The popular sci-fi anime movie responsible for inspiring The Matrix and many other works, Ghost in the Shell, is receiving a live action adaptation. And the Japanese lead, Major Motoko Kusanagi, is being played by Scarlett Johansson, a white woman. This has caused a lot of controversy and upset and many bystanders are left wondering why. Why is it bad that a Japanese character is being played by a white woman? Why is this different from other racebent roles? Well, there’s a lot of reasons that have been put forth by very educated criticism of the project and I will be collecting all that nuanced discussion and adding my own two cents to communicate one thing- Ghost in the Shell should not be whitewashed. Here are the reasons why.
Ghost in the Shell is one of those stories that cannot be separated from its cultural context. It loses something if the story is not set in Japan, about Japan. Jon Tsuei, co-creator of the comic RUNLOVEKILL broke down why this is in a very educated informed way. You really need to read his tweets about the issue, but to quickly summarize: he points out that the story has a very specific cultural context. It came out at a time when Japan was a leader in the global technology industry after coming off losing a major World War and having their army disbanded. As such, the themes in the story concerning war, the government and technology, come from Japan’s specific culture and position at the time. By removing that context from the story, the story loses a lot of its meaning. It’s not a universal story.
It doesn’t end there either. It’s been rumored that the whitewashed movie might not just draw from the Ghost in the Shell movie, but from the related TV series. It’s been rumored that Micheal Pitt might end up playing Hideo Kuze, an antagonist from season two of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. But as has been pointed out, Kuze is a character that loses a lot if he’s not a Japanese character operating in Japan, as he is heavily entrenched in Japanese politics. His storyline heavily references the 1932 May 15 Incident in Japanese history where the Prime Minister of Japan was killed by 11 navy men at the behest of an imperialist, nationalist movement. The incident is credited as being a big contributor to the rise of fascism in Japan. The character himself is fighting against the discrimination foreign immigrants to Japan face, another distinctly Japanese political issue. There’s even a part of the storyline where Japan is threatened with nuclear threats from America, an obvious reference to past history.
Basically, if you separate this character and his story from his Japanese context, it’s not even the same character at all, so what’s the point of him even being adapted? And the same could be said for ALL these characters, with Hideo just being an example.
Ghost in the Shell is a story deeply entrenched in Japanese politics. Separate Japanese politics from the story, and you might as well make a new story.
The fact is, the creators seem to know the story loses something without Japanese actors, because they actually tested technology to make the white actors look more Asian. Which sort of scuttles the arguments that the whole “hire whites” thing is a money-making tactic. You know what costs a lot of money? Ridiculous CGI. You know what’s a lot cheaper than that? JUST HIRING JAPANESE ACTORS. It’s not that hard.
The worst thing about all of it is it’s an updated, modern version of a very racist tradition that persists in Hollywood- one activists have dubbed “yellowface”. It’s dubbed that because in early Hollywood, you see actors literally painting their faces yellow to represent themselves as East Asian, basically reducing a race to an offensive, inaccurate caricature. This was done while Asians were literally barred from playing roles in Hollywood.
This ugly history persists in the modern day- white women are made to look like a caricature of Asians while actual Asians are barred from their roles. As Constance Wu, actress from Fresh Off the Boat, points out, ethnicity is much more than physical characteristics- it’s culture, upbringing and so on. Reducing it to a few features and slapping those features on a white person is ridiculous.