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Ghost in the Shell’s “whitewashing” scandal is a case of good intentions aimed in the wrong direction

Before it ever hit theaters, 2017’s Ghost in the Shell (GITS) was condemned for “whitewashing” because of the casting Scarlett Johansson as the film’s lead. It may be an unpopular opinion, but I believe that this is an unfair condemnation. 

Whitewashing is definitely a problem in movies and there is a long list of films that are flagrant violators. Whitewashing is at it’s most egregious is when it takes characters who are meant to be of a certain race or culture and removes them from that identity. Or, worse, when it keeps their identity but substitutes and actor of a different race to play them. A recent example of that was Emma Stone’s casting as a part Chinese girl in the movie Aloha.

GITS doesn’t care about race

As a series, GITS was never about race. The themes of the original (mostly talking about the 1995 anime film and related TV series) had more to do with identifying what makes people human and the integration of humanity and technology. The Major was concerned more about whether or not she was a person than what nationality or race she was. Similarly, the story never focuses on that subject.

In the story, Major’s body is synthetic meaning that, by it’s very nature it doesn’t have an ethnicity outside of maybe knowing where the parts were manufactured. The backstory of her mind or “ghost” is generally assumed to be Japanese, but the actual origin story changes or is ignored depending on which iteration of the property you’re talking about. Her nationality is implied to be Japanese because she works for a Japanese agency but, really it’s not brought up as a significant plot point.

Major’s nationality is not clear one way or another

Since Major’s ethnicity isn’t directly stated, viewers/readers are left to infer it. The problem with that is that manga and anime are notorious for having problematic representations of different races. In general, characters are drawn with a neutral “anime look” unless the artist wants to make it a point to make them look different. People of African decent and Americans are most commonly drawn with distinctive (and often less flattering) features. However, there are also times when non-Japanese characters are simply identified by a different pigment or hair/eye color and style. There are also cases where characters are Japanese, but ethnically diverse or ambiguous. Ironically, this series has one of those characters in Batou. Based on his occupation as a member of a Japanese agency, you assume he’s Japanese. However, he is drawn almost like a stereotypical European in anime. Like the Major, his ethnicity is never discussed.

Being the protagonist of the story, the Major is drawn with the traditionally neutral look and fair skin color. I’m sure that most people would assume she’s Japanese, but that’s just a side-effect of the medium. You’re kind of meant to assume that most leads in anime/manga are Japanese whether they are or not.

Since this story has become more of an issue, there’s been a lot more research done into the Major’s actual ethnicity, with people finding evidence to support either argument. The Major’s creator, Mamoru Oshii, has gone on record as saying that GITS has heavily European influences as well as influences from Japan and America. There’s also been talk that the rights holders for GITS never envisioned an Asian actress playing the role of Major in the movie. Some have even pointed out that Major’s characteristic piercing blue eyes aren’t a trait that you would expect to find in a Japanese person.

On the other side of the argument, people have pointed out that the major has been shown to have a distinctly darker pigment than a blond haired, blue-eyed version of the same model of cyborg. This implies that she is, at least, more olive skinned. There is also a moment in the anime where the Major, along with her colleagues, are referred to as “Japs” by a foreign soldier. Even Oshii’s sentiments have been undermined by the opening text of the 1995 movie, which states that national and ethnic borders still matter in this world.

All of this conversation and contradiction is caused by the fact that there is no definitive answer to what the Major’s nationality is. If it were that important, I think it would’ve been stated at some point.

GITS had an “opportunity” to cast an Asian, not an obligation

Given that the actual character of the Major does not have a clear ethnicity, I don’t believe that it’s far to accuse the movie or its producers of whitewashing the role. They did not take a role intended for an Asian person and hand it to a white person. They simply cast an actress that could carry a movie and approximate the look that the animated version of the character had. There is also the business side of the equation, which suggests that you need a name actor to lead the series and, unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of choices for actors who could carry a movie like this,  Asian or otherwise.

The most valid criticism of this choice is that the role “could” have gone to an Asian actress. Being that GITS is a Japanese property, no one would’ve batted an eye if an Asian person with darker skin than the cartoon Major had been cast in the role. Given the recent highlighting of the lack of leading roles for Asian actors, I fully understand the lamenting of that lost opportunity. I do think it’s ironic that, for all of the lamenting of the idea that Scar-Jo isn’t Asian, more people aren’t focusing on the idea that a Sci-Fi action movie (and a potential series) is being helmed by a female lead.

Conclusion

GITS could have chosen to be more progressive and cast an Asian woman to star in this film. However, given the background of the character and the environment that the movie was made in, I don’t believe that such a casting would’ve have been done for any reason other than trying to be progressive. Casting Scar-Jo does nothing to lessen the authenticity of the adaptation and, probably, helped the movie get made in the first place. There are lots of properties that are guilty of high levels of racial insensitivity or appropriation. Having seen many of those, and this adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, I don’t believe that it’s appropriate to lump this movie in with those.

Unfortunately for fans of live-action anime adaptations. This controversy has had an undeniable impact on the movie. It’s obvious that people in control of the film went out of their way to try to address the whitewashing issues in the media, but then in got into the movie itself. They felt the need to diverge from the Major’s original story and to emphasize the idea that she was a Japanese woman put into the body of Scar-Jo. We even get to see her reconnect with her Japanese mother. The worst part is that, the movie is worse for it. Most of the elements that deal with the Major’s past feel out of place and are a big departure from the original material.

Even more damaging is the fact that this controversy will undoubtedly affect the box office for a movie that was already a bit of a long shot to be a financial success [to date, the movie is projected to lose about $60 million]. The ironic thing about this is that it’s likely to cause studios to think that properties like this aren’t worth adapting which, in turn, could be taking away opportunities to have more Asian actors taking leading roles.

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