I wasn’t willing to condemn the live action Ghost in the Shell film for whitewashing its cast as quickly as many others were. It may have seemed obvious at first glance, what with Scarlett Johansson–a Caucasian woman of Eastern European descent–being cast to play a character known best by the name Motoko Kusanagi, the star of a classic anime. But, as any longtime fan of Ghost in the Shell would tell you, Major Kusanagi’s origins are foggy.
It might be more accurate to say that they’re unknown. Unless you’re watching the Arise reboot of the classic cyberpunk franchise, and its sequel movie, the brunt of the Major’s history is never actually confirmed. At the end of the second television show, Second Gig, she admits that she doesn’t remember what her true name is, and that “Motoko Kusanagi” was simply a pseudonym she took on for herself. In all likelihood, she began life as a Japanese girl before the catastrophe that forced her to become a cyborg, but no one can say that with absolute confidence.
Perhaps it would have remained a missed opportunity to give an actress of Asian heritage some greater exposure, and perhaps it would have still been disingenuous to cast a Caucasian woman to play a woman with an unconfirmed, but possibly Asian, heritage. I wouldn’t necessarily have called it racist, however. That’s a whole other sin that requires a lot more stumbles than simply white preference.
That’s why I decided to go see Hollywood’s live action remake, so I could find out myself whether this big budget production actually respected the Asian background that the series has long been based in. I got flack from a few friends who questioned how I could be undecided, while I was ripping into Doctor Strange right out of the gate, but I didn’t consider this quite the cut and dry whitewashing as was found there. I’m a huge fan of the Ghost in the Shell franchise, and nothing has been cut and dry throughout its history.
If Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal of the Major was meant to be one with a vague past, not inherently of a Japanese woman, I was contemplating giving this one a pass, especially with the possibility that the movie wouldn’t actually be set in Japan, as the original manga and animated productions always were. As producer Steven Paul stated prior to release —
“[It’s] an international world […] There [are] all sorts of people and nationalities in the world in Ghost in the Shell. We’re utilizing people from all over the world. There’s Japanese in it. There’s Chinese in it. There’s English in it. There’s Americans in it.”
I sat down in a theater for the Thursday premier back on March 23rd, holding onto the benefit of the doubt.
I left angry with myself for ever giving the movie even that.
Somehow, this live action remake disrespected the franchise’s Asian background worse than the cynics initially expected.
I started to worry about this early on, as the film showed us sprawling shots of the city where the story took place. Although, to my memory, at no point in the story is the name “Japan” ever actually mentioned, it was Japan, no mistake about it. Between the huge, holographic images of Japanese figures displayed along the skyscrapers, Japanese lettering projected across buildings, robots dressed as geisha, a mention or two of the “Prime Minister”, this was story was obviously meant to be set in Japan.
There’s also loads of Japanese and other Asian peoples filling the background as seas of extras in this vast, futuristic metropolis.
Too bad all but one of them ever get a front seat before the audience. Legendary actor “Beat” Takeshi Kitano (Battle Royale, Zatoichi) crushes it in his performance as chief of Sector 9 Daisuke Aramaki, but no individual performance would be able to make up for the way that this film conveniently forgot what part of the globe it was set in.
Chief Aramaki is a supporting character. Despite Kitano-san’s excellent portrayal, Aramaki is not a main character. All of those in this film are white people, as are most of the supporting characters with roles as prominent as Aramaki. The rest of the cast is formed by an array of actors with diverse origins, and barely enough lines of dialogue to count on two hands.
The crew who make up Section 9, among other characters, are portrayed by actors who are Japanese, Chinese, French-Caucasian, Fijian, Malaysian, among other backgrounds, but can hardly even be considered to be in the audience’s periphery throughout the film. Aramaki proving the only exception, all of the important characters are white, and the story unabashedly touts this.
It was so unabashed about this that it ultimately decides to pull aside the curtain on the Major’s origins.
Major Mira Kilian, as Johansson long refers to herself throughout the film, was originally Motoko Kusanagi. She, along with fellow cyborg Hideo Kuze, were both undeniably Japanese, and at the very least, some form of Asian, prior to the experiments that made them into cyborgs, but these characters were offered up to be played by a pair of Caucasian, American actors without a trace of Asian heritage in their bloodlines.
So what was the point of it when Scarlett Johansson addressed the casting controversy by saying — “I certainly would never presume to play another race of a person.” ?
What the point of producer Steven Paul claiming that this was “an international world” ?
Neither statements turned out to be true. Scarlett Johansson played a Japanese woman. This “international world” is set entirely in a Japanese city, and there’s essentially a single character of color who actually matters to the story, while white people largely run the show.
Why bother adapting a series based in Japanese culture, set your big budget film in Japan, but ignore that Japanese people would figure in the workings of this world?
There’s only one answer to this question, and those like it which apply to all of the cases of whitewashing in fiction–apparently, white people are the only kind which audiences will pony up money to see.
It’s not acceptable rationale, certainly not when Scarlett Johansson, Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbæk, and Juliette Binoche are bringing in scant returns on this live action Ghost in the Shell. Betting it all on a big star like Johansson clearly isn’t the one and one solution, not when the film is now projected to lose $60 million.
In another, less egregious, but still head-scratching casting choice, The Great Wall–a film set in Ancient China where Matt Damon and Willem Dafoe are the leads–is slated to lose upward of $75 million.
We need to stop acting like whitewashing is this infallible strategy to rake in money.
Even if it was, it wouldn’t be any more acceptable. Creators of fiction across any medium have a moral obligation to show some ounce of respect for the fact that our world, and thus, the consumers of fiction, are not entirely Caucasian. Every last ethnicity and heritage has its dignity (which, yes, means that I am not in favor of such productions like the live action Attack on Titan or Fullmetal Alchemist films, which are taking stories with white characters and using Asian actors to portray them).
If a film like this live action Ghost in the Shell–which is set in Japan and takes so much from the history and culture of that country–can’t be bothered to give that setting’s inhabitants the same significance, when can those inhabitants be given the significance they innately deserve in fictional representation?
Whether it’s a little girl, or a grown man, every person deserves to have prominent heroes who they can identify with. A young girl of Asian heritage should be represented by characters such as Major Motoko Kusanagi in the same way that a young, Caucasian girl has a growing list of characters, and, ideally, the way that a young, Caucasian male has always had countless examples.
Persons of color are no less important in the real world than white persons are; so why should fictional characters of color ever be portrayed with less importance than fictional characters who are white?