Posted at 5 p.m. April 24, 2017

Cinema facing more accusations of whitewashing

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When an anime gets its big screen adaptation, I hold my breath, watch the trailers and mull over whether I should buy a movie ticket. The walk to the theater is one of timid anticipation and ends with a walk of shame back to my car.

The 2017 adaptation of the 1995 animated film “Ghost in the Shell” joins “Dragon Ball Evolution,” “Avatar the Last Airbender” and the soon-to-be Netflix adaptation of “Death Note” as the fourth horseman of the anime adaption apocalypse.

The issue all these films have in common is whitewashing. Whitewashing is a casting practice in the film in which white actors are cast in historically non-white character roles.

For the average movie-goer, unaware of the plot of “Ghost in the Shell,” I’ll break it down for you. The main character is Motoko Kusanagi or The Major. Kusanagi is the leader of Section 9, a group of cyborgs who run an antiterrorist task force against cybercrimes in a futuristic cyberpunk Japan. (I hope the word “cyber” sticks with readers because that seems to be the only thing that the film seems to remember.) The surface plot involves Section 9 solving numerous crimes with hacking sequences, battles with mechs and sleek technological aesthetic. The deeper dialogue and the heart of the 1995 animated film involves a philosophical discussion on what it means to be human.

When the main character of the intellectual property’s name is Motoko Kusanagi and is played in 2017 by an actress named Scarlett Johansson, something is wrong.

Johansson was announced to portray Kusanagi in January 2015. Because Johansson stars as Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, for Paramount Pictures, it would seem obvious to get the actress from a successful property to portray Kusanagi.

Producers of the film explained that Kusanagi would be referred to as “Major” throughout the film, according to the Hollywood Reporter. In a Good Morning America segment, Johansson said that her character was “essentially identity-less.”

“Diversity is important in Hollywood, and I would never want to feel like I was playing a character that was offensive,” Johansson said in an interview with Marie Claire “Also, having a franchise with a female protagonist driving it is such a rare opportunity. Certainly, I feel the enormous pressure of that — the weight of such a big property on my shoulders," magazine.

“I stand by my decision — she’s the best actress of her generation,” Rupert Sanders, director of the 2017 adaptation said, according to The Verge. “I was flattered and honored that she would be in this film. I think, certainly people who were around the original anime, have been vehemently in support of her because she’s incredible and there are very few like her.”

Being a great actress doesn’t excuse peer casting decisions. Considering a character as “identity-less” when you are portraying them is also something I take error with. Deciding to name Kusanagi “the Major” and considering the Japanese identity in the name of the character as “identity-less” is hijacking the Japanese identity and representation of the “Ghost in the Shell” property to make another film with a white lead. A feeling which is evident that I am not alone in having in the fan reaction to the Paramount’s ad campaign, comments from Asian actresses and the box office numbers for the film.

Paramount allowed people to get involved with their “I am Major” ad campaign. That ad campaign backfired. “Ghost in the Shell’s” website, iammajor.me created a meme generator where browsers can create their own ad banner. The results ranged from “I am not Japanese, I am Major,” “I am in love with white feminism, I am Major,” and “I am Mira because ‘Motoko’ is too hard to market. I am Major.”

The Hollywood Reporter invited four Japanese actresses to discuss “Ghost in the Shell” and its whitewashing plot twist. I won’t go into the twist but I will go into their responses.

“Major’s backstory is white people trying to justify the casting,” Ai Yoshihara, actress from “The Sea of Trees,” said.

“They F-ed up in the process because now it looks even worse,” Atsuko Okatsuka, co-founder of the all-Asian, mostly female Dis/orient/ed Comedy tour, said.

“As an actor, I probably fall into more of the sidekick/best friend/doctor/lawyer category. I’m not usually going out for a leading role, so I don’t have that personal resentment,” Kieko Agena, actress from Gilmore Girls, said when asked about being represented in the film. “But as a fan, as an Asian-American, I want to see that star being born. That was the part that hurt. This is such a star-making vehicle. And they can find people. They found that wonderful girl (Auli’i Cravalho) that played Moana… Yeah, it’s hard. But they can be found. And this could have made a young, kick-ass Asian actress out there a Hollywood name and star.”

The film is projected to lose $60 million at the box office.

Whitewashing goes beyond the genre of anime and cartoons. Whitewashing in films has been present since the early 20th century. Although we’ve evolved from blackface and yellowface being used in cinema, whitewashing in the form of casting has taken its place.

As an African American raised in Chicago, I’m used to seeing white faces on everything advertised to me. In my mind, it’s the default for all storytelling and ad-focused media. The ability for these media to relate to my character has a disconnect.

Hideo Kojima, producer of the Metal Gear Solid Series and the upcoming Death Stranding game, stated it best.

“The respect that the movie shows in mimicking the anime is unquestionable,” Hideo wrote in an essay for Rolling Stone’s video game publication, Glixel. “As a real fan of the original works, though, I can’t help but feel that the production was trapped in the shell of the original… Upon leaving the theater and returning to the real world, the characters stay behind, locked in their ‘shell,’ unable to break free.”

A movie can be as visually stunning as “Ghost in the Shell” but when it is just another film portrayed as a run-of-the-mill revenge plot with the racial intrigue the property offers with all of the major characters they replaced with white faces, offers me nothing emotionally to invest in. Now if Pacific Rim’s Rinko Kikuchi was cast as Kusanagi and the Japanese cast didn’t take a back seat to the white cast, I would have been left with a different impression of the film. Instead, the film was presented in the theater, and anything the film had to offer me didn’t stick with me but stayed in that theater.

I enjoy seeing representation of other races and nationalities because it shows that the whole world isn’t just white people. The world is diverse with people with different social issues they must deal with from their day to day while just living their life. This representation is something I’m honestly starved of.

When I see properties that are not only whitewashed but, at their heart, have something more to delve into, like the philosophical discussion, but are hijacked by Hollywood, and replaced with a sub-par revenge plot, I feel deterred from giving films like this a chance. The film takes the cool aesthetics the Japanese culture has to offer but leaves the Japanese identity and actors in a minor role or not at all represented.

In stating my issues with white washing, I feel I must also bring up casting changes to a character that is historically white being represented by a person of color in film. This practice exists in a bit of a double standard. On one hand, this can be argued as having the same issues that white washing would have in their casting being an ill representation of the character’s lore or history. But on the other hand, some of the characters this casting practice is done to have but a minor role in the scope of the character line up. Marvel’s Nick Fury, being played by Samuel L. Jackson, for example, doesn’t change the history of a character but offers a fresh perspective to the character in its portrayal.

When it comes to Netflix’s “Death Note,” whitewashing amid a casting choice of the antagonist, L, as a black man creates an interesting double standard, one “Ghost in the Shell” attempts to do as well.

But who cares? It’s not real. It’s just a cartoon, who cares about who is playing a role in something fiction. To those who feel this way I want to leave you with this: if you grow up in a world where all you see is one nationality’s representation in film and is marketed as successful, easy to market, a draw and the default for casting choices, what does that say about those who aren’t represented?


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