Last week, we saw the release of a film that offended Asian sensibilities worldwide. Ghost in the Shell, a live-action Hollywood remake of a Japanese anime movie by the same name, had Scarlett Johansson, an obviously Caucasian woman, in the lead. Her character, Mira Killian, called Motoko Kusanagi in the original, is a cyborg in search of her origin.
This, of course, is a huge problem considering the original film's premise clearly states, “In the near future, corporate networks reach out to the stars and electrons, and light flows throughout the universe. The advance of computerization, however, has not yet wiped out nations and ethnic groups,” giving the movie’s makers plenty of wiggle room, just not when it comes to race.
Director Rupert Sanders' decision to change names and the setting in order to accommodate a white actor is definitely better than yellowface (the practise of making a white actor look Asian). But these adjustments could have been easily avoided had he found a Japanese actor to play the part.
The problem of erasure
There are very few acting parts that canonically belong to non-white characters, at least not in popular culture. And sure, that may not appear to be reason enough to cast a person from a particular ethnicity, because hey, Scarlett Johansson is great, right? Besides, shouldn't it be enough that the director of the original Ghost in the Shell, Mamoru Oshii approved of Johansson?
“Her physical form is an entirely assumed one. The name Motoko Kusanagi and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actor must portray her,” said Oshii.
Because while Oshii's endorsement of the choice needs to be respected, we can't rule out the fact that Google results to 'Ghost in the Shell' today automatically refer to the 2017 edition. This is problematic because of the potential erasure of the original, which often happens with a new take.
In this case though, the canon will be overshadowed by the larger-than-life personality Johansson is, thereby making the erasure twofold – one, of the film itself, and two, of Motoko as a Japanese icon.
This is ironic, given the context of the film, where she's fulfilling tasks in search of her original identity.
American = Caucasian?
The other inexplicable aspect of whitewashing is the assumption that American means Caucasian. Netflix's adaptation of Death Note, a widely popular Japanese manga series, relocates itself to the United States.
What's funny though is that, for Netflix, that means having a blonde Caucasian lead – his name changed from Light Yagami to Light Turner, because surely we can have Asian Americans normalising their existence on television?
Light Turner (Left) and Light Yagami
Light's sort-of-girlfriend goes from being called Misa Amane in the original to Mia Sutter, and L, his nemesis, is African-American. Of course, the makers expect audiences to applaud this sudden show of diversity – the inclusion of a black American. Except that's not happening, for evidently, L's casting serves more as an excuse, and, there too, they get his race wrong.
It sends out the message that America belongs to white people, and some black people also exist here. As ignorant as such a message is, it is also dangerous, for it completely overlooks entire populations. Thankfully, people on the internet aren't pleased.
The two Ls
“Boycott Netflix's Death Note for Whitewashing!” – a petition started by Sarah Rose last month has over 16K supporters now. “The Death Note manga has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide. It also brought two films, a globally successful anime, and a musical. The story itself is full of Japanese culture, history, and identity - and the Japanese narrative is essential to the plot and storytelling,” the petition reads.
The petition further highlights how Asian-American actor Edward Zo was refused a part after auditioning for the series.
"This would have been an amazing opportunity for an actor of colour, for an Asian actor, to take the global stage and break barriers and break stereotypes... (but) they were not looking to see Asian actors for the role of Light Yagami," said Zo.
Lost in translation
Shinigami, or a god of death, is a trope that is consistently present through Death Note, hanging over the story like the looming spectre of death itself. While Shinigami quite naturally form the backbone of the storyline in Japan, they are entirely alien to the western concept of death, a concept that associates death with grief, violence, and silence. Interestingly, Lord Yama, or Yamaraj, in Hindu mythology, is also considered a type of Shinigami in Japanese mythology.
The appearance of this almost uniquely Asian god of death in the completely whitewashed Netflix series serves to confuse more than educate. The Asian cultural context is completely lost on global audiences, as death in western civilisations isn't seen as a friend. Ryuk, the Shinigami who tails Light in Death Note, is not so different from how Lord Yama is often depicted in Indian popular culture.
He is amused at the worldly concerns about death, unable to gauge why humans obsess over it. To him, it is an eventuality he sees painted over every human's head in bold letters.
Netflix's translation of this wouldn't mean anything without the indigenous cultural backdrop. Because while Shinigami can most definitely make their way to America, their tradition is far from American. In that respect alone, the chances of them being exoticised in the show are high.
Who is exotic?
Of course, Netflix's crime seems petty when compared with Hollywood's general trend. The industry routinely casts impossibly Caucasian actors quite brazenly as other races. Think Emma Stone as Chinese-Hawaiian Allison Ng in Aloha, or Jake Gyllenhaal as the titular Prince of Persia.
Just the thought of these extremely prominent actors playing someone racially different from themselves is disconcerting, let alone it ruining iconic figures like the Prince from a game we grew up on.
The appropriation of these characters not only erases their original significance, as mentioned above, but it also is a lot more harmful than the lack of new diverse characters and storylines.
On the face of it, it appears to be an attempt on Hollywood's part to tell stories that aren't set only in the American backdrop, or at least that could be one lazy argument to support these retellings. But even if Hollywood were to completely stop making stories that feature diverse characters, it'll cause our global plural culture less harm.
That Hollywood has arrested global imagination is only part of the problem. The other part being how, when it does choose to show diversity, it often tends to fall back on horrible stereotypes.
Just last month, Kal Penn exposed the racist approach with which brown actors are often cast. In his series of tweets, he named different popular TV shows that required him to play a token Indian, often a caricature more than a character.
Found a bunch of old scripts from some of my first years trying to be an actor. pic.twitter.com/GydOwlUKGW— Kal Penn (@kalpenn) March 14, 2017
Friggin King of Queens man! I used to love that show until I got to audition for it lol pic.twitter.com/2BYu0nnd57— Kal Penn (@kalpenn) March 14, 2017
Sabrina the Teenage Witch! Man. We got INTO it about why he had to have an accent. I'm laughing about it now but they were such dicks 😂 pic.twitter.com/kXdHjVsqvT— Kal Penn (@kalpenn) March 14, 2017
While we can laugh all we want at this silly exoticisation, it is what strengthens stereotypes about certain identities over generations, identities that have historically not had the power to control their own narratives.
When a brown man is asked to talk a certain way, or when a white woman pretends to be Asian, these are the identities whose histories are harmed. As literary theorist Edward Said wrote in Orientalism, “Arabs, for example, are thought of as camel-riding, terroristic, hook-nosed, venal lechers whose undeserved wealth is an affront to real civilization."
The Caucasian is above caricature, unless female, or uneducated
“Always there lurks the assumption that although the Western consumer belongs to a numerical minority, he is entitled either to own or to expend (or both) the majority of the world resources. Why? Because he, unlike the Oriental, is a true human being.”
It's true though. The Caucasian is the 'normal', the 'true', the 'original', which is therefore, never lampooned for being Caucasian. It is above caricature, unless female, or uneducated. The Caucasian is never caricatured if urban, male, rich, for those are the voices forming this popular narrative.
And each time we nod along to a Scarlett Johansson playing a Japanese character, we enable it.
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