Whitewashed in the Shell: The Namewashing That Keeps on Giving!

Oh Hollywood, how you never fail to disappoint me!

A while back, I wrote an article discussing the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi in the live-action Ghost in the Shell. Recently, Johansson’s defence for playing the character came to fruition, prompting further response. Now, in a stunning move, the most-recent trailer has released, prompting even further response. Why? Have a watch:

Did…did they go full-4Kids with this? (Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.)

That’s right: Motoko Kusanagi is now Mira! Isn’t that great?

I’m being a little unfair; after all, changing names is a way of helping to differentiate ethnicities from one culture to another. It happened all the time with biblical texts (Jesus’s original name was Yehoshua,) and it’s also happened with movies (Samurai Seven VS The Magnificent Seven.) Sometimes it’s necessary, and good material should work regardless of culture. So using the name “Mira” makes sense.

The problem, however, is context. This isn’t a thought-out, conscientious choice on the part of the filmmakers and/or studio execs, because I can live with that. The name change feels almost reactionary to criticism, which’d be somewhat okay if Johansson weren’t cast as the main character. Because it’s still whitewashing, and that’s precisely the problem.

I should note that this isn’t exclusive to Ghost in the Shell. Remember Doctor Strange? Y’know, that trippy Marvel movie about a neurosurgeon who loses his dexterity in a car crash and becomes a sorcerer? I enjoyed that movie, as did many other people. But even in early production, there was a looming issue that plagued the film: the casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One. I get why it was done financially, China doesn’t like Tibet, and they re-wrote the character’s backstory to accommodate the change, but it still never felt right. It felt like a white character pretending to be an Asian character, which kept pulling me out of the experience.

Which is what this move feels like too: a white character pretending to be an Asian character. The film can rename the protagonist from Motoko to Mira, but that doesn’t solve anything, especially not this late in the game! It feels like a bandage solution to a deep wound, and one that wasn’t properly disinfected. It’s frustrating how dumb Hollywood executives think we are about this, and I’m not happy. And even if this movie had gone through last-minute reshoots to accommodate this change, as many films do, it’s too late to save this project.

Honestly, this is a good indication of how troubled the production of this film was: first it was in production hell for several years. Then it found a spotty director. Then Scarlett Johansson was cast as The Major. Then the trailers looked disappointing. Then Johansson made an off-colour remark that reeked of racism. And now the main character’s name has been changed to Mira. Oh, and it looks like a generic rip-off of the Jason Bourne and Total Recall movies, with a visual style reminiscent of Ghost in the Shell.

I dunno about you, but doesn’t this seem like a disaster from the get-go? I feel awful for saying that, since I want this film to succeed. I want Hollywood to finally get it right then it comes to adaptations of anime, as they’ve yet to crack the code. And it’s not even like this’ll be another Dragonball Evolution, as it at least has the aesthetic down. Much like the recent crop of video game movies, it’s trying to be as faithful as it can. So it’s even more frustrating that it’s still finding a way to fail.

But I guess this goes back to my underlying concern: Hollywood doesn’t get anime. It never tries unless there’s potential profit to be made, and even then it adapts the wrong aspects. It’s the classic “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation, and that really sucks. It’s an additional shame because I’m worried about potential anime-to-Hollywood adaptations that could work, like Fullmetal Alchemist, Attack on Titan or, God forbid, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. The former two would be perfect in the hands of a Peter Jackson/Guillermo del Toro-style director, as both fit their styles to a teat. Meanwhile, the latter would be a dream come true in the hands of a competent fantasy director, especially now that the Manga’s complete. That Ghost in the Shell looks to be a failure gives me no hope for these adaptations.

But perhaps it’s all well that Ghost in the Shell will fail. On one hand, even if it did everything well, fans would find something to complain about. It’d be trashed like no tomorrow, ripped apart by die-hard fans who’d refuse to acknowledge its existence. And the second anyone dares say something nice, the dissenters would decry treachery. So it wouldn’t win anyway.

On the other hand, perhaps there’s no longer a need for a live-action adaptation? Ghost in the Shell had a profound impact on Alex Proyas and The Wachowskis, such that both have cited it as an influence on Dark City and The Matrix respectively. That the original film has already been “readapted” twice by three different directors should be proof enough that, in a weird way, we don’t need Ghost in the Shell anymore. I know it’s a flimsy claim, but perhaps this film has already been readapted by Hollywood?

Maybe I’m being too optimistic. Or maybe I’m not. Either way, we’ll find out when Ghost in the Shell releases in a little bit. So cross your fingers, and perhaps toes, and pray. We’ll need all the help we can get.


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