In today’s post: We weigh in on the controversy surrounding the decision to cast Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi in the live-action film adaptation of Ghost in the Shell and take a brief look at three somewhat similar examples from Hollywood’s past.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about the so-called “whitewashing” of the lead role in Rupert Saunders’ live-action film adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s seminal cyberpunk manga Ghost in the Shell. Slashfilm‘s Angie Han, The Hollywood Reporter‘s Rebecca Sun and Graeme McMillan, and comic creator Jon Tsuei (via Twitter, as quoted on The National Post) have some of the better reasoned analyses out there regarding the controversy over the decision to cast Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi, and I would direct readers interested in appraisals of the socio-politics of the situation to their respective opinions.
I won’t pretend to understand the calculus that led to the casting decision, and to be honest, I’m not really all that interested in the film in question. I am a big fan of the source material—the 1989 manga and Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 animated feature film adaptation helped spark my academic interest in neuroscience and cognitive science—but I’m also generally hot-and-cold when it comes to live-action film/TV adaptations of manga, comics, and animation. I’m just not too fond of the conceit, as I think a lot of what makes good sequential art or animation is lost in the translation to live-action performance.
Nevertheless, there are genuinely important issues about racial representation at play here, my indifference to the upcoming film aside. (Adding to the absurdity of the whole affair: Here’s a report about how the film’s production team briefly explored the idea of using what amounts to “digital yellowface” to make Johansson look “more Asian” for the film.)
It’s not all bad, though. I think Ghost in the Shell‘s team can salvage what has been a full-blown PR disaster thus far by using the casting of a gaikokujin in the role of Motoko Kusanagi to explore the racism and xenophobia that is still prevalent in certain quarters of Japanese society, and I do think the casting can be rationalized to an extent given that in the manga and the anime, Kusanagi has the ability to upload her digitized consciousness (her “ghost,” if you will) to different cyborg bodies as necessary—it’s certainly possible that in the live-action adaptation, assuming the outward appearance of a female foreigner serves a purpose in Kusanagi’s mission as the lead operative for an elite domestic counterintelligence agency.
Still, if recent films dogged by similar “whitewashing” controversies such as M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender (“winner” of the 2010 Razzie Awards for Worst Film and Worst Director), Cameron Crowe’s Aloha (a 19% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, grossed $26 million on a $36 million production budget), and Alex Proyas’ Gods of Egypt (a 12% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, grossed $138 million on a $140 million production budget) are to be a guide, it looks like Ghost in the Shell is set to have a rough go of it in the box-office and the court of online reviews, no matter how the production manages the casting kerfuffle from this point forward.
There is a long history of Asian character roles being recast for different ethnicities—what has come to be known in pop culture parlance as “racebending.” Below are three examples that regular visitors to this space may find particularly interesting.
People who are only familiar with Robert Heinlein’s highly-influential 1959 science-fiction novel Starship Troopers via Paul Verhoeven’s loose, satirical live-action film adaptation or its various animated film and TV adaptations and spin-offs will probably be surprised to learn that protagonist Juan “Johnnie” Rico is supposed to be [57-YEAR-OLD SPOILER ALERT!] a Filipino. In the book, Rico’s ethnic background isn’t revealed until the final chapter, where Heinlein incorporates a brief tribute to then-recently deceased Philippine president Ramon Magsaysay in the dialogue between Rico and a fellow Mobile Infantryman. In Verhoeven’s 1997 film, Rico was played by actor Casper Van Dien, whose Teutonic good looks tied into the director’s appropriation of both Nazi iconography and World War II-style American newsreel propaganda to comment on and criticize the military-industrial complex.
And then there is the case of the Mandarin in 2013’s Iron Man 3. One might argue that the decision to cast Ben Kingsley in the role of the villain (reimagined in the film as a bumbling English fraud) was a creative attempt on Marvel Studios’ part to subvert the Fu Manchu/Yellow Peril stereotype associated with the character. I won’t discourage the more cynical among us from speculating that the motivation for changing the character for the film might have been more about the bottom line, though: Notoriously prickly and sensitive government censors could have prevented the film from screening in mainland China—the second largest film market by box-office revenue, ranking behind only North America—on the basis of what they consider as offensive depictions of Chinese people.
One of the most convoluted cases of racebending is that of Kato, a character from the Green Hornet media franchise. Kato was first described in the 1936 radio serial as having ethnic Japanese roots (he was originally portrayed on the radio by actor Tokataro Hayashi, a.k.a. Raymond Muramoto) but Imperial Japan’s actions in the lead-up to America’s involvement in World War II prompted the writers of the 1940s Green Hornet film serial to change the character to a Korean (where he was played by Chinese-American actor Keye Luke).
By 1941, the long-running radio serial had firmly “retconned” the character into a Filipino (there were references to Kato being Filipino as early as 1939, but these were inconsistent). This is first definitvely addressed at around 14:25 of the episode “Walkout for a Profit,” when the Green Hornet refers to Kato having the “marvelous” faculty for memory supposedly typical of Filipinos (on a rather depressing note, Hayashi was reportedly incarcerated in a Japanese internment camp in 1942, and records of where he ended up after that are spotty).
More recent versions of the character in comics and film have described the character as either Chinese (perhaps as a nod to the late Bruce Lee’s iconic take on the role in the short-lived 1960s Green Hornet TV series) or the original Japanese (in the Kato Origins: Way of the Ninja comics miniseries by writer Jai Nitz and artist Colton Worley, the character is a disillusioned former Imperial Japanese soldier who has taken to posing as a Korean national).