By: Justin Jang
I believe I am in the vocal minority when I say that the new Ghost in the Shell remake was a decent live-action transition from the original. Generally, most live-action remakes of classic anime films, such as the abhorrent Dragonball remake, fall completely flat and deviate heavily from the source material. The new Ghost in the Shell movie, while it does deviate in plot and substance, is a satisfactory homage to the original. Although it doesn’t have the philosophical or thought-provoking punch of the original from 1995, it still does capture some principle themes of identity and individuality in a technologically-evolving world with stunning visual effects. For a Hollywood remake of a classic anime film, it truly could be far, far worse.
However, the more controversial aspect of the movie was Scarlett Johansson’s casting as the protagonist. They should have casted an Asian actress as the lead, I get it. But realistically, considering how this is a Hollywood reboot of a film, I understand the need to cast an internationally-appealing actress to be the face of a $110 million movie. I believe that the lack of Asian actresses that could have commanded a similar prestige and audience-appeal is a result of a flawed system, rather than the cause of it. While Hollywood’s reluctance to cast more Asian American actors is upsetting, as an Asian American, I honestly consider the blatant whitewashing and abysmal portrayals of Asian culture a far greater problem in current television and film.
Hollywood has had a long, problematic past when it comes to representing Asian Americans on film. Just a few examples are Mickey Rooney’s overtly racist representation of a Japanese man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Fisher Stevens using brownface makeup to play an Indian scientist in Short Circuit. In that light, consider two far-more-problematic instances in the recent Marvel series, Iron Fist and the planned Death Note reboot, both of which can/will be found on Netflix.
Iron Fist, perhaps the first blunder that Marvel has made in a while, represents everything that is wrong with representations of the East in Hollywood. It isn’t enough that the protagonist is a fabulously wealthy white man, but he is also trained in a distorted amalgamation of martial arts and Asian culture that somehow attempts to combine Buddhism, Chi, and Kung Fu with some bizarre celestial heaven that sounds like a bastardized interpretation of Confucianism. Effectively, Iron Fist reduces Asian culture to samurai swords, bald monks, and needlessly fancy punches.
The planned Death Note reboot, as confirmed by the trailer above, is a clear example of the type of unabashed whitewashing that one would hope would no longer occur in this day and age. The story of the original series centers on a Japanese teenager who finds a deadly notebook that kills anyone whose name is written on its pages. This trailer of the planned live-action remake not only replaces the protagonist and other major characters with white alternates, but eviscerates any indication of its Asian origin by transposing the setting to a location in the US. What you’re essentially left with is the butchering of a Japanese classic to artificially fit a white background. Simply put, this is a case of whitewashing for the sake of whitewashing.
Now how exactly does this differ from the choice to cast Scarlett Johansson in the new Ghost in the Shell? Aside from the choice to cast a white actress for the lead, the rest of the cast and characters in the new Ghost in the Shell are relatively diverse. It seems an effort was made to portray the city and its residents in a cosmopolitan light, with a variety of people and an interesting blend of cultures being represented. The new Ghost in the Shell at least attempts to diversify the rest of the film in penance for casting a white actress as the lead. I can personally reconcile this, but no one should be able to accept Asian culture being bastardized and washed over ruthlessly in a number of other cases, like the two mentioned above.
Is the new Ghost in the Shell remake ideal in its casting choices? Certainly not. I, personally, would love to have seen an Asian American fill the main role. However, it certainly isn’t the terrible movie that it’s being demonized as due to its casting choices. Don’t let this one particular issue distract you from the lurking, systemic problems that caused it.