Ghost in the shell is one of the most recognisable and influential Japanese animations ever, it helped bring the Cyberpunk genre and Sci-Fi as a whole, even deeper into the mainstream. Many elements of this movie/series can be seen in much of today’s media as directors draw influence from this ground breaking series. So when Scarlett Johansson (not from Japan), was cast to play lead character Motoko ‘Major’ Kusanagi (very much from Japan), it didn’t take long for accusations of Whitewashing to hit the internet. There has been a lot of back and forth all over social media, with some criticising and some defending Johansson being cast. If you know anything about the film industry then you should know that Whitewashing is nothing new in the industry, Ghost in the Shell is not the first and it will unfortunately not be the last.
The problem is the industry itself
A lot of reasons, in this case, there is also a lot of love (from nerds…and me) for the franchise. But like I said this is nothing new, movies are white washed all the time; it sucks, but from a skewed and out of touch industry point of view, it makes sense. I bet if you asked a lot of people who should play the lead instead, you would be hard pressed to get anything better than “someone Japanese”. So therein lies the problem within the industry as a whole and that problem are diversity.
The white lead is the Hollywood safe bet, the safety net in which producers can cast away some doubt amongst the hectic and unpredictable shit that comes with making feature films. This is especially true for the ‘white male lead’ (that is unless your lead is named Seann William Scott, in which case your movie will likely Hindenburg itself). Sure Hollywood might spice things up (or so they think) and cast a black male lead, your Denzels and your Smiths; Although, this is largely because there are already available black A-list male actors, to even cast in the first place. Imagine you wanted to cast a black female lead for a big budgeted feature film, well your pickings are slim (and that is putting it nicely), worst yet for Asian actors and actresses; gone are the days of the Lucy Lius, Jet Lis and Jackie Chans.
So, either way, you cut it, people will see a movie starring Johan and the producers, marketers, casting directors etc. know that. Again I’m not defending it, it is shit and it’s a huge problem within the film industry. If anything is to change, however, then the industry itself has to be willing to take more risks, cast more unknowns, unfortunately, things don’t look like they’ll be changing anytime soon, after all
This shit has been going on for years
I mean years! The most recent (and blatantly heavy handed) one being ‘Gods of Egypt’; a movie about some ancient Egyptian gods who go searching for their missing melanin (spoiler alert: they don’t find it!). Another example was the M. Night Shyamalan feature film adaption of the animated series Avatar the Last Airbender. A movie where all the central characters of the original series (who were most certainly not caucasian) suddenly became white (and not just the characters, but their entire tribes in the story too)…except for the bad guys, who were pretty much the most Japanese in the original animation, but then suddenly all became Indian (which while not being bad, was just a weird change). But dammit Shyamalan had a vision man!).
In regards to movies inspired, influenced or based in Asian culture, we can go even further back to the 2003 war movie The Last Samurai. While it was by no means a bad movie, it sparked a lot of debate, what with having Tom Cruise as the lead. Interestingly Cruise has had quite a lot of popularity overseas in Asia; so much so that there is an actual Tom Cruise day (a day where I presume people just sprint around non-stop and temporarily convert to Scientology). This has resulted in Tom Cruise becoming the go-to man, to be cast in any Asian adaptation or even remotely anime/manga themed movie. Take his recent film Edge of tomorrow: Live. Die. Repeat. for example, It was adapted from a light Japanese novel called All you need is kill ( a much better name imo), written by Hiroshi Sakurazaka. Originally the main character is the Japanese Keiji Kiriya, who then becomes all American William Cage (Cage originally being Keiji’s nickname).
Right so that was a lot of waffle, so you’re probably wondering what my point even is, well it’s more of a question than a point but fine.
Does any of this affect the quality of the movie itself?
As much as I would like to say yes…no not really; again don’t get me wrong, cultural/racial diversity is important in the film industry is important. However, the characters ethnicity is likely not going to be the cause of whether a movie is good or bad in most cases; unless that is the movie is explicitly about race, or better yet a specific historic figure (like that time actor John Wayne, cowboy extraordinaire, played Genghis Khan in The Conquer, Genghis fucking Khan…let that sink in for a moment).
So who do we all yell at?
So just because ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ was a good movie we should just ignore the cultural changes? Fuck no, Ghost in the Shell may very well end up being a great movie Johan might even do some stellar acting, the movie will stand or fall on its own legs (arguably, however, credibility has been lost). I’ve said already that the industry should take more risks (an easy thing to say when it’s not my money) and cast more unknowns of various ethnicities; unknowns who like the cast of Star Trek and Star Wars (both incidentally directed by J.J. Abrams). These unknowns then likely become famous and then BAM! More diversity. Sounds easy right? Problem is, both Star Trek and Star Wars are franchises that are bigger than there actual actors; a director could cast any actor (except Sean William Scott) worth their salt and still sleep at night knowing that people will still flock to see Star Wars. But when the franchise is new or not exactly mainstream but requires a big budget, producers get scared and call for some star power. In the end…you get Ghost in the Shell.
So there isn’t really one entity to yell at, the film industry as a whole is at fault here (I mean did you watch the Oscars?). It’s entire funding, production, marketing and thought-process are fueled by fear and in the end, we suffer as an audience and also younger, up-and-coming actors lose out as a result. The film market is unpredictable and nothing is a sure bet, even when it looks like it might be. But we need to see a willingness to take more risks…that and less institutional racism (easier said than done as always).