Opinion: Ghost in the Shell and Whitewashing

By now, most of you have seen the picture of Scarlett Johansson’s “Major” from Ghost in the Shell, an American remake of the popular manga/anime/media monster from Japan.  It caused a stir with not only online but also with a lot of my own friends.  Why?

The “Major” is named Motoko Kusanagi in the original source material.  This is the latest case of Hollywood “whitewashing” an Asian character.

I was a little hesitant to write about this.  I’ve only seen less than a handful of the Ghost in the Shell anime.  Or at least one version of it…I don’t know, there are so many.

In general I’m not a fan of anime.   The whole inner monologue being spoken out loud in the middle of an action scene just drives me up a wall….

And now I’ve probably lost half my readers.  Dammit, now I only have one…

Also, it’s still early.  The movie is not even out yet.  They could change some story aspects that could make it more interesting (More on that later).  Or they could completely change the story or the setting that could change my opinion.

But then I saw a lot of the reactions in defense of this:

“It’s an American adaption!  Relax!  Remember The Departed?”

“Give the role to the most talented actor.”

“You’re crazy if you think Hollywood would put an unknown or foreign actor in a movie that cost millions!”

I couldn’t just let that sit.  I’m a filmmaker who is Asian American.  This issue matters to me.  And it needs to be talked about.

I don’t mind adaptations.  If they’re done well, you can get a very good film.  A lot of people have cited The Departed as a successful adaptation of Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs in defense of Ghost in the Shell.  The Departed also cast white American actors.

But here is where the similarities end for me.  Leonardo DiCaprio is talented, but no amount of research or method acting would have made him a convincing undercover officer in Hong Kong’s underworld.  The Departed moved to America so the changing of the characters to American  was not only less objectionable, but also made sense.  Watching The Departed now, it’s a distinctly American film.

And don’t forget the rat.  Because that’s important.  REMEMBER THE RAT.

As of the writing of this article, Ghost in the Shell still takes place in Japan.  Most of the top credited cast besides Johansson are white as well:  Michael Pitt, Juliette Binoche and Michael Wincott.  Takeshi Kitano is among a number of Japanese actors credited as well, further reinforcing that the film takes place in Japan.

And if they’re all androids…why are they WHITE ANDROIDS?  What kind of sense does that make?

I may be jumping to conclusions, but I worry that this another case of “white person goes to Asia to discover self” stories.  There is another film that seems to be doing the same:  Doctor Strange.  The Ancient One has been Asian in the Marvel Comics and while I do applaud Marvel for not perpetuating the Asian “Wise Man” stereotype by casting Tilda Swinton in the role why does that mean the character can’t be Asian at all?  They made her a woman…why not an Asian woman?

And this is not a question of talent.  Johansson and Swinton are both incredibly talented, but I’m tired of the constant defense of “they went with the most talented actor.”  That’s incredibly dismissive, suggesting that no Asian American could possibly be better than who they cast.

The cynical part of me knows that money is the reasoning behind casting Johansson.  She can “carry” a movie.  A lot of people use that reasoning as a defense.

But then think of this:  Who’s fault is that?

Hollywood’s leading actors and actresses have almost always been white.  For every African American actor like Will Smith or Denzel Washington who can open a big movie, there is a Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Chris Pratt, George Clooney, Channing Tatum, Tom Hanks…Scarlett Johansson.  I could go on and on.  Asians are basically absent in that list.

And because they never took a chance to make minorities headliners, they should never do it?  That’s lazy reasoning.  Even when it makes sense to have an Asian actor in the lead, like in Ghost in the Shell, they don’t do it.

And I think that’s the biggest problem.  When I was in college a professor in my Asian American Studies class said that as a writer the key to having better representation in media of any kind is to simply to make your characters Asian.

The creators are the biggest controllers of the art.  And most of them seem to be white.  I look at creators I admire:  Spielberg, Cameron, Whedon…almost all of them are white.  If there were more Asian American producers, writers, directors, then maybe we would have more representation.

And this is not just an Asian issue, all the minorities need better representation.  Whether they be African American, Latino or, hell, women in general, there is a serious lack of representation in the medium that I love so much.

With all this said, I would somewhat retract my objections if Ghost in the Shell plays with the fact that she is a white woman in Japan.  This is my take on something that I admittedly don’t know a lot about:

Maybe play up the fact that an Asian woman’s “personality” is in a white woman’s cyborg form.  Play with the fact that someone who looks like Johansson is considered more attractive in society.  As a writer, that might be something I would be interested in seeing.

But then again, that thread seems unnecessarily complicated and deserves it’s own movie.

And it would still have Scarlett Johansson playing an Asian character…

Forget I said anything.