By Eric Card
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Ghost in the Shell,” a popular Japanese manga series following a cyborg policewoman, is getting a live-action adaptation set to release in 2017. However, the film is already receiving a heavy dose of backlash over the casting of Scarlett Johansson as its lead character, Major Motoko Kusanagi. This is yet another example in a string of high-profile incidents that have caused uproar for casting white actors in traditional non-white roles, also known as “whitewashing.”
While this practice has been going on for years in the film industry, the criticism of whitewashing has gained traction and momentum in the last few years. The outcry is not simply a reaction to the lack of opportunity for Asian actors in the film industry, but the message these kinds of practices send.
While many are up in arms over the casting decision, there are others, such as Sam Yoshiba, who feel otherwise. Yoshiba, the director of the business division at Kondansha, the original publisher of the “Ghost in the Shell” series, fully supports Scarlett Johansson in the leading role. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Yoshiba explained, “She has the cyberpunk feel. And we never imagined it would be a Japanese actor in the first place.” When visiting the set in New Zealand, he was “impressed by the respect being shown for the source material.” Yoshiba insinuates that even though people assume Major to be a Japanese character, the race of the cyborg is never specified. Instead of focusing on the controversy, Yoshiba states that this adaptation is offering an opportunity for a Japanese property to be seen worldwide.
However, the casting in “Ghost in the Shell” is troubling in that many see this series as a reflection of Japanese culture. Jon Tsuei, a writer of comic books and photographer, in a series of tweets, explained how casting a white actor in this role goes beyond just another missed opportunity for an Asian actor in a prominent role. “The manga came out in 1989, the first film 1995. An era when Japan was considered the leader in technology … This is a country that went from poised to conquer to the Pacific to forcibly disarmed. They poured their resources into their economy.” Tsuei goes on to explain, “And as a country that was unable to defend themselves, but was a world leader in tech, it created a relationship to tech that is unique … Ghost in the Shell plays off all of these themes. It is inherently a Japanese story, not a universal one.” While other sources from Japan have been adapted to Western films, Tsuei argues that adapting this film within the context of American culture and starring a white lead undermines the fundamental core of the story.
To further evidence whitewashing on a more blatant level, according to IMDb and other sources, the film has kept the character’s Japanese name, for now. While this may serve as an example of a movie studio “respecting” the source material, a character with a Japanese name should belong to a Japanese actor, or at the very least, an Asian actor. A recently released picture of Johansson as Major only added fuel to the fire, as the film appears to make Johansson look Asian. Ming-Na Wen, star of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” in a recent panel discussion, spoke of how seeing Johansson “with her Asian-esque haircut” prompted her to critique the casting decision.
Furthermore, according to a Screencrush exclusive, which listed multiple independent sources close to the project, Paramount and DreamWorks commissioned visual effects tests that would alter Johansson to look more Asian. Constance Wu, star of ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” in the same panel discussion that involved Wen, explained that the problem with these reported tests is it “reduces our race and ethnicity to mere physical appearance, when our race and culture are so much deeper than how we look.” Considering these bits of information, Yoshiba’s sentiments that the role is open to anyone with a “cyberpunk feel” starts to feel less genuine. In fact, this appears to be the opposite of respecting the source material. It becomes more evident that they merely want a big name, irrespective of racial implications, in hopes of scoring big in the box office; hence, the hiring of a white actor for a seemingly Japanese character.
So should the “bottom line” business mentality dictate whether a white actor takes over a non-white role? After all, there are plenty of examples of whitewashing that did not equate to big box office numbers. M. Night Shyamalan’s highly anticipated “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” also based off an anime where the main characters were universally thought of as Asian, featured an almost all-white cast. After receiving bad press and negative reviews, the movie flopped in the box office. Recent films such as “Aloha,” which cast Emma Stone as a Chinese Hawaiian character, and “Gods of Egypt,” which basically cast all whites to play Egyptians, also did poorly in the box office. As expected, both films also received a fair amount of bad press prior to and after its release. Not surprisingly, there seems to be a link between whitewashing and not respecting the source material resulting in poor reception and ticket sales.
We are entering a period where the noise for change is becoming loud and clear, and that’s a good thing.
Whitewashing will continue for some time, but the film industry cannot continue being comfortable in making these decisions. They need to be questioned whether these casting choices truly resulted from having “creative freedom” from the source material, or if there’s something else at play. Recently, the #OscarsSoWhite message criticized the Academy Awards for nominating mostly white people. The root problem isn’t necessarily the Academy itself (although they certainly aren’t helping), but the lack of roles offered to people of color in the first place. When there are opportunities for non-white actors, like “Ghost in the Shell,” they cast white actors anyway.
Not only are inherently Asian roles being given away to white actors, but stories that reflect different cultures and experiences are being bastardized to fit a certain narrative and for commercial success.
Whitewashing is a practice where people don’t seem to fully grasp the weight of the message it sends. A lack of understanding in its implications seems to be one of the only viable explanations of why this continues to happen so frequently.
So keep making noise. Keep demanding answers. Keep pressuring the film industry. Keep explaining why this is important. Only then will they start to think more about the story itself, and less about money and traditional inclinations.
Eric Card can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.