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Whitewashing in ‘Ghost in the Shell’

| Wednesday, April 12, 2017

ghostWEBJoseph Han

The new live-action “Ghost in the Shell,” directed by Rupert Sanders, made its debut on the silver screen March 31. Though most casual moviegoers were likely unaware, the movie is a single entry in a popular Japanese anime and manga franchise — one of many films set in the same pseudo-dystopian universe. In fact, the original 1995 animation, directed by Mamoru Oshii, strongly informed much of this movie’s plot and set design. Many scenes recreated their animated counterparts movement-by-movement.

While the original film was set in an unspecified megalopolis, the setting was largely inspired by the hypermodern Hong Kong. That said, several characters sport rather ethnically-ambiguous names, such as brooding sidekick Batou (romanized in the original as “Bateau,” or “boat” in French). But, if nothing else, one thing is clear: the protagonist, Major Motoko Kusanagi, is definitely Japanese.

This is largely why the studio drew widespread ire after announcing its decision to cast Scarlett Johansson, a white woman, for the lead role in the live-action reboot.

The problem, to be clear, is not Johansson herself. As the studio has stated in its defense, Johansson is a capable actress who has portrayed many science-fiction heroines in the past — and skillfully so. But film critics and the general viewership are wise to decry this as yet another instance of egregious whitewashing.

Now, I don’t believe that there exists any good reason to cast a white-American actress to portray a woman of another ethnicity — especially with such an abundance of underrepresented, talented Asian actresses. But, in order to be fair, I made my way to the movie theater – the old-fashioned way — to see for myself. A friend, indeed, had warned me not to jump to conclusions without giving the movie a chance.

Ultimately, the way in which the studio justifies Johansson’s casting significantly exacerbates the problem. The screenwriters apparently attempt to justify the decision through various plot alterations and conceptual hoop-jumping. What is disturbing is that all of it is unnecessary — and apparently premeditated as well.

In Sanders’ film, Major Motoko Kusanagi has been re-named as Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson), but there’s a twist: Her identity has been fabricated by the antagonistic robotics company that kidnapped Killian as a teenager in order to place her mind into a cyborg. What this means is that the mind that resides within Mira Killian was born within a different body — one that, lo and behold, belonged to a young Japanese girl by the name of Motoko Kusanagi. Essentially, this total departure from the original storyline avoids giving Johansson the role of a woman who is physically Japanese, but still allows her to play a Japanese woman.

Regardless of how this plot alteration came about, it is unacceptable. Johansson is talented, but is she that much more talented than any other Asian actress — even to the extent that the screenwriters would make such a drastic change to the script after she was cast? If not, then presumably this alteration was part of the plotline all along, suggesting that the studio had every intention to cast a white-American actress to begin with.

There are other ways in which the film attempts to justify its poor casting decisions, namely the movie’s nondescript setting. Comically, the city skyline features billboards and advertisements written in everything from English to Hangul, and there are passersby of various ethnic backgrounds traipsing around. The point seems to be that the setting is globalized and multi-racial to the extent that Johansson’s skin tone is irrelevant altogether, stripping the studio of the responsibility to represent an Asian setting with Asian actors.

This is an absurd — and obvious — excuse. Yes, the six primary “good guys” are a team of two white characters, two African-American characters, and two Asian characters. But the two lead protagonists, Major and Batou, are both white, and the two African-American sidekicks never reappear after the first thirty minutes. Unfortunately for the studio, diversity is not a matter of ticking off boxes. (Even if it were, there are — newsflash — more than three ethnic identities in the world.)

Besides, the studio loses sight of its own lie during the film’s action sequences, in which most nameless cronies are represented by Asian men. Notably, however, even the villainous head honcho is a white man. Actors of other ethnicities are truly never more than irrelevant sidekicks and pawns in this movie (with the sole exception of the semi-relevant Takeshi Kitano).

The problematic essence of the whole movie is summarized in one of the film’s final scenes, in which Johansson is reunited with her birth mother, a Japanese woman — itself a rather disturbing development. In the would-be tender moment, mother and daughter hug. But, as four Japanese actresses speaking to The Hollywood Reporter asserted: the Japanese don’t hug. By that point in the movie, you’d be a fool to look for faithful representation anyway.

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