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Essay

Whitewashing a ghost

By Patrick St. Michel

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Many people in the United States have been talking about Ghost in the Shell, the live-action movie adaptation of the famous manga and anime of the same name. The film, starring Scarlett Johansson as The Major, has been the center of a lot of discussion as the film arrives in theaters on both sides of the Pacific.

Yet the attention has mostly been of the negative variety. In the original series, The Major is technically a cyborg, but her name, Motoko Kusanagi, also implies that she's Japanese. Scarlett Johansson is definitely not. Yet she's starring in the movie. She's front and center in all of the advertising and media appearances too. Many aren't thrilled about this, to say the least.

The new Ghost in the Shell movie has reignited a debate about "whitewashing" in Hollywood cinema. The term refers to the practice of casting white actors in nonwhite roles. This has been an issue ever since studios started filming in soundstages in Hollywood, far from where movies are actually set. Even though the location or plot of a movie calls for black, Latino, Native American, Middle Eastern or Asian actors, these roles are whitewashed — they're played by Caucasians. This has led to some films that have aged badly — take, for instance, the much-loved Breakfast at Tiffany's, in which Mickey Rooney plays a Japanese landlord full of racist stereotypes.

Over the last couple of decades, the situation has improved significantly. Yet problematic castings still pop up, and in recent years they've tended to involve roles for Asian characters. Ghost in the Shell isn't the first anime-to-live-action adaptation to face this issue. A cinematic take on Dragonball from 2008 put a white actor in the lead role of Goku.

But Ghost in the Shell has been the highest-profile case in quite some time, as Paramount Pictures is angling for it to be a blockbuster. That's exactly why they went for Johansson, an A-list actress with the star power to sell a film based off an anime that most people in the U.S. don't know.

To some degree, the issue here isn't about any specific movie, but about Hollywood's failure to showcase Asian actors in general, and to groom them for leading roles. Ghost in the Shell is just the biggest reminder of how badly they have failed on that front.

What about in Japan?

Well, based on what I've seen, fans are far more worried whether Ghost in the Shell can be any good as a film. This country is far more skeptical of live-action takes on anime, regardless of who stars.

ゴーストをごまかす

日本漫画の実写映画版『ゴースト・イン・ザ・シェル』(来月公開)で、スカーレット・ヨハンソンが主人公を演じ、批判を集めている。白人以外の役に白人俳優が配役される問題は度々議論の的になる。

The Japan Times ST: March 31, 2017

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2017年11月24日号    試読・購読   デジタル版
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