Hollywood Whitewashing and Ghost in the Shell

Posted on March 31st, 2017 by

Big Blockbuster whitewashing is still going strong in 2017

Author Jon Men

Ghost in the Shell is one of Japan’s most heralded anime exports to America. A beautifully crafted meditation on technology, mortality and morality, Ghost is frequently on top 10 anime lists, so it makes sense that Hollywood would want to produce a live-action version. After all, there’s money to be made and an audience already built in, so why not?

Based on the trailers, it appears that both the Japanese setting and culture have been retained, but the film’s female protagonist, Motoko Kusanagi, also referred to as “The Major,” has been reimagined as having predominantly Euro-Western physical characteristics. And while I’m a fan of Scarlett Johansson, her casting here is emblematic of Hollywood’s penchant for washing Asian people out of Asian stories.

Why whitewash the protagonist for the live-action version? Proponents might pose a variety of arguments. Some could say that it wasn’t about the role, it was about talent and Scarlett Johansson reigns supreme. Others may contend that the studio needed a big name actress to sell the film and there aren’t any Asian actresses of the sort. The most annoying people might argue that the actress doesn’t matter at all, as Mokoto’s race is never mentioned explicitly.

First, Scarlett Johansson is undoubtedly an immense actress, but action roles like these are 50% talent, 50% marketing. Second, there are no bonafide Asian actresses who are box-office pulls because no studio has ever taken a chance on an Asian actress in a movie that could be a bonafide smash. And third, with a name like “Mokoto Kusanagi,” a story set in Japan, and a world influenced by Japanese culture, it’s a no-brainer that Ghost’s lead character is Japanese.

The reasons for her casting are as backwards and they are expected: Hollywood doesn’t believe that Asian characters or Asian actors should anchor films.

Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell

From yellowface in 1937’s The Good Earth to Matt Damon’s white savior in 2016’s The Great Wall, Hollywood has a history of loving stories from and about Asia but is apparently reticent to believe Asians should be involved in telling those stories.

2008’s 21 was a film about a brilliant MIT student, Ben Campbell, who joins the school’s unofficial card counting team. In real life, “Ben Campbell” was Jeff Ma, and the MIT card counters were predominantly Asian American. 2010’s disastrous The Last Airbender converted its source material’s Asian and Inuit characters into white protagonists. 2014’s Exodus: Gods and Kings painted Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton in shades of brown to depict Moses and Ramesses II. Hollywood loves telling stories about Asian people without actual Asian people.

The problem with excluding Asian people from Asian stories goes beyond cultural appropriation: It also shapes our culture for the worse. Films are a popular way for people, including and especially kids, to live viscerally. We see ourselves in the characters that occupy these worlds and experience adventures through their stories. But generations of whitewashed films have normalized the notion that adventures are best had by white people or people who look white, and that Asians are best left to play sidekicks. We can be doctors, we can be neighbors, we can be bit characters in a plot that involves the mystic or martial arts, but we never lead the journey ourselves. What does it say to audiences when Asian characters, or characters of any minority, are washed out of their own stories?

On the rare occasion an Asian character does strike out as the lead in a film, like O-Lan in The Good Earth or Captain Allison Ng in Aloha, they can’t look too Asian, lest they relegate themselves to the blurry side of a rack focus.

Growing up, the role models I found in film – Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Chow Yun-Fat – are all wonderful actors, but all typecast as martial artists. As a child, I found it difficult to fantasize myself going on grand adventures that didn’t employ some sort of kung fu, and while I had a lot of fun fighting ninjas and wielding katanas in these fantasies, it would have been nice to trade in the sword for a romantic interest or the kung fu robes for a tuxedo.

I’m not opposed to Hollywood telling stories about, set in or influenced by Asia. I’m not opposed to Scarlett Johansson. I’m opposed to the pattern of nonchalance: telling Asian stories devoid of Asian characters and actors. Ghost in the Shell is the latest Hollywood footprint on a very old back. As much as I’d love to see it, I won’t.  If you want to tell Asian stories, let Asian people play a “Major” role. 

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