“Ghost in the Shell” faces whitewashing controversy
If you’re following any Asian American activists, influencers or content creators or websites affiliated with any of the above, you’ve likely heard about the recent controversy surrounding the live-action adaptation of 1989 manga “Ghost in the Shell.”
Based in a mid-21st century cyberpunk Japan, “Ghost in the Shell” follows cyborg Major Motoko Kusanagi as she leads Public Security Section 9, an organization dedicated to counter cyberterrorism. The manga, written and illustrated by Masamune Shirow, has enjoyed considerable success, with republishing, international editions, art, merchandise and a PlayStation video game, as well as two film adaptations of the franchise.
There’s only one problem: In Hollywood’s 2017 production of the film, protagonist Motoko Kusanagi will be played by Scarlett Johansson. Many people of color and allies immediately protested this casting, chalking up the decision as the most recent instance of Hollywood’s long and insidious history of whitewashing, which is when white actors and actresses are hired to portray characters of color. Adding fuel to the fire are accusations that Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks, the producers of the film, hired leading visual effects company Lola VFX to conduct tests to make Johansson look more Asian.
So what’s the big deal? Defenders of the casting suggest that Johansson was hired based purely on merit and that her race shouldn’t matter, as she is a big box office name meant to bring in revenue.
These supporters further argue that Major Kusanagi is a cyborg anyway, and as such, question whether her ethnicity and nationality really matter. Yet the meritocracy argument does not hold much water when one considers the dearth of representation Asian Americans and other people of color face in both television and film.
And in an industry where actors and actresses of color receive notorious underrepresentation compared to their Caucasian peers, it is even more outrageous that this rare Asian protagonist would not be cast as such. Indeed, for many Asian Americans, “Ghost in the Shell” represents a missed opportunity to see themselves reflected in major roles on the big screen. To add insult to injury, many of these same Asian Americans grew up loving the franchise. Furthermore, despite the traditionally low Asian representation, there are clearly talented Asian actresses who could have filled the role. Actress Rinko Kikuchi, who thrilled audiences in Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 film “Pacific Rim,” is a fan favorite replacement, and her Academy Award nomination shows her acting chops are certainly up to par.
Another common defense of the casting is that Major Motoko Kusanagi “looked European” in the manga anyway. But what is it, exactly, that makes people jump to this conclusion? To presume that fair skin, large eyes and light hair in a Japanese art form automatically signify whiteness is problematic at least, and absolutely arrogant at most.
As comic artist Mildred Louis advocates on Twitter, Western portrayals of people of color often skew our vision and make us assume the default is white, but we must remember that these traits are not exclusive to one race. In a Twitter explanation that also called into play the inherently Japanese themes of “Ghost in the Shell”—specifically relating Japan’s role as a technological and economical giant in the ‘80s-‘90s to its forcible disarming in WWII—comic book writer Jon Tsuei stated similar views as Louis, saying, “…people in the west look at drawings and see white people. The same is not true in Asia.”
Additionally, on a fundamental level, the manga is by a Japanese artist, the character’s name is clearly Japanese and she is living in Japan, presiding over a Japanese prefecture. How could anyone, in good conscience, argue that she is supposed to be white?
Overall, the contention over “Ghost in the Shell,” as well as other recent whitewashing of Asian characters in films like “Aloha” and “Doctor Strange,” should serve as a reminder that Hollywood—and America in general—has not outgrown its racist roots. People may claim that we live in an enlightened, post-racist society, but in many ways, our systems still engage in the problematic constructions and discourse of imperialism and colonialism. As Americans, we must hold ourselves, and our industries, to a sense of greater accountability.
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