Thursday, January 22, 2015

Ghost In The Shell Film: A Major Matoko Kusanagi Controversy

On an Anime-related note, it's disconcerting to hear some circles discard the announcement of a live action Ghost In The Shell (2017), slated to star Scarlett Johansson in the lead, by dubbing it the latest recipient of the infamous "whitewashing" - nothing insulting intended about that reference.

Some groups have been quite vocal about the subject. Must every subject be centered on race? At times it can feel inescapable. Speaking specifically to the point of filmmaking, race is sometimes an issue on a selective case by case basis. The latest film to be made in question is Ghost In The Shell. When was it clear that lead protagonist of that film, Major Motoko Kusanagi (and the name alone should not be the only indicator) of Section 9, was Asian? The visual information makes it unclear.

Some wonder if we will ever be colorblind as a people? Recent events and issues are evidence we are a long way from that.

Marissa Lee, co-founder of Racebending, was quoted by The Los Angeles Times, saying "We’re seeing Hollywood continue the trend of whitewashing roles from source material that features Asian and Asian American leads while failing to provide roles for Asian American actors." (Otaku USA)

As a fan of Anime I personally embrace the work of Japanese directors who create live action versions of Patlabor or Space Battleship Yamato or Gatchaman (though I've yet to see that one). Those efforts in Japan seek to fully employ Japanese or Asian actors to play the respective character roles that in many cases actually looked Caucasian in the first place as drawn by animators. You can think Gatchaman (a.k.a. Battle Of The Planets) or Starblazers. These characters hardly looked the part. Are stylized efforts made to reach a larger audience by animators? The style of Anime is certainly a trademark Japanese export.  When the Japanese make their films it's also their own personal creative vision of a Japanese property. But if a Japanese property is licensed outside of Japan and set to star a non-Japanese actor why is that problematic for certain groups? After all, these Japanese-centric live action productions are hardly reaching the masses. And when Japanese companies license their properties there is an acceptance and desire to reach another audience. So what if a property is set to reach a larger audience with a bigger star? It doesn't always work, but it won't necessarily be the problem if it fails. You can look at Godzilla (1998) and Godzilla (2014) for two unique Toho-licensed property examples. Those films were filled with Caucasians and not just Americans. Mind you, it doesn't make them great films.

M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender (2010) (a film I have not seen) received similar criticism and in that case received very little support upon release. Racebending went after that film and even called for boycotts. Can we expect that again with a Hollywood take on Ghost In The Shell? Racial diversity in film certainly exists but some films, if they don't meet a certain criteria or racial barometer, which also seems to differ in definition person to person, then apparently becomes fair game to criticism. Cries of racism begin to circulate declaring foul play or creating a contentious air surrounding a developing film and so it goes. Shyamalan, certainly not my favorite director, offered a fine reflection when attempting to defuse and quell the controversy regarding Anime. "Anime is based on ambiguous facial features. It's meant to be interpretive. It's meant to be inclusive of all races, and you can see yourself in all these characters" (Washington Post). Good for him too. I often have the same perception of the Anime I view. I, we, always honor the Japanese artists and writers behind these amazing works, giving them great respect, but it's not a foregone conclusion that the characters of the Anime we love our definitively Japanese in every story. It's just not true.

Looking specifically at Ghost In The Shell we can blame artist/ creator of the franchise, Masamune Shirow, for creating this mess with his original Manga. Shirow, by the way, noted his original work can even "transcend national boundaries (Stray Dog Of Anime: The Films Of Mamoru Oshii, Brian Ruh, p.133). So why not national identity? Author Brian Ruh noted himself the material's "international nature" (p.133). To further emphasize those blurred lines, Ghost In The Shell, the film, was the first Japan anime to be partially financed by a company from outside Japan. American-based Manga Entertainment was guilty as charged supporting the enterprise.

Looking to the lead, one can certainly look to the original Ghost In The Shell by Mamoru Oshii and see Kusanagi as a character with an almost androgynous appearance at times. Never mind that she was also mostly a cybernetic body. Later, Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex, the series, established a much more feminine, sexy heroine with more Westernized attributes with those big gorgeous Anime eyes. Ghost In The Shell: Rise offers yet another interpretation. So like Star Wars or the writing of Phillip K. Dick, the work of Ghost In The Shell is out there, dynamic and others will interpret it. How ironic that Ghost In The Shell is about gender and more importantly identity.

The negatively-charged term "whitewashing" certainly draws a reaction. But is race a real issue? In film, is it that much of a problem today? Countries have put their own unique spins on the properties of other countries for years in science fiction (Edge Of Tomorrow is based on Japan's All You Need Is Kill (2004) by Hiroshi Sakurazaka), horror (Ringu) and comedy (The Office). There's also several variations on a theme often recorded (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) by different countries. The list goes on. Why does the race topic persist? Was Racebending there for All You Need Is Kill to complain that Keiji Kiriya was altered to William Cage. How about the fact Rita Vrataski was now a British Emily Blunt? Bloody hell more whitewashing. Heck, maybe I'm making a point for Racebending. These seem like trifles in the big picture. There are just too many damn instances to complain about casting one way or another. If the Japanese decide to remake All You Need Is Kill perhaps we will see the creators grab Rinko Kikuchi from the racially diverse Pacific Rim (2013). Fine. And by the way thank you Toho for employing Nick Adams (Frankenstein Conquers The World, Invasion Of Astro-Monster) in the 1960s. That character could have been Asian.

Michael B. Jordan was cast to play Johnny Storm (The Human Torch) in the new Fantastic Four (2015) film. Johnny Storm was always a white boy growing up for me with a Caucasian sister named Susan Storm (The Invisible Girl). Is this blackwashing? Its not how I remember it, but so be it. And by the way you don't have to buy the tickets. But was Racebending there for that one? And if we are to be color blind for that one than why not all of them? Again, the list goes on. The original Nick Fury was Caucasian. Racebending? Battlestar Galactica's Starbuck was originally a male in the classic Battlestar Galactica series but altered to a female in the new one. Genderbending? Boomer was a black man. Damn! Gender-race bending bender bender? By the way, I love both interpretations. What about CGI? Is there such a thing as CGIwashing? Aki Ross was Caucasian in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001), but does she get a pass because Ming-Na handled the voice work? Seriously. What about the other voice actors? Is this not a slippery slope? It's unlikely you'll see a white Black Panther and nor would I want one. I prefer source material be adhered to myself. I even wish the X-Men movies stayed truer to the source material as stories go, but what can you do? Why do people get worked up over certain casting decisions in general? Why does one group have the right to demand one race over another? It's silly. Shouldn't we invoke these concerns when they matter? Just deliver a solid film please.

It's all certainly fair game to discuss, but I have difficulty presuming Ghost In The Shell should be a strictly Asian actress given the ambiguity of the visual source material.

Sadly, this small, meaningless little controversy surrounding Ghost In The Shell slated for 2017 release and slated to be directed by the man behind Snow White And The Huntsman (2012) got under my skin (no pun intended to be referenced) simply because, in the big scope of things, it is certainly symptomatic of an overarching divisiveness that seems to have taken root politically and culturally. The reasons for it are vast, but it's truly disheartening to see the divide take root. The conversation should be a healthy one, without double standards.

This subject is getting old like me, but the race issues that are constantly beaten on headline news, by Hollywood and by people who seem to have a deeper agenda is getting tiresome. Film is just another arena. Good grief already. If it's genuine conversation people want to create and Ghost In The Shell is the latest lightning oh well. I'm not sure what good comes of it. Keeping on point, I'm actually rather pleased to see Ghost In The Shell being given a reasonable budget like Gareth Edwards' Godzilla. Were there a lot of Asians in that one?

As far as films made overseas, has anyone seen the live action version of Blood: The Last Vampire (2009)? Patlabor: The Next Generation (2014)? Let's be honest, the effects could be better, but I'm willing to overlook them. Look, I'm not even sure Scarlet Johanssen is a good choice for the role (never mind the director), and an Asian actress would be fine by me, but I'll be pleased to see this thing come to fruition and look forward to seeing the artistic vision of this entirely collaborative effort from all walks coalesce. You could do far worse than Scarlett. She could look very nice in purple-pink! Black Widow is enough proof for me. Scarlett has even spent a bit of time in Japan so I'm kind of optimistic things won't get lost in translation. The negativity by the likes of Racebending, while political, is illogical, inconsistent and not exactly healthy.


If race is always in question how are we suppose to move passed it? In 2015, it's just downright disheartening. Look this is just another consideration on the matter but the race issue is a really troubling cultural issue that never seems assuaged. Some wonder if racism will ever be a thing of the past, but how can that be when race is tied to something as trivial as casting a part for a film. Certainly there are more significant concerns in the world affecting us all and hitting us close to home. It seemed an alternate viewpoint was in order. As Paul Simon once sang, "silence like a cancer grows."

Gosh, if Akira is ever adapted and cast it could very well be an apocalypse.


SFF said...

I found this interesting. This is a segment from Billboard Magazine this week. It was timely and appropriate to the topic. Clearly it is a frequently used charge, without much regard, and this article illustrated the hurtful feelings often associated with it. It's unfortunate really.

In a TV interview last fall about her new CD, Nostalgia, and the "Strange Fruit" track it includes, Lennox didn't mention that the 1930s song made famous by Billie Holiday was a direct attack on African-American hangings of the era.

Blogs and posts on Twitter accused her of "whitewashing" the song's origins by referring generally to human violence and bigotry while speaking to PBS host Tavis Smiley last October.

Because of one blog and what she called its "opportunistic swipe," the "whole thing blew out of context," said the Grammy-winning musician and activist. She didn't respond at the time "because if I did that it would all get blown up again."

"Let me just say that if I offended anyone -- anyone -- about not mentioning the lynchings, I wholeheartedly apologize. It was never intended and I was hurt" by the blog, she said.

A DVD released about the album includes her comment that "Strange Fruit" is about hangings in the Deep South and that they were "shameful," she noted.

The Scottish-born Lennox, 60, who first gained success with Dave Stewart as the Eurythmics in the 1980s, has received numerous honors for her artistry and for her work against AIDS and poverty in Africa, including the Order of the British Empire in 2011.

"I'm a person who really, really cares about social injustice, and racism is so vile to me and it disturbs me, since I was a kid I've been distressed by this, this fact that there's still so much injustice," she said.

El Vox said...

Yeah, I have to say, if there's not some sort of controversy currently make one up. I think the internet if rife with it, plus you have TV shows, like Entertainment Tonight or whatever, that poise as news programs always reporting on frivolous stuff generally.

I don't think about the race thing to much, I'm more interested in casting to type. I always thought Spielberg and a few others cast his actors well. I was skeptical about Samuel Jackson as Nick Fury, but he's made the role his own pretty much. I was less pleased with Jessica Alba as Sue Storm because I grew up reading and seeing Sue as a natural blonde Caucasian, and she didn't fit the type, for me. Perhaps I might have overlooked that had the films been better, and I also can see perhaps why they do that--popular actors sell tickets. Sometimes it works and sometime not.

Roman J. Martel said...

You make some valid points, and I have to say that that discussions of film and entertainment in general in this wide universe of the internet often get toxic... and fast. For people to get this worked up over something which could end up being trivial is really disheartening.

But... (and you knew there was a big ol' but coming didn't you?) I can understand the frustration behind this casting decision. Here we have a really great female character, one of the best to come out of Japan. Instead of getting a really great asian actress to tackle this juicy part and really break that color barrier (perceived or not) in Hollywood would be something amazing. it's a great opportunity, and one that seems completely squandered when you cast a blonde (real or not) white woman in the part.

You make a good point about stylistically anime characters can be perceived as being of any race, and GITS offers an intriguing possibility of having any kind of body you want with your brain placed inside it. One of the key elements of the first GITS film is that that Kusanagi doesn't really know who she is. Her body becomes a tool for her brain, and one she ends up discarding by the end of the film. So in the scheme of things you could recast Kusanagi at the end of any GITS film. The body doesn't matter, only the mind inside.

As you said Johansson is a fine actress, she can handle action scenes well and has shown her acting chops to be solid. So from that point of view its a good thing we have a solid actress in what could potentially be a great film role. And yeah, we don't have enough female action heroes who use their brains as well as their lethal skills headlining a film these days. So that in itself is a big step forward.

But I still find it frustrating that an asian actress was denied the opportunity to bring this character to life. The setting of manga (obviously Japan with Japanese characters) and the setting of the anime (possible Hong Kong, but with a primarily asian looking team) offered a grand opportunity for something new and refreshing. This casting decision seems like something less than that.

I feel pretty confident saying that it was a decision motivated by money. Johansson will put butts in the seats (mine included) with a high degree of certainty. Because of the lack of well known asian actresses, anyone of that racial group cast in the lead will be a large gamble. That is something no studio wants to handle these days, especially with a science fiction film with a large budget. They want some guaranteed return on the investment (what business wouldn't?). The GITS name will bring in some folks, but Johansson locks in another wide group. Good business sense wins out in the end.

In my mind a bit of a shame, but an understandable decision.

Great topic!

SFF said...

True El Vox.

I know a lot of good people do not consider race too much because it really shouldn't be a consideration necessarily.

Your point about casting to type is completely fair. Alba is a good example. Just not a very good choice. Forget skin color. Of course those FF films aren't very good period.

SFF said...

thanks for the additional commentary. It is disheartening to see people constantly work up race. I think people are let off the hook easy on this issue today.

Who would you pick for the great Asian actress to play the role of Kusanagi? Because you said it, they need to put film goers in those seats if they are going to expend the money.

I do love the idea of a Japanese back drop a la Lost In Translation. We'll see.

Your points are good ones especially the point about the ghost in the shell. It could be any body and race would have nothing to do with it