While I do like to write reviews on occasion, I usually go for lesser-known books and movies particularly if there is a focus on China or Asia. Generally speaking, while I do have my fanboy side, I think enough has already been written about big Hollywood blockbusters and my point of view won’t add much.
However, with all the recent controversy surrounding the now-bombing remake of Ghost in the Shell, I feel it may be worth sharing my perspective as an American abroad in Asia. Hope I’m not too late to the game.
First of all, I am a longtime fan of the original manga and anime. I wrote about my manga habit here, about the brilliant mangaka Masamune Shirow creator of Ghost in the Shell. I find the source material even better than the acclaimed 1995 anime film directed by the great Mamoru Oshii, but suffice to say that is one perfect film. The explorations into the nature of sentience, cyberpunk critiques of tech in society, and the philosophical themes about identity are all amazingly ahead of their time. (Actually, just rewatched the original film for old time’s sake… And that only makes me loathe the remake more.)
Directed by Rupert Sanders, the new film is certainly interesting in the visual sense but so extremely dumbed down that it there is just no reason for the movie to exist. There’s already an excellent adaptation of the manga, not to mention plenty of episodes of the spinoff series and concurrent animations. Why do we need this live-action film?
I suppose that could start a discussion about the nature of any adaptations. Even if we were to go down that road and I’d grant that it’s worth rebooting these things for the sake of finding a new audience, I still feel the one currently out in theaters fails on its own merits.
The film doesn’t work. The streets of Hong Kong–or some ambiguous setting–full of holographic advertisement bombardment seems to be the only thing Sanders cares to add with any interest. There’s not even any nudity. The acting is stiff, pretentious, and not believable. Scarlett Johansson does not come across as well a reserved cyborg warrior with deeper notions of trying to understand herself. Batou, played by Pilou Asbæk, is inconsistent with his accent and not in the same league as the anime character whatsoever. Overall, it’s just like that other recent remake that was such a big deal, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Because ultimately the only thing these nostalgic movies succeed at is that they make you want to go watch the original classic animated versions.
But just being another lame Hollywood scifi action blockbuster isn’t the real reason why this film has been so controversial, and is failing so badly. Let us address the elephant. The whitewashing.
First of all, I was quite willing to give this universe’s version of the Major a chance. Fine, Scarlett Johansson is playing a character inspired by a Japanese character but named Mira Killian. She wouldn’t literally playing a person of another race in this version’s world, right? She even said so in interviews. I mean, after all the awareness of whitewashing the producers couldn’t be stupid enough to actually have her play an Asian?
I’d announce a spoiler alert, but in fact the trailer gave it away a long time ago. In more of the film’s stupid choices for originality, instead of the fascinating cybernetic lifeform Puppet Master as villain it turns out that the Hollywood plot is of course a complete Robocop ripoff. The evil corporation experimented on her and she has to try to get back her memories. The Section 9 team doesn’t do anything but get manipulated, and bring nothing constructive to the world of the film. So why root for them?
In any case, the trailer gave that away and it wasn’t a good storyline. But what’s worse, if you finally watch the movie the only surprise left s that the Major’s true self turns out to be.. wait for it… a Japanese girl named Motoko Kusanagi.
Oh, come on. Who on earth thought that would be a good idea? So there you have it, in your face whitewashing. Scarlett in yellowface. White privilege casting through and through, full of supremacist implications considering that cybernetic engineers “perfect” their experiments by turning them white, and with assumptions of whiteness as default thrown in.
That was just so much worse than it needed to be. Why Hollywood, why?
As a disclaimer I should probably say that I am a white person myself. Yet I do recognize the fact Hollywood clearly marginalizes minorities and that the idea of ‘white’ as the default is a supremacist trope which must be challenged. The media has a responsibility to be fair, and empathetic humans should care about these issues no matter what we look like or where we come from.
Interestingly, while that seems obvious to me as an American with a diverse background, when I’d ask Chinese people their opinion on 攻壳机动队 few here understand or care. It’s just not a thing to think further about than whether or not it’s entertaining. And apparently, in Ghost’s native Japan, fans are flattered that there is an international production and the whitewashing controversy was a surprise even to the Japanese creators like director Oshii himself.
Is it true that Asians themselves don’t find it a big deal? Could it be that overly sensitive Westerners are unnecessarily making too big an issue out of the whole thing?
Much has said online of this video:
However, I posit that this is totally missing the point. Chinese people in China whom I interact with (at least, Han people to be specific) are the majority in their own country. Hence they don’t think about minority positions and, as I’ve often heard, when considering the rest of the world can go as far as assuming that all Americans are all blond-haired and blue-eyed.
And Japanese people in Japan aren’t just the majority, their country is one of the most uniformly ethnic monocultures in the world. Many may acknowledge anime characters can look white and think nothing of it–and note Tezuka did base his style off Disney.
But Asian people in Asia have a different experience than Asians who are minorities in other countries, and that’s the point.
It is the Asian American actors, minority in their country, who are being discriminated against with whitewashing. The United States of America is a diverse nation made up of immigrants. Hollywood is in fact an international business; it matters very much when they consistently silence groups, prop up the white ideal, and perpetuate racism in this matter. It affects real people.
All this should really be said best by Asian Americans themselves, not me, and therefore I suggest reading this interview with actresses Keiko Agena (whom I love from Gilmore Girls, but that’s a story for another post!), Traci Kato-Kiriyama, Atsuko Okatsuka, and Ai Yoshihara:
“And the last scene where the mom hugs her daughter at the grave, that was weird to me. Because Japanese people, we don’t hug, especially mom’s generation. Maybe an intense look instead. … In Japan, we don’t act like that. The demeanor and body language was mimicking an American person. Any time a white director directs a Japanese movie, they’re always trying to get us to act American.”
“That was the other cringe-worthy moment, when they called each other by their Japanese names. We’re looking at these beautiful white bodies saying these Japanese names, and it hurt my heart a little bit.”
So much cringing… and that about says it all. Hollywood completely misses the mark yet again.
In short, the movie just isn’t very good and the whitewashing aspect really is that bad.
I do not recommend the film.