourth decade of his career, Yakusho shows zero sign of slowing down, and has this year alone appeared in Cannes hit “Oh Lucy!” and will next be seen in Hirokazu Koreeda’s “The Third Murder.” Could a part in an American comic book adaptation catapult him to yet another level? Without question, and Yakusho is one legend-in-the-making who seems open to such a wild new step.
Performing since he was just 16, Asano broke out with his turn in Shunji Iwai’s “Fried Dragon Fish,” which he followed up with a major dramatic turn in Koreeda’s wrenching “Maboroshi no Hikari” (he re-teamed for the director for his wild pseudo-doc “Distance” a few years later). In 2007, he starred as Genghis Khan in Sergey Bodrov’s dazzling “Mongol,” which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film (it lost to “The Counterfeiters”), ostensibly the first film in a planned trilogy about the famed conqueror. In recent years, the actor and musician has steadily transitioned from Japanese features to American fare, including turns in films like “Battleship,” “47 Ronin,” and even the “Thor” features (he plays Hogun, one of the Warriors Three). Not sure you know him from those parts? Then try this one: he was the Interpreter in Martin Scorsese’s “Silence,” a complex role that he embodied with ease.
The actor is another Scorsese newbie, having also recently appeared in “Silence” (he played a fellow prisoner in the epic historical drama). The Japanese native moved to Washington state as a child, offering him the kind of Japanese-American experience that is so central to the role of Daimio. He’s worked steadily with both American directors, like Clint Eastwood and Gus Van Sant, along with countrymen Takeshi Kitano and Yukihiko Tsutsumi, plus other lauded filmmakers, from Hong Sang-soo to Michel Gondry. Kase’s range sets him apart from other actors from his generation, and he seems just as comfortable with roles in dramas like “Our Little Sister” as he is in bloody yakuza offerings like the “Outrage” franchise.
If the film’s producers want to opt for someone still in Skrein’s age range, “Kaiji” and “Death Note” (the original, of course) star Fujiwara could be a compelling choice. Best known for starring in Kinji Fukasaku’s deliriously effed up “Battle Royale,” Fujiwara has made a career for himself built on balancing hyperviolent and inventive feature work with high-class stage offerings, including turns in both “Hamlet” and “Romeo and Juliet.” Still, Fujiwara has the action bona fides that should help him break through to the next level of fame — read: Hollywood — and a part in a film like “Hellboy” would be both a very natural fit and a major stop forward.