Earlier this year, news broke out that Hollywood was shooting a live action adaptation of Japanese anime classic Ghost in the Shell. This dystopian sci-fi series is a fan favourite, and rightly so; with the lead character a cyborg searching for her own identity, the film touches on some very interesting philosophical questions about what makes us human. The original anime film from 1995 was distilled from a popular manga, and went on to inspire multiple sequels and spin-offs. It looks like the live-action film, set for release in 2017, is bringing its own take on the saga; if all goes well we may just be spared from yet another poorly made Hollywood copy.
However, production company Dreamworks managed to upset the audience even before release, as the lead role – the very attractive, enigmatic cyborg Kusanagi – will be played by Scarlett Johansson. The internet went wild with accusations of whitewashing. Another non-White character being played by a White actor!
Whitewashing has a long history in Hollywood, as we discussed in an earlier article. The practice of choosing White over non-White actors is in most cases plainly despicable. The reasons for doing so are sometimes explained: a White cast is said to be more ‘relatable’ (although the majority of moviegoers is now non-White), or a White lead just brings in more money at the Box Office. Though understandable from a producer’s perspective, whitewashing means stereotypes go unchallenged and non-White actors have a way tougher job making a career.
With whitewashing a hot topic lately, it’s no surprise that this live action Ghost in the Shell has stirred up a heated debate from the get-go. But there’s more to the story than meets the eye. Let’s dive into the arguments for and against ScarJo taking up the lead role.
The case for calling this whitewashing is simple: the main character in GitS is Major Motoko Kusanagi; that’s a Japanese name. She looks Caucasian in the anime, but that’s just because anime is styled after Japanese beauty standards which favour Western features. The manga and anime are written by Japanese artists and rooted in Japanese culture. The role of Kusanagi should go to an Asian actress. How about Rinko Kikuchi – of Pacific Rim fame? Heck, even Lucy Liu would do.
Ignoring the fact that Kikuchi does not have the starpower of Johannson, to understand what is wrong about these claims, we need to understand a single Japanese word: mukokuseki. This is the idea of “statelessness”, which plays such an important role in Japanese sci-fi. Susan J. Napier, who wrote an influential work on anime, describes it like this: “the world of anime itself occupies its own space that is not necessarily coincident with that of Japan.” Yoshida Kaori, of Ritsumeikan University, adds the following: “what makes anime stateless is also how ‘race’ is represented. In this respect, anime (of this kind) destabilizes the concept of cultural identity itself.”
Essentially, there is no ethnicity in futuristic anime. You could say it is wrong to try and place a character in our current world, because that goes completely against what anime artists strive towards. This is why the characters come in all different shapes, sizes, and colours. The colour of a character’s hair, eyes, or skin, is not referring to their ethnicity. It is referring to a lack thereof. Or at least until an ethnic tribe with blue hair and yellow eyes is discovered.
So is it right to cast Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi? Yes. A filmmaker would say it is a perfect casting. She looks the part, she can pull off badass roles, and she has the starpower to secure an audience. An anime artist would say Kusanagi was never meant to be Japanese, and a White girl playing an Asian character is exactly right to take the part ‘beyond ethnicity’.
We don’t live in a dystopian ‘post-ethnic’ future, and the reality of today is that non-White talent is still lacking on screen. We need to keep advocating against whitewashing. But sometimes film should just be art, and Johansson is perfect to play this pensive cyborg cop in a futuristic sci-fi flick.