SPOILER ALERT: The following is not a spoiler-free review of the new live-action Ghost in the Shell, but rather a kind of essay on the controversies sparked by it. For this reason, I will be discussing some of the facets of the film which might be considered spoilers for those who haven’t seen it but wish to.
There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding the live-action remake of the classic animé “Ghost in the Shell”. It premiered last weekend to abysmal reviews and receipts and now aparently, the studio is blaming the film’s failure on the “whitewashing controversy”.
Notice that it’s “because of whitewashing controversy”, though, rather than “because of whitewashing”. Like the movie would’ve been just fine if those meddling millennials hadn’t bitched about it.
Is it possible that we made a big deal out of this thing that shouldn’t have been a big deal? In the run-up to the film’s release, one site went to Japan and asked a bunch of Japanese people their opinion on the casting of this live-action adaptation of their classic. They didn’t seem to mind. “She’s a good actress,” was the consensus, “and animé characters look a lot more like white people anyway.”
But this response from Japan should not have been taken as a green light for the studio to greenlight this picture. This is not because white people “obviously” know more about marginalization than anyone else—it’s because Japanese people living in Japan are not the ones being marginalized.
One of the arguments that’s come up quite a bit here is that “Hollywood shouldn’t have to go to Asia to fill this role,” and you’re right, they shouldn’t, because guess what: there are plenty of Asian American actors right here who could have fit the bill. Plenty. Japanese people living in Japan have their own movies they can be in, where they can play their parts to national and even international acclaim. But for the 1.3 million people of Japanese descent living here in the U.S., Hollywood is the venue for movie roles, and Hollywood is not allowing them to shine.
Now, I want to be fair here. There has been some question over whether or not Ghost in the Shell should be held up as the poster child for this controversy. There are other movies that have done a more egregious job—in fact I would say that there was one in the last few months, The Great Wall, that could be put to this use better, albeit in a different way. Similarly, there have been controversies in the Marvel Universe over both Tilda Swinton’s character in Doctor Strange and Finn Jones in the title role of Iron Fist. Going back further, we had Emma Stone in the movie Aloha pretending to be part Asian and Hawaiian even though she has no such ancestry. We’ve had several cases of white people playing characters who should have been Asian: Mackenzie Davis in The Martian, Clea Duvall in Argo and Jim Sturgess in 21, the latter two being parts based on real people who were Asian. Jim Sturgess gets another black mark here for one of the roles he played in Cloud Atlas, but this is where I must give caveats.
Cloud Atlas is, in my opinion, a magnificent film. It spans six stories set over several hundred years that intercut with each other fluidly, and most of the actors in the film play parts in each of the stories. This gives the audience the impression that these characters are being reincarnated into different, yet similar roles throughout the span of the film’s history. It’s not for everyone because it’s terribly complicated, but for those of us who have the constitution, it is breathtaking, and it simply would not have the impact that it does if some characters weren’t cast against race. I suppose it could have been cast differently. They could have had all of Jim Sturgess’s characters played by an actor of Asian descent, but that would have caused a lot of subtle problems. When Jim Sturgess appeared as Hae-Joo Chang in the Seoul plotline, Doona Bae’s Sonmi-451 was the protagonist, and he merely the love interest in her story. To cast an Asian actor as Hae-Joo Chang, they would have to have put him in whiteface as Adam Ewing, which would have felt more unnatural, as Adam Ewing was the protagonist of his own plotline in the movie. This is not to say that the decision they made was perfect, but to attack Jim Sturgess on the basis of Cloud Atlas would be counterproductive, especially considering the atrocity that was his role in 21.
Now, in general, among the examples named above (excluding the semantic maze that is Cloud Atlas) there are two separate but essentially equal controversies that play into this problem. The first is the straight-up whitewashing itself, of taking a character who should be Asian and casting a white person instead. But one of the things that plays into that is the appropriation inherent in creating a white character in an environment or with attributes that suggest Asian influence to the point of appropriation. This is the problem with The Great Wall and perhaps also with Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai. We have to ask ourselves “Why is this character even here?” The implication with those kinds of movies is that audiences need a white character to make the Asian setting digestible. And this may be true for a “mainstream” American audience, but audiences can be trained. How many movies have been headed by Jet Li, Jackie Chan and even Bruce Lee, back in his considerably more (openly) racist day? How many parts have gone to Lucy Liu that could have easily gone to white women? Did she hurt the box office?
But the interplay between these two issues gives studios the excuse to consider the choice between whitewashing and appropriation as a “lesser of two evils” debate, giving them license to take the easy way out and cast a “sure thing” rather than help build an Asian American actor’s career. This seems to be more or less what happened mainly with Doctor Strange, but also to a certain extent Iron Fist. In both cases, Marvel justified their casting decisions by saying “it was either that or fall into offensive stereotyping”.
With Iron Fist, this would have given them an Asian character as the first martial-arts-based superhero in the MCU (not counting DareDevil or Black Widow, who have other primary gimmicks). And yes, that might have been somewhat offensive. But at least we would have had a legitimate Asian superhero character. What we got instead, though, was yet another “We need whitey to save us” narrative, and if we’re talking about dangerous stereotypes, I think that one takes the cake.
But there was something more specific going on in Doctor Strange. The character of the Ancient One was originally a Tibetan monk/mage of immense power, but instead they gave Tilda Swinton’s version nondescript “Celtic” origins. While this did end up playing nicely into some of the intricate symmetrical designs of the production, that should not be considered an excuse. Their excuse was the fact that they couldn’t cast a Chinese actor as a Tibetan character because it would have been offensive, but they also couldn’t keep the character as having a Tibetan background because—are you ready for this?—it would have antagonized China. Now, it’s unrealistic to think that Hollywood is simply going to ignore the biggest and still fastest-growing marketplace in the world, especially when it comes to this kind of high-dollar tent-pole, but once again, this is an example of shifting the blame for the white-washing, for the marginalization of Asian American actors, to their Asian country of origin. To think that this is Hollywood making excuses is actually the best-case scenario here—the worst is that China actually does think that way, and we are giving in to their racism and political games for the promise of more money.
This doesn’t seem to be exactly what happened in the case of Ghost in the Shell, but it isn’t far off. From what I gathered before the film’s release, their excuse for casting Scarlett Johansson was the classic “she was the best person for the role”, followed, after accusations of whitewashing, by “we couldn’t find anyone of Asian descent who would work for it.”
But then I did some calculations in my head and I realized that this character she plays is a robot, as is clear not only from the trailer but also from watching the original. I started to have an idea of how this might go down in a way that would be, at the very least, interesting—perhaps even to the point of redeeming the film itself. I was wrong, but the reason why I was wrong was the impetus for this essay.
The big twist in the movie comes when Scarlett Johansson’s character “Major” realizes that the reason she doesn’t remember anything about her life before the accident that led to her human brain being put in an android body, is because she was part of a local anti-establishment insurgency movement. After she was captured, her death was faked and her identity stolen. What makes the white-washing, then, particularly egregious in this case is the fact that we have here a Japanese woman literally being poured into a white woman’s body.
This seems to have fueled the PC ire against the movie, but it still got me thinking “That is the greatest possible metaphor for what’s been happening.” A Japanese woman cast into a white woman’s body. Not only that, but we can take it even further: an American weapons manufacturing company (ostensibly Japanese in the film, but run by a white guy—I’ll get to that) kidnaps a Japanese woman and turns her white. That is essentially the metanarrative of yellowface. It’s what the entire controversy is built on. If they had hung a big enough lantern on that issue, really driven home the wrongness of that, the movie could have been an instant classic and the studio might have funded a good half dozen sequels from the SJW dollars alone.
But they didn’t. That would’ve been a nice movie, but it’s not the movie they chose to make.
It gets worse, in my opinion. The film takes place in Japan. I do not believe the city is specified, but we will say for the sake of argument that it is Tokyo. Despite the location, of all the characters in the movie, only one actually speaks in Japanese. This might be because the actor’s English wasn’t good enough or it could be because that character is the head of some sort of law enforcement agency answerable to the Japanese government (even though most of its members are not Japanese) but despite this thin justification, it poses some semantic problems. If it weren’t for this one Japanese-speaking character, we the audience might be able to tell ourselves “Oh, it’s Japan, so they’re all speaking Japanese, but they translated it into English for the movie” which might be odd considering all the white people and that black guy in the meeting, but well within the realm of possibility. When we’re watching movies about Ancient Rome, after all, we take it for granted that they are not all speaking English, because they’re Romans, but to have them all speaking in Latin would be as hard on the audience as it would be on the actors. Something like that would make sense in this case, but having one character who is speaking Japanese not only ruins it but serves to highlight the fact that everyone else isn’t speaking Japanese. This means that in this future-Tokyo (or wherever) most of the power lies with white people. Now, again, this could be viewed as an indictment—if they had gone that route; but I guess that would have been too complicated.
Even that, though, I personally could have lived with, except for the fact that there was one other character who was specifically supposed to be Japanese, but who didn’t speak it. I am referring of course to Major’s mother, who, even after she realizes that this woman who appears to be a gaijin is, in fact, her daughter, not only fails to acknowledge the whitewashing, but herself seems to erase Major’s backstory by continuing to refuse to speak to her in what was once her native language.
Again, there are ways that this might have been explained away, but such explanations would have rung hollow and anyway, none were given.
The bottom line is, next time Hollywood decides to make a live-action version of this story, they ought to cast Jessica Henwick as Major. When they inevitably reboot Iron Fist, it should be written for Harry Shum Jr. And if you really can’t cast a Chinese or Tibetan person as The Ancient One, then for crying out loud, bring in Aishwarya Rai or somebody.