Whitewashing in Ghost in the Shell


We’ve seen it before, in Dragonball, in The Last Airbender. Now we may be seeing it again with the forthcoming Ghost in the Shell live-action adaptation. Today we learned that Scarlett Johansson is playing the lead in the new film from the director of Snow White and the Huntsman. Which probably means we’re closer to the real Ghost in the Shell adaptation than ever before. If successful, this could open a door.

I’d love to see more anime stories on Hollywood silver screens. There’s a lot of good material out there, and it’s a hell of a lot more diverse anyway than superhero mythos and YA novels.

Diverse, you say? But the whiteness. They’re calling the casting of Scarlett Johansson ‘whitewashing,’ but it’s more complicated than that.

Look, I don’t want to speak out of turn (because I… haven’t already?), but I want to be honest for a second. I dream for myself a beautiful Hollywood future, of drugs and sports cars and gambling some suit’s money on the next Star Wars and drugs and murder, and so as an aspiring science-fiction writer, I’ve thought about a prospective career.

And you knows how much I hate adaptations in film (a matter of principle, not in practice), so I decided that I’d never piss my career away on the big score, on the ‘here you go, director of some bullshit I didn’t actually watch, you seem like a perfect fit for this huge franchise, and now we control you and now you’ve… made something awful. Why didn’t we make a lot of money?’ But I also decided on a secret list of five properties that if ever offered to me (in my murder game fantasy), I wouldn’t turn down.

Ghost in the Shell is #2. So I’ve thought about how I’d do it. Rule 1 is simple: No more goddamn Puppet Master. Do something new — please. Rule 2 is who’d play the Major. First thought is that she’d be Japanese, because this is an adaptation, so why not carry that DNA over. So we’d have a Japanese Major, and everyone else would be white, or varied? More varied than Section 9 (if they appear). Scratch that.

This isn’t just an adaptation from animation to live-action, it’s also from Japan to America, unlike Dragonball or The Last Airbender, which were specifically Asian stories. The Major can be Japanese, because there are certainly Japanese American women police officers, that’s not crazy. But she can also be anyone else, because nobody else would be crazy either. I doubt the character’s name will be “Motoko Kusanagi,” and so that opens up the field. My second thought then was black — that would be neat, but shit. People would go fucking ballistic. Maybe if Zoe Saldana looked more convincing in an action role…

Is it whitewashing? Yes and no. They first looked at Margot Robie, from The Wolf of Wall Street, and now it’s Scarlett Johansson. Did they ever even consider a non-white actress? Doesn’t matter — a non-white actress wasn’t cast. Not only is an actress cheated out of the chance for a peachy job because of racism, we as an audience are cheated out of a normalizing image.

Imagine. A black female who — fuck’s sake — is the main character? Not even is an action hero, just is the main character.

But what about Scarlett Johansson? She’s an award-winning actress, and she’s unique, a kind of female Keanu Reeves in terms of affect. She’s done at least two machine-person movies, Her and Lucy, and arguably, Under the Skin. She’s demonstrated action prowess with The Avengers, and proven her name long before.

She’ll make for a great Major (though I’d rather Melanie St-Pierre, Malgorzata Foremniak, or Mary Elizabeth McGlynn), and once I’ve seen Snow White, I’ll be more confident about the movie’s chance of success. I’ll be optimistic just because either way, Ghost in the Shell is back, and more Ghost in the Shell is always welcome.

But, really it’s a funny kind of tragedy. On the theoretical level, it’s not whitewashing, it’s not the replacement of a Japanese character with a white one. I’d rather we didn’t immediately spring to these labels — labels are what got us into this mess. And yet, it sucks, because the end product here is no different.

With the prospective Cleopatra remake, and the current Exodus: Gods and Kings (somehow we’re surprised at Ridley Scott’s casting behavior?), whitewashing is the issue of now in Hollywood, actually important and less idiotic than what’s going on with The Interview. This is the cost of the continued ignorance in that dreamy murder-scape on the west coast — our future.

And in the future, the line between man and machine blurs, and a woman is the most frighteningly powerful individual in the world. Let’s not try to contradict the good nature of this particular franchise.

10 thoughts on “Whitewashing in Ghost in the Shell

  1. It’s definitely tricky. We talked about this on my DBZ podcast last month when reviewing Dragon Ball Evolution and discussing Goku and Bulma, the two most integral characters in the series, being cast as white people. It floats over an area familiar to those who complained that Superman, Spider-Man and Batman (and now MLK funnily enough) were American icons portrayed by UK actors. There’s casting outside of the nationality, then, with the case of anime live action adaptations, there’s casting outside the image.

    I think…while I agree that if there’s an anime character who’s typically known as Japanese that could be played white, the Major is one since she’s a cyborg. My consternation over it is like you said, we’re cheated out of a normalizing image. ScarJo’s not hard up for roles, and has her name attached to a franchise already. The feeling I’m taking away is that this was done with the primary intention to make a bigger name for herself rather than to bring the coolness of Ghost in the Shell to a newer, wider audience. Like “SCARLET JOHANSSON STARS IN AN ADAPTATION OF THE 1995 ANIME CLASSIC”, which would serve a proverbial click-bait and withholds the fact that this world is by and large Japanese.

    Or so I think. I’ve not seen nearly as much as you have.

    My reception to the news is colored by a prejudiced conception of Hollywood wanting to make a quick buck no matter what racial cost so it’s very hard for me to see this as anything other than cynical casting. I’m not exactly angry, but fairly disappointed at the lack of imagination.

    It could’ve been worse though. ScarJo is a legitimately good actress who can maintain the creepy blank stares the Major famously brandished in the ’95 film.

    1. The commercial motivation is clear, and that’s always the issue. You’re exactly right — those fat cats don’t give the first damn about the racial consequence, especially when doing the right thing is seemingly adverse to maximizing profit/minimizing risk (doubtless this’ll be a foolhardy $100+ mil price tag). That common wisdom of ‘black or female don’t sell’ has lolled its way back, now that it’s been a few years since Think Like a Man and Bridesmaids, and filmmakers went on to cash in on the wrong aspects of those successes.

      Eh, I mean the first movie takes place in Hong Kong, but Innocence is specifically Japanese. I like to think it’s a mutable enough property to be adapted anywhere — if this one is successful, I’d love to see a Bollywood version…

      I guess I’m okay with the ScarJo. I’ve never really seen her in anything outside The Avengers. And I don’t want to sound mean but she does have that kind of plain face, just like the Major in the 1995 version. She can definitely pull that stare off, holy crap.

      I’ll have to see Dragonball Evolution, and then listen to your episode about it — it’s a good conversation to have, though it would be my introduction to DBZ, and that’s probably (certainly) the opposite of where I should start.

      1. I’ll save you the wasted hours of lifetime and sum up that we on the podcast ultimately felt that we would have rather the studio hired an Asian actor for the part of Goku, but it ultimately didn’t matter since the character of Goku is an alien anyway, and nothing about the character of Bulma speaks to being Japanese. And virtually every other major character in the film was played by an Asian actor, be they Chow Yun Fat, Jamie Chung or Joon Park. So for the sake of adaptation, the film surprisingly stuck the characters to the ethnicity they most likely would be if they existed in real life.

        It comes down for me that if they name ScarJo “Matoko Kusanagi”, that’ll be a legitimate problem. If she’s just The Major, it’ll be like the Brolin version of Oldboy and the Departed. American adaptations.

    2. Yeah, you know it’s actually a lot like The Departed situation. In that case we transplant Chinese Triads to the Irish mob in Boston — Ghost in the Shell is crime too, and that’s a universal language.

      Man, I kinda want to see Dragonball Evolution though. Just looking for the excuse.

      Emmy Rossum’s all like: I’m Bulma Briefs

  2. *shudder*

    I intentionally held off on it for years until we did it for the podcast. I’ve seen worse films, but not that many worse films.

  3. So from what I’ve reas online, they’ve now actually included a bunch of Japanese actors for the movie–Rila Fukushima as whoever I don’t know and Takeshi Kitano as Aramaki, and then Chin Han as well, nonchanlantly pertending to be Japanese in the mix…shhhh, nobody will know. The Major is of course Scarlett Johansson, but Batou now is also white, played by that bulky Icelandic actor from Game of Thrones whose name I have forgotten (sorry). Em, so a bunch of Japanese actors and Chinese Singaporean actors pertending to be Japanese, and then have the main characters be white? Seriously I wouldn’t mind too much if they actually went with a full-white cast and completely Americanized plot (like what they did with Inferno Affairs) but now? Kinda interesting to say the least.

    And they are shooting in Hong Kong as well. Seems like Mr. Sanders is going hardcore 1995–the leaked photos of Johansson certainly looks like Major v.1995 as well.

    I wouldn’t mind a 1995 remake though. I’d happy if they can make it like the Watchmen. As long as they can get the feel right, I wouldn’t mind too much about everything else–as long as I can get more GITS coming. My expectation is low, and people say it’s a good thing.

    1. And I’m also waiting to see if they’re gonna have Scarlett Johansson naked jumping off buildings. Let’s see how 1995 Mr. Sanders is willing to go.

    2. I feel like Beat Takeshi as Aramaki is a total miscast that comes from this pressure to include Japanese (and apparently, Japanese-looking) actors. Here’s a guy who’s known for dark comic roles and playing the gritty yakuza boss — Aramaki is this tiny guy who might be shrewd, but is hardly intimidating or a source for levity.

      Production IG VP Maki Terashima-Furuta recently tweeted some photos of Sanders hanging with Oshii and Kawaii, but also Kamiyama. I think the movie will be more faithful to the 1995 film than anything else (although the plot details out there make it sound like a slight departure and the villain is called The Laughing Man), and that’s a good feel to try to emulate, I suppose.

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