ScarJo in Ghost in the Shell is Not Whitewashing (this time)

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Another hat in the ring

Yesterday, the Ghost in the Shell live-action American adaptation was officiated. It’s officially happening, and it’s officially white.

No matter how you spin it, the situation is not ideal. However, we could be more specific with our deployment of certain terminology – not because it’s inflammatory, or because outrage ought to be reduced by itself, but for the sake of realizing better solutions, those optimal to each individual situation. This requires a better understanding of these situations, and this one is more complicated than it seems.

Usually the conversation around racial representation in Hollywood is about superheroes, a field I don’t have a personal stake in, or burning opinion compelling me to share it. But this is Ghost in the Shell. I mean, Christ, it’s Ghost in the Shell! Fan credentials are about worth not a damn, but I love Ghost in the Shell so much I wrote fifty-two Stand Alone Complex recaps in as many days straight. (That’s my Berserk, 100 man-slayer story. Throughout, I was indeed asking myself ‘why?’).

So to be honest, a lot of my gripes over the reactions to ScarJo’s casting comes from that fanboy perspective. Not in the sense of, ‘you can’t change Spider-Man because it’s not what I’m used to waaah,’ because, boy howdy, the Major in Arise and The New Movie is not what I’m used to. What the hell, she looks fourteen! But all she has to do is step outside with Batou – he swings, she ducks, and she knocks him over in a flash. Beautiful. She’s won me over again. Always.

Doesn’t take much. No, it’s just that I’ve invested myself in this one series and balk, atop my mighty mountain, at other people’s misunderstandings.

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Still with me?

If we move through the thought process of adapting Ghost in the Shell to a live-action American film, we’re first taking it out of Japan and transplanting it to America. Now, Ghost in the Shell is an American story, and so the main character will sensibly be American.

Some critics feel that you can’t do this, that Ghost in the Shell is a Japanese story. In some senses, of course it is. Masamune Shirow, Mamoru Oshii, Kazunori Ito, Kenji Kamiyama – these guys bring an undeniably Japanese perspective.

I prefer to think of Ghost in the Shell as a story about the mechanisms of society itself, in light of a philosophical quandary of policing utopia. The Stand Alone Complex television series in particular is fascinating for its themes of urban unrest, society as data, corporate conspiracies, political corruption, and media manipulation, none of which are unique to any one country. While there’s the occasional interlude of post-modern Chinese conflict or dealings with the yakuza, Section 9 is also international, taking trips to Taiwan, England, possibly Russia, and Germany for standalone episodes.

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A trip to Taiwan. Kicking ass, even in the worst episode of the series

The two original movies chase more ethereal themes, identity and grief respectively (The New Movie is anyone’s guess; I never know what Ghost in the Shell is about after a single watch). The assumption is that the American version would take most of its cues from the 1995 film, the most visible iteration of the series. Because that film is about identity, we could draw interpretations with respect to Japanese identity in the post-war period, but I think that’s only a flavor of the base themes explicitly rendered in the text. I think the movie is about identity by way of humanity at large, and evolution, and so my transgender reading off that base is just as valid or invalid as the post-WWII reading. Oshii says nothing, and we don’t need him to.

That it’s debatable I think is enough to at least make Ghost in the Shell as a purely Japanese narrative not an end-all be-all. We can ignore the often touted fact that the franchise is more popular in the west than it is in Japan, because what matters more is that I – a non-Japanese person – can relate to it. I imagine the American film will be something non-Americans can relate to in kind. That’s the hope, anyway, and I don’t think it’s too much to ask for our western appreciation of Ghost in the Shell to not be ethnocentric. Oshii is still silent, but I doubt he wants us to be versed in Japanese history to at least enjoy his film, which was the first anime movie to be released simultaneously worldwide.

The first Ghost in the Shell doesn’t necessarily take place in Japan, even physically. Innocence does, for sure, but in either case, the environment is reflective of each main character. Oshii chose to replicate the urban sprawl and decay of Hong Kong for the Major’s story, and people who’ve been to Hong Kong can practically feel like they’re visiting again.

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Beware traveler — avoid the markets

And so, the Major is Japanese in a Japanese work, but once Ghost in the Shell is taken out of its original home, which has little bearing on the story, it adapts to a new one. The Major becomes American. Problem – the casting of a white woman in that role inherently equates Americanness to whiteness.

The ideal situation then is clearly for the Major to be black. Granted, she could be any underrepresented American ethnic minority, but if you want to play the numbers game, black women in America make for the most significant slice of the population which is also the most underrepresented, and in many cases, the worst represented. The last time a strong black woman led a science-fiction film was, I shit you not, AVP: Alien vs. Predator. You forgot about that, didn’t you? And it was probably another ten years before that, with 1995’s Strange Days. Angela Bassett’s character was a far sight above Lathan’s, but she wasn’t technically the main character.

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Gabrielle Union has had physical roles – she even did martial arts. Lyndie Greenwood was on Nikita in a high-tech part. Tessa Thompson can eyeball you to death, just like the Major. Alexandra Shipp is an up-and-comer, though very young. Her casting as Storm in the upcoming X-Men would’ve conflicted I bet, a similar situation as Margot Robbie’s commitment to Suicide Squad. The fact that they replaced Robbie with Johannsen is solid indication that there was never true consideration of a non-white actress for the role. And even if there was, she wasn’t ultimately chosen, so it’s moot anyway.

Although casting a black actress would incite possibly more outrage, from additional sides, and still the core who wants Rinko Kikuchi so bad (I get it, we all love Pacific Rim – but I was alone in the theatre for 47 Ronin. Only time that’s ever happened to me), it would accomplish the mission of representation toward equality.

That is the ultimate goal, the mission statement that should materialize on the HUDs within our cyber-eyes. Why is it so important? Why do people lock horns over Miles Morales and the Major and Iron Fist? I suspect, when people want to see characters who represent them, on a basis of skin tone or eye shape or heritage, it isn’t so much they automatically identify with these characters, but that there is no chance of a healthy identification with a world that’s entirely white.

That’s where psychological complications occur, and to that, as an Asian-American man, I can attest. Oh believe me you, I can attest – for hours, if you dare. And likely, you can too.

Casting Scarlett Johannsen is not whitewashing because the Major’s supposed to be Japanese; the character is not necessarily Japanese, but it does suck, because a black or Latina or Japanese woman is cheated out of another big role for little more than executives are scared (and many are racist). I trust ScarJo will do a terrific job, but her talent and bankability are not proper justifications – lean too hard into them, and you’re a sociopath.

Grost9

A role model of yours, perhaps?

I’m gonna regret posting this. Not because I’m allergic to outrage – I think it’s the start of a conversation, as opposed to the end of it, comedians – but because I’m not interested in pissing people off. 2017, when I go see that movie, I want to sit down and enjoy it with a tub of popcorn and a medium Sprite – and not be haunted by the anguish I contributed to just because I wanted to have this moment.

End of the day, that’s all we’re talking about. And I mean, that’s all we’re talking about – you fucking guys. That’s not addressed to the outraged party. What they, the outraged, are talking about is identity and selfhood and generations; they’re fighting for their future in these online battles. What are we fighting for? Movies and popcorn.

When Akira‘s up, cut them some slack on Kei.

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8 thoughts on “ScarJo in Ghost in the Shell is Not Whitewashing (this time)

  1. Is Dreamworks changing the setting to the U.S. and are they changing the character from Japanese to some other nationality/ethnicity? I haven’t read of that. If that’s what they’re going to do, it’s still kind of shitty, but I can live with it; still won’t see the movie, though. And, I own the manga, so it’s not like I wasn’t a fan. But, it’s completely unacceptable if she’s Motoko Kusanagi and the story is set in Japan, which cgi tests to see how Asian Scarlett Johansson can be made to look would seem to suggest.

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    1. The story about CG tests does seem to intensify the Bunsen Burner flame under this outrage, doesn’t it? Yeah, I don’t know. I see a bunch of Japanese names for fictional companies and things like that, but we can only speculate at this point. I assumed that it’d be an American remake in step with The Departed, which is an interesting case, because Americanizing Infernal Affairs strips the story of any meaning, leaving The Departed a fun and goofy but ultimately headscratching film.

      But even if Ghost in the Shell (2017) is set in Japan, it’s still an American film. And so my base argument still goes, that in these transnational adaptations, you can open up the ethnicity of the character to a scope as broad as ‘American,’ which is anything. They won’t, but they should. My initial thought was ‘black woman,’ because they’re so underrepresented, but after hearing some second opinions, I think the Major really should be played by an Asian-American woman.

      I never really thought about the Japanese-American girls and women watching Ghost in the Shell and identifying with that character, who would naturally feel disenfranchised by Scarlett “Lost in Translation” Johannsen, the Whitest Girl You Know.

      Anyway, thanks Robert for taking the time. You’re the first real commenter on this blog

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      1. Here’s the thing, even if it is an American film, if they keep her as Kusanagi, a Japanese character, in Japan, that means that the studio believes that those cultural and ethnic elements are important for the story, which really kills the having Scarlett Johansson cast as that character.

        Further, the A-list actor/actress requirement as lead argument really doesn’t hold water when you consider that Hollywood has cast less-than-A-list White actors an actresses as leads in big budget film projects. Who was Shailene Woodley going into Divergent, Kristin Stewart going into Twilight, Chris Hemsworth going into Thor, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint going into Harry Potter? If needs be, a lesser known White actor or actress will be surrounded by high-profile names.This, of course, leaves out when the sheer strength of the property, itself, can be relied on to draw crowds at the box office rather than the star power of the leads, like Daisy Ridley for Force Awakens and Chris Pine for Star Trek, but even then, I doubt they’d cast an Asian lead for a similar project.

        Finally, as an Asian, I’m able to empathize with White, Black, and Latino leads, so I think it’s kind of insulting to White audiences to assume that they won’t be able to do the same. Disney seems to be doing it right with casting for Jungle Book, which has been a wildly successful, the star power of the voice actors probably contributing greatly to this, reinforcing a previous point. We’ll see how the live-action Mulan does. However, if Disney had whitewashed that, there’s no way in hell it would have been shown in theaters in China. Who knows how much, if at all, whitewashing will impact Hollywood’s aspirations to penetrate the Chinese market and move beyond niche, being considered as ‘American movies’ to being considered as ‘Movies’?

        Since we Asians are the fastest growing ethnic group in the U.S., and we’ve got money, opposition to whitewashing and ‘yellowface’ is just going to get louder, much louder. The days of Asians just quietly grumbling to ourselves and accepting it are gone forever. We’re gaining influence such that both political parties are now considering our votes as a demographic. And, going back to Mainland China, The children of immigrants from the Mainland, now teens and young adults, are noticing this and don’t like it, and lot of them still maintain ties back there, so I, for one, would encourage them to spread the discontent to people they know in Mainland China.

        Note: I haven’t seen the SJW pejorative lobbed out here, yet, so I’ll preempt that by stating that Asians opposing the whitewashing of Asian roles ain’t SJW; that’s us standing up for ourselves.

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        1. Any other day, this would sound like a cop-out argument, but there are non-ethnic Japanese people in Japan. Being set in Japan doesn’t mean anything, but I’m not having this argument because it’s all regarding the theory of Ghost in the Shell and transnational storytelling which these filmmakers ignored anyway out of everyday racism. When this movie tanks and ten years later they do another, we can revisit this stuff.

          And yeah, citing those films is a good refutation to Max Landis, but also a good reputation to Max Landis is a mirror.

          I think everything’s headed in a direction as well, though I do object to this emancipation of Asians from the society that is indeed often labeled ‘SJW.’ No matter how militant the battlecry, I don’t want to head down a road that ends in the creation of our own acronym, something like NBoAPOC. We’re all on the same side here, and the strength of our side can handle a disagreement like this, without splintering off into further factions.

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          1. I re-read your blog and realized I skipped notice of Akira, at the very end. That should be kind of interesting since I guess they can keep Akira as Japanese, but I’m curious if all of the main characters will be whitewashed and/or yellowfaced. I’d guess Kaneda will be given the treatment since he’s the ‘good guy’. Tetsuo would be iffy since he’s a bad guy and Hollywood isn’t as reluctant when it comes to casting Asian males as the villains of the story. Who knows with Takashi? I can see Kei as being kept Asian since, as long as there’s a White male lead, having a major Asian female character isn’t as anathema to Hollywood sensibilities.

            Macross will also be interesting in that Shoji Kawamori went to some lengths to specifically have characters of various ethnicities. Hikaru Ichijyo is Japanese, Lynn Minmay is Chinese, Roy Fokker is White, Claudia LaSalle is Black, Max Jenius is White, Misa Hayase is Japanese (but she’s probably the least problematic regarding whitewashing), and Bruno Global is White. Whitewashing here, most likely Hikaru, would be pretty egregious and more accurately termed as yellowscrubbing. That’s if they go with ‘Do You Remember Love?” versus ‘Robotech’. The former is ideal for live-action adaptation.

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            1. I’m not against the prevention of movies before they’re made, but if any anime doesn’t need an American adaptation, it’s the first one up for consideration — Akira. I mean, the movie opens with a blast of nuclear energy that levels a city. Which is possibly the most haunting title sequence in film, but it’s not something that would translate in an American film. (It would actually be pretty distasteful).

              I see your casting predictions and raise you one — the clowns will be entirely black this time.

              (I haven’t seen any Macross, but I’ll take your word for it)

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          2. Me ha gustado mucho, las fotos no tienen desperdicio, quién te iba a decir que la Barby, te iba a dar tanto juego, y que al final tendría un hijo, en estas extrañas condiciones, seguro que si lo hubiera sabido, pide más pasta a Matel, jejeje..Yo cambiaba el final de mis pu;ers&#8230nptoo nada es perfecto, ni siquiera en mundo Barby.Un besote

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