References via The Verge, Kotaku, Vice & Twitter | Videos via Vox Media and NerdWriter | Photos via Google Deep Search | Words by Me
Japan: The Empire of the Sun turned Technological Empire
Firstly, let’s address what Ghost In the Shell is and what it represents. GITS, is a Japanese manga (comics) created by Masamune Shirow in 1989 (pictured in the header), then later adapted for the big screen in 1995 (pictured above). The Japanese cyberpunk sci-fi setting in the manga was initially set in the mid 21st-century, but the first movie officially set the timeline in 2029 Japan.
The movies (3), TV shows (2), and the manga (few), focus on what a future society would be like for humans that incorporate technology at a metaphysical level, and the resulting existentialist problems that come with the territory. They explore the lines blurred by how humans identify themselves using the body and the mind as constructs. The title ‘Ghost-In-the-Shell’ is in direct reference to Arthur Koestler’s philosophical work The Ghost in the Machine (1967). Interspersed with these abstract concepts are violent crime fighting scenes and an overly suggestive (but in an ironic way) main protagonist, cybernetically-enhanced super cop Major Motoko Kusanagi.
Motoko is a Japanese character, set in future Japan, created by a Japanese person who was living in Japan during the height of Japan’s technological dominance of the 80′ and 90’s. This is an important distinction that Japan carries compared to any culture in the world. And GITS’ relationship with technology is heavily is inspired by this. As comic book writer, Jon Tsuei rationally states,
“The manga came out in 1989, the first film 1995. An era when Japan was considered the world leader in technology.
Everything hot in that era came out of Japan. Cars, video games, walkmans, all of that. Japan was setting a standard.
This is a country that went from [being] poised to conquer the Pacific to [being] forcibly disarmed. They poured their resources into their economy.
And as a country that was unable to defend themselves, but was a world leader in tech, it created a relationship to technology that is unique.
Ghost In The Shell plays off all of these themes. It is inherently a Japanese story, not a universal one.
This casting is not only the erasure of Asian faces but a removal of the story from its core themes.”
Via Jon Tsuei – Twitter
He continues to argue that a movie created with western sensibilities at the helm would no longer inherently be a ‘Ghost in the Shell’ movie. Technology’s relationship with eastern culture compared to western culture is vastly different. Western ideals of technology are of aggressive expansion (railroads and trains), acquiring capabilities (nuclear armaments), and power. Eastern philosophies inspire tech to look within oneself, being in harmony with one’s surroundings, and creating stronger bonds and relationships with others. After watching most of the GITS series, it’s easy to see it relating to the latter.
So why have other Japanese-turned-American franchises not been as publicly scrutinized? Well, Japanese franchises and their American counterparts such as Godzilla, Oldboy, Infernal Affairs (The Departed), All You Need is Kill (Live. Die. Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow), and to an extreme lesser extent, The Seven Samurai & Hidden Fortress (Star Wars), are globally relatable stories – dealing with themes of war, corruption, and world ending scenarios. GITS is the only property uniquely interwoven with Japan’s kinship with technology.
The Plot Thickens.
Creating a movie that reflects Japanese ideals while respecting the source material without proper context can be very difficult to achieve but it’s not impossible. At the very least, this should be a movie studio’s main priority.
“However, we can still be generous for the sake of argument. While something would certainly be lost in lifting the property and planting it in an American context, it’s still possible (even necessary) to hope that the writers adapting the original work would engage with the same themes the original played with. America’s own relationship to technology is unique and distinct, and it’s easy to imagine a multicultural metropolis that in many ways mirrors what the original work attempted nearly 30 years ago. That’s the essence of cultural exchange: taking ideas from one context and repurposing it in a way that mixes in a new culture while still allowing the original to feel vital. The [Ghost in the Shell] series benefits from that kind of exchange; there would be no Ghost in the Shell without British author Arthur Koestler’s philosophical text The Ghost in the Machine, and there would be no The Matrix either. In addition, there’s no 1995 adaptation without Hong Kong influencing the overall aesthetic.
Paramount and DreamWorks would like you to believe that Scarlett Johansson was the right choice because she has the chops to play the part. That very well may be. But it mattered more that she could be seen as the face of an American blockbuster. And in America, the universally recognized movie star will more often than not be white. Whiteness, for all intents and purposes, has been America’s default portrayal of itself since its founding. It shouldn’t shock anyone that whiteness serves as the foundation for what the studio is attempting.”
That’s the strategy employed here. Scarlett Johansson wasn’t even the first Caucasian woman considered. The first was Margot Robbie, but then they upgraded. Regardless, in order to make the film more attractive to Americans they needed a recognizable face that would tip the profit margins toward the movie studio’s favor. This is something that the owners of the GITS franchise recognize as well. And they freely admit to casting Scar-Jo as the new face of the franchise for an American market because they never imagined ‘the Major’ (as the new movie is only calling her now) would be cast as Japanese in the first place.
“Looking at her career so far, I think Scarlett Johansson is well-cast,” Sam Yoshiba, director of the international business division at Kodansha’s headquarters in Tokyo. “She has the cyberpunk feel. And we never imagined it would be a Japanese actress in the first place. This is a chance for a Japanese property to be seen around the world.”
This was the compromise of making the film here in the United States. You can only make your Japanese property here if it casts a Caucasian lead. I want to be clear – this is not racist strategy by any stretch, more of a tactical advantage. The studio isn’t going out of their way to portray Asians in a negative light. But it does highlight something seriously wrong with the American cinematic landscape right now – their dependence on casting white actors for TV and movie characters who were originally penned as Asian. (see below)
An important question comes up from all this. Does Major Motoko Kusanagi have to be Caucasian? Fans of the show recognize that the Major doesn’t really care what ethnicity she is even though she has the technological freedom to change it on a whim. She can literally choose any form her ghost wishes but she does identify as a woman who is comfortable with any shells she takes on. Ultimately, she doesn’t have to be Japanese or White for that matter. As long as Scar-Jo is faithful to the source material, we shouldn’t doubt her.
One can’t also help but wonder that if the Ghost in the Shell movie travels through these American filters with a white female lead, can it still retain what it means to be a Ghost in the Shell movie? Another issue I can foresee is with the film’s director, Rupert Sanders, who was embroiled in scandal after having an affair with Kristen Stewart (of all people) during the filming of ‘Snow White and the Huntsman’. He has a knack for visually stunning images, but often leaves character development and narrative lacking. So given all this, I’m not completely confident in the judgement of the executive staff for this project and future Ghost in the Shells, if they ever come. Misrepresenting what the series is can ultimately damage any future Japanese properties trying to cross over to America.
There Are No A-List Asian Celebrities
Of course it would be hard to cast an Asian lead actor for major movies because the pool to choose A-List Asian actors from is virtually non-existent. When was the last time an Asian entertainer was the lead in a major American Film, and then eventually became a household name? Jet Li? Jackie Chan? That was over a decade ago. Currently, the widest known Asian names in American entertainment are Ken Jeong (The Hangover), Daniel Dae Kim (Lost, Hawaii 5-0), Sung Kang (The Fast and the Furious), Steven Yuen (The Walking Dead), Aziz Ansari (Master of None), Ken Watanabe (Inception), and John Cho (Star Trek, Harold & Kumar). Even then, these men are secondary characters in their capacity. They aren’t household names like your Brad Pitts and George Clooneys of the world. If it’s that bad for the men, then being an Asian-American actress is even worse. Lucy Lui and Ming-Na do not have the same drawing power that they used to.
Interestingly, this issue is solely an Asian-American one. Why aren’t the Japanese as uppity about the GITS situation compared to Asian-Americans? Well, it’s mainly because their society is incredibly polite to the point of annoyance. That and they literally have billions of other Asians they can entertain in their own markets to the East. Asian-Americans recognize that not having representation in TV, movies, and the media is a big problem, but being misrepresented and having their roles taken over by Caucasians when there are so few Asian roles to begin with is a far greater concern. Typically Asian-Americans don’t have any major beefs with other races. Just other Asians. So it’s substantial when all Asians are up-in-arms about this topic. But there can be a backlash if Asian-American actors do make a stand.
“Oh, we talk about it privately or with other Asian entertainers, but definitely not in public or in print. If it can be traced back to you, it’s really bad—you don’t want to offend all the old-school people in the industry who are the decision makers. Some people do get away with it, but they don’t land major roles like Constance [Fresh Off the Boat] and Ming-Na [Agents of Shield]. Those people are now at the top of ladder, so they’re protected by that. It’s the actors still climbing the ladder who keep quiet.
This keeps happening because the majority of decision makers at the top aren’t Asian. Or if they are, they’re making decisions that are ‘white-friendly’ since they have to please their white bosses with numbers about profit estimates.” – Sarah
Sarah is now transitioning to do more behind-the-scenes work, but when she was working as a full-time actress in the early 2000s, she was told she didn’t look “Asian enough” to get cast in the “Asian” roles. “My agent told me that I should get plastic surgery to make my eyes look smaller and mono-lid,” she said. She looked too “ethnic” for the white roles, but not stereotypically “Asian enough” for the Asian roles.
Master of None, Season 1: Episode 4 “Indians on TV” is a landmark episode of television for Asian-Americans. If you have an Asian friend, do yourself a favor and watch it on Netflix to gain a better perspective on what it’s like to have your life affected by the ‘white-washing’ of Hollywood.
Historically, the roles reserved for Asian-American actors are secondary and pigeon holed into dated stereotypes. Always non-romantic; normally played with an accent. These cultural stereotypes may have been representative back in the 70’s, but they look distasteful and shamefully outdated being implemented today. A lot of time and cultural evolution has passed since then. Many Asians that have moved to America from Asia now identify with the American quality of life more than their home origins. Considering the rising patchwork of minorities residing in America, the entertainment industry should update it’s products to better reflect what is actually happening in the country.
What makes me disappointed about this Ghost in the Shell situation was the missed opportunity. Considering the anemic amount of Asian roles that the entertainment industry rolls out, this was a chance to have a strong lead Asian actor come to the forefront of a major American movie release; a role-model that can make millions of young Asian-Americans grow up feeling comfortable with representing their heritage without feeling shame. Casting Scalett Johansson as the Major takes that possibility away from us. In order to correct the deep racism prevalent in the media, this could’ve been one step in reversing it. Not many people understand what level of racism I’m talking about because they’ve never experienced it. But for most minorities, they should recognize these patterns all too well.
Growing up as an Asian kid in a predominantly White and Latino neighborhood made life different from my peers. It was always insulting when I was spoken to in stereotypes. I cringe just thinking about how many times my friends and classmates used to ask me if I ever ate dog, or when they quoted “Me so horny” in that grating voice from a movie they never saw before (Full Metal Jacket, great movie BTW). I remember being so angry about it that I would have to tell the jokes myself. Whenever I made a joke about Asians, I did it out of my expense. I did it to take away the power of you using that joke against me. I practiced this commonly in high school. It sounded friendly and cool, but that’s how I protected myself. Subconsciously, I think that’s why we formed the brown club in high school. Protection. And trust me, we genuinely loved joking about ourselves. We felt plenty safe.
Growing up the only Filipino in my elementary grade was also a unique experience. I was always told that I was good at math, so I was. I was told I shouldn’t play sports because I was too short. And watching TV and sports back then kinda confirmed that. I never saw a single Asian person play in the NBA, and I never saw an Asian person in my Nickelodeon cartoons and TGIF shows. On the rare occasion when they did show up, they were heavily stereotyped. According to TV, I only had 3 occupational choices. Doctor, dentist, or doctor.
I know this is going on long but bear with me please.
I got a lot of love for Asian parents that only want the best for their children, but they are notoriously closed lipped when it comes to talking to their kids about sex, relationships, and puberty. Imagine my confusion when I was more attracted to Kimberly instead of Trini on the Power Rangers. I needed TV and movies to kinda fill in the details. Unfortunately, here is what I concluded about Asians dating from media back then: Dating other girls out of my race was impossible and frowned upon. Mixed race dating was a sin. My penis was too small anyway. Keep it within the Asian community and me and my future Asian girlfriend would be much happier.
So as a kid growing up I just accepted this. I felt like I can only feel better about myself by doing these predetermined things for me. This treatment of Asian-Americans, is nowhere remotely as terrible as say the Black community’s. But racism is racism. Would it have helped if I saw more diversity on my TV? Maybe. Maybe not. But I always like to entertain the idea of how different I would’ve turned out knowing what I know now. Realistically, I think the worst crime through all of this was leveling my dreams as a youth.
The Net is Vast and Infinite
I don’t blame Scarlett Johansson with taking the on role of Major Kusanagi. She has to worry more about the portrayal of women in the media and getting paid equally (Her salary for the first Avengers was total crap compared to her male co-stars). It would be unreasonable for us to expect her to try and appease all peoples. I do blame the executive producers of the movie studios at Parmount and CEO of FUNimation Japan, Gen Fukunaga. I blame the antiquated movie industry and the stranglehold it’s incumbents have. They could’ve easily handled this better.
It’s really hard to say how progressive our society has become when things like this regularly happen all the time. I mean, it is progressive, it’s just so achingly slow at it. If the movie turns out great, and Scarlett Johansson does Motoko justice, then more power to them. But given the evidence of yellow-face being circulated around the internet, I’m getting more cynical day by day. I’m not too confident on how the movie will turn out. I really hope I’m wrong.
Also, generally speaking, in the (far, far, far) future wouldn’t it make sense that we’d all eventually be brown anyway? There’s seriously like 4.3 billion Asians, accounting for 60% of the world’s population and it’s not slowing down. You’re going to marry into one of these families sooner or later. Why not just be ahead of the curve Hollywood?