Whitewashing for dollars: "Ghost In The Shell"

Ghost In The Shell
Scarlett Johansson in "Ghost In The Shell"

The initial reaction to Scarlett Johanssons cast as Major Motoko Kusanagi aka “Mira Killian” was completely appropriate.  The assertion that big names are needed in Hollywood in order to guarantee a draw is simply dishonest and plain creepy.  No one knew who Shirow Masamune was when the original came out,  and no one knew who the hell Mamoru Oshii was either.  But the film became so widely popular and venerated that is spawned an entire generation of feature length anime and anime watchers.  The idea that the live action adaptation needed a white actress to justify the expense is equally creepy and dishonest.  And that hackneyed excuse is the same one that has been used to justify everything from “Kung Fu the Series” to “The Last Airbender”.  

Here is where the whitewashing aspect becomes really complicated, a lot more hypocritical, and a lot creepier.  For a few years now, Hollywood has been strategically including or removing elements from films in order to appease Chinese markets.  And it was not lost on me that the film was produced (funded) by the Shanghai Group and Huawei Media.

The idea that the Major is occupying a “white” shell is simply false.  This is a notion perpetuated by people who clearly know nothing about anime, or the manga from which they derive.  Also, the notion that the Major had “blue” eyes in the original signified that she was white.  Also false.  The major had blue eyes which was an indicator throughout the animated film of the presence of cybernetic implants.  All of the characters in manga tend to have round eyes, which westerners perceive as white.  

This issue is further confused by the fact that the characters depicted in anime are often racially differentiated by hair color or garb.  Japanese characters are often depicted as having black hair with no other features distinguishing them from other races (except black).  The reason why manga and anime are drawn this way has nothing to do with phenotypes per se.  Rather it is a matter of self-perception in a homogenous society.  The characters in the minds of Japanese are representative of themselves. 

The idea that the characters are drawn “white” is simply affirming a particularly specious form of whitewashing, and enabling the entitlement that comes with it.  It is also completely rebutted by the notion that the main character in Ghost In The Shell’s name is “Motoko Kusanagi”.  If the appearance of the original character, by virtue of occupying a certain type of cybernetic body, were intended to be white, it is doubtful Japanese animators would have left that to inference.   The people who are defending the casting of Johansson on the grounds that the main character was, at various times, drawn as white are simply wrong.  This is also confirmed by the fact that ALL of the characters, regardless of their particular ethnicity are drawn in the same way, still being differentiated by hair color, skin color, or garb.  In essence the idea that the large eyed caricature specific to the anime style is the standard for Japanese artists.

The absolutely worst part about this particular instance of whitewashing was  augmented by the fact that the main character in the film was apparently a Japanese woman, who was abducted and had her brain placed in a shell that appeared to be white. The antagonist, Michael Pitt, was also a Japanese man who had been abducted and placed inside the shell of a white man.  The whitewashing in this movie is so meta, it's almost a deeply sick joke.  Hollywood essentially doubled down on the whitewashing by doing an end around the issue with a lazy fix, likely applied mid production.  Somehow the idea that an Asian woman being abducted and then having her brain placed in a white woman’s body and given a white woman’s name  is supposed to make whitewashing OK.  Instead, it highlights the act of appropriation itself.  A faceless corporation, appropriates two Asian bodies, strips away the part of them they find useless and unpalatable (their Asian-ness), then transplants that which they find valuable and places it inside a more pleasing white form.  And in order to compound the joke, they keep the initials of the original person and create European sounding names around them.

Hollywood is definitely guilty of whitewashing.  And all of the usual excuses have been debunked repeatedly.  In fact, most science fiction and anime fans are more likely to appreciate the cinematic purity of casting a Japanese woman.  Some might say that they want the film to appeal to a broader audience than the scifi nerds.  But whose to say that a Japanese actress wouldn’t?  In fact, the studios may be alienating entire portions of their audience by continuing to do the same things with the same racist logic. 

Here is where it get’s worse.  As I was watched the film, something was nagging me about the sets.  Despite them being cgi and , for the most part, beautiful, there was something missing.  I wasn’t getting the same sense of being transported into a dilapidated, future, Mega-Tokyo.  The scene where Kusanagi chases a perp into a drainage reservoir and kicks his ass in ankle deep water, was completely missing the part where she they exchanged gunfire in the middle of a crowded street market.  I noticed throughout the rest of the film, that something palpable about the texture of the whole film was simply absent.

I also noticed that Togusa was not only significantly older, but also being played by a Chinese actor.  It started to dawn on me that the entire film had been scrubbed of most of the cultural references to Japan.  With the exception of Takeshi Kitano, the entire cast was white or generically Asian.  All of the street signs that gave the original its dystopian charm and a sense of being in a future Japan, were completely stripped out of the film.  An occasional kanji painted in white letters on highways were still present but I have my suspicions about why that might be.

It’s odd to me that Hollywood continually asserts that ethnic actors may have less of a draw than their white counterparts yet are more than willing to view the ethnicities of subordinate roles as interchangeable.  Why cast Togusa as Chinese?  That might have been ok 30 years ago when there weren’t so many Asians in Hollywood.  But today, acting is a global market and the person who was cast is largely forgettable.  The studios could have picked up more PR points by casting a Japanese actor or simply renaming the role rather than what they did. Remember when I said I noticed who funded the movie?  Well that struck me as being the reason for whitewashing this film.

Hollywood has been in the practice for years, of making gratuitous inclusions in their films in order to capture the dollars of the millions of filmgoers in China.  “The Force Awakens” was heavily censored as are many American films.  “The Martian” portrayed the Chinese as magnanimous partners who donated the Taiyang Shen in the spirit of exploration, whereas the book depicted a much more bureaucratic and self interested motive.   “Iron Man 3” went out of its way to show Tony Stark having the ark reactor removed from his chest in China.  I suspect much of the cultural texture of  “Ghost in The Shell” was scrubbed out because the films’ producers were instructed to by the film’s financiers.  It’s no surprise.  The Chinese, justifiably, have no love for the Japanese.  And the owners of the franchise in Japan seemed to be toeing the line on the PR front.  After all, I am sure they are elated at getting another payday on a 25 year old franchise property.

What Hollywood is essentially telling us now is that they are perfectly willing to erase people from film, and other records of modern pop culture, unless we are willing to pay them not to.  But at least we can say they are consistent.  Money has always been the guiding star in Hollywood, and the profit motive of Chinese money has amplified not only their greed, but their racism too.  What’s worse is that they don’t appear to be true believers anymore, rather they are racist guns for hire prepared to erase anyone from film by anyone who can afford to have it done.

You can watch the video review below:



About the author
J. Austin Yoshino
Author: J. Austin Yoshino
That's what I do; I read and I know things.
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