Whitewashed in the Shell: Hollywood's History with Racism

Every once in a while, I look through Twitter’s Trends to see if something interesting is being discussed. For the most part, sadly, the Trends are either really lame, or really pathetic. Still, every-so-often something of note comes along. Case-in-point:

I’m sure most of you know of Ghost in the Shell. It’s not only one of the most-influential anime films ever, but it’s rubbed off its influence on Hollywood movies like Dark City and The Matrix. Personally, I’m not the biggest fan of it, finding it overly talky and incredibly slow-paced, but I’ll save the full ramblings for another day (it’s been a while, let’s put it that way.) Nevertheless, it, like Akira, has made its mark on the industry.

The rumours of a live-action, Hollywood remake of the film have been going on for years. They’ve been circulating for almost as long as that of a live-action Akira, honestly. The film has been constantly switching directors, studios, cast members, the list goes on. It’s pretty much been in a constant flux of “production hell”, which sounds even worse when you consider that no one was willing to take it seriously. Still, the project seemed destined to make its way to theatres, so that's exactly what happened: Ghost in the Shell is slated for a 2017 release, with Scarlett Johansson being cast as the lead character, Matoko Kusanagi.

Yeah…the red flags are going up with that last sentence, aren’t they?

If your first instinct is to call this ridiculous, then you’re not alone. The entirety of Twitter blew up over this announcement, with almost everyone deeming it in “poor taste”. I usually try not to get too caught up in Twitter activism, especially since a lot of it is over-reactionary, but in this case I see where the criticism is coming from. Because Matoko Kusanagi is an important character to cast properly, so getting that so incredibly wrong is like asking for a hamburger because you’re allergic to the fish fillet…only to end up getting the fish fillet anyway.

Terrible analogy aside, let’s deconstruct some of the biggest points to this controversy:

1. The casting itself-Ghost in the Shell, like I said, is a pretty big deal in Japan’s animation history, being a story that, for lack of a better term, is heavily Japanese. The basic premise of a cybernetic being trying to fend off a computer hacker with no body could’ve been done in any futuristic setting, but that the story chose a Japanese one speaks volumes. I’d explain why, but I think this video does a better job than I ever could:

I really despise that eery music, by the way. (Courtesy of Nerdwriter1.)

Ghost in the Shell being set where it was was no accident. I mention this because the characters are equally as Asian as the story. You can argue all you want if cyborgs are defined by race/ethnicity, but that doesn’t make the characters in this story less Asian. A live-action film based on this premise, one that takes place in this universe, has to have an Asian cast. The lead is no exception.

Which is all the more disturbing that they got Scarlett Johansson, an American of Dutch/Jewish decent, to play Matoko Kusanagi. To her credit, I don’t think Johansson’s a bad actress. I love her as Black Widow in the MCU, and she’s proven herself quite versatile with Under the Skin. She’s incredibly skilled as an action heroine and can easily carry a complex film. She also has presence, as indicated by the films I’ve mentioned. But she’s the wrong choice for Ghost in the Shell.

It’s not like I wouldn’t be game for Johansson as Kusanagi. Ignoring that she’s not Asian, the image of her looks authentic: her hair is the right cut, she has the eyes and facial expression down, and she genuinely seems like she cares. But that’s besides the point. Johansson’s casting was an oversight on the parts of Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures because it’s not right for the character. It doesn't reflect who Kusanagi's supposed to be as an individual, in other words.

2. Hollywood’s past-Hollywood has a dark history of whitewashing in order to appeal to the masses. Whether it’s populating its Biblical epics with white actors and actresses instead of from the Middle East, casting John Wayne as Genghis Khan, or even the modern-day, live-action film of the Dragon Ball franchise, it’s no secret that Hollywood’s guilty of prejudice when it comes to films in non-caucasian environments. Sometimes it’s not so terrible, Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin in Iron Man 3 didn’t bug me because the original character was a racist caricature anyway, but most of the time it’s…well, it’s offensive. It’s offensive because there are many talented actors and actresses in other parts of the world who are clamouring to become popular, and giving roles they could’ve excelled in to white actors and actresses with clout makes it seem like Hollywood is overly self-indulgent in its own vapidness.

It’s especially problematic because Scarlett Johansson didn’t need that role, as she already has a steady career of successful films. By taking it on, she’s robbing potential actresses from Japan, South Korea, China, or other countries in that part of the world a chance to make it big over here. Even excluding fan-favourite Rinko Kikuchi, there are many talented actresses that could’ve fit the role. People like Rila Fukushima (Yukio from The Wolverine), Bae Doona (Soonmi-451 from Cloud Atlas) and Zhang Ziyi (Moon from Hero) spring to mind almost immediately when I think of what Kusanagi could’ve looked like in live-action, and I’m not that familiar with Asian cinema!

Basically, there’s a list of actresses from the East who are far better-suited to Matoko Kusanagi than Johansson. And it saddens me that they’re not being considered, especially since Ghost in the Shell has the potential to be a game-changer so far as how the West views Japanese entertainment (y’know, assuming the talent involved actually cared about quality.) It’s Japanese, but not to the point where you can’t enjoy it without context of Japanese culture, and it’s incredibly popular. So Hollywood not capitalizing on an unknown face in a live-action film is really disappointing.

It’s additionally disappointing because it reenforces negative stereotypes about how the West views the rest of the world: “We don’t want to be accurate because we don’t care about you! What’s that? We’re jerks, and our movies will probably suck? Well, too bad! We have all the money, so HAH!”

I think Hollywood keeps forgetting two important details: 1. That not every movie-goer is white, so a little diversity every-so-often would actually be healthy. 2. Even outside of that, people hold these properties in high-regard, so not representing them properly is a slap in the face.

Both concerns make for some pretty sour audiences members, which leads to my final point…

3. Casting isn’t the only issue-I don’t think this live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell will be good. I want it to, and I’d be happy if I were proven wrong, but I’m not putting my money on something that’s been floating around this long without results.

It’s weird that people don’t acknowledge this crucial fact. Ignoring what I think about the original movie, it’s being hemmed by the director of Snow White and the Huntsman, aka Rupert Sanders. Given that track-record I’m not holding my breath. It doesn’t help that the film’s been bounced around so frequently and has gotten nowhere until now, especially since the last big-budget studio movie to do that, Fant4stic, was atrocious. While there are definitely exceptions to being frequently delayed, Inside Out had a 6 year production cycle and was still awesome, that isn’t a good sign.

I’m also more concerned about the quality of the acting and the film in general. Exodus: Gods and Kings was the last whitewashed movie I watched, and that was a blandly-acted, sloppily-written and overall unpleasant movie to sit through. I can forgive whitewashing somewhat so long as a movie’s great, see The Ten Commandments, but “great” that one wasn’t. It was over 2 hours, perhaps even close to 3, of Ridley Scott flaunting his atheism and disdain for religion because he could, which irritated me. (Thank God for The Martian the following year, or I’d have given up on Scott.)

Which leads back to Ghost in the Shell: yes, the casting choice is terrible, and completely spits in the face of the original story. But no, I don’t think that alone can tank it as a project. The acting and overall production quality, however, can, and it most-likely will given how troubled it already is. I want to be proven wrong here, I HOPE I get proven wrong here! But I’m incredibly doubtful that I will be.

Besides, if this movie turns out to be terrible, there’s always the original, no?


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