Ghost in the Shell: Is Whitewashing An Inevitable Outcome to American Adaptation?

Posted by Nilgoun Bahar & filed under Film.

Source: DreamWorks/ Shochiku
Source: DreamWorks/ Shochiku

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In early 2016, Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks revealed the first official portrayal of Scarlett Johansson as the Major in the Japanese live-action anime thriller Ghost in the Shell based on Masamune Shirow’s internationally-acclaimed manga series Kōkaku Kidōtai (Mobile Armored Riot Police).

Not surprisingly, the decision to cast a Danish-Polish actress playing a traditional Japanese role faced much criticism around the globe. Los Angeles Times reporter Marc Bernardin argued: “at the end of the day, the only race Hollywood cares about is the box office race.” Guy Aoki, the president of the Media Action Network, went as far to claim that “it is disappointing that they cannot find an Asian person to play the lead role because Hollywood very rarely volunteers to create a project where an Asian person will be the star.”

While Hollywood is not free of guilt when it gets to the ongoing issue of whitewashing, there are a couple of questions and points that deserve to be asked and discussed. First, most critics seem to be aware of the fact that Ghost in the Shell is an “adaptation” of Shirow’s story. In art and literature, an adaptation is generally a film or stage play that has been sourced from a written work.

The Hollywood film industry as a major source of American patriotism was created by white Americans, for Americans. From the invention of first film for motion photography in 1885 by George Eastman and William H. Walker, to Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 film the Great Train Robbery, and the gradual formation of huge film production companies such as Paramount, Warner Brothers, Disney, DreamWorks, Metro Goldwin Meyer, and 20th Century Fox, no one denies the fact that a big part of America’s power, economy and politics owe a great debt to its movie industry. When a major American film production adapts a story, in this case, Japanese anime, the business requires the people involved to make decisions to modify the story in American settings, to “adjust” the story to new conditions.

Let’s also consider the rights to the series and its characters, which are controlled by the publisher Kodansha. Expressing his thoughts on the matter to The Hollywood Reporter, Kodansha’s Director of International Business Sam Yoshiba stated, “Looking at her career so far, I think Scarlett Johansson is well cast …. She has the cyberpunk feel, and we never imagined it would be a Japanese actress in the first place.”

I strongly agree with screenwriter Max Landis’s comment that “the only reason to be upset about Scarlett Johansson being in Ghost in the Shell is if you do not know how the movie industry works.” Who is to blame when Kodansha have negotiated to sell the rights to the story to Paramount and seem to support this act of whitewashing? According to U.S. Copyright law, “no transfer of exclusive rights, including an option agreement and an assignment, is valid unless in writing and signed by the owner of the rights or his/her duly authorized agent,” (in this case, the Kodansha Publications).

Even though Shirow as the creator of Ghost in the Shell has yet to be heard from, it is worth considering the fact that whitewashing the Major’s role is a negotiated business agreement supported by both the Japanese publication and the American companies.

Furthermore, the very appearance of the term “anime” in English language signifying the Japanese animation style sheds light on the fact that when the source material exceeds in popularity from a national aspect to an international world-known series, it is transformed from a national heritage to a transnational commodity, meaning that it extends and operates across national boundaries. In other words, the significant investment that the Japanese publication house of Ghost in the Shell makes from selling the rights to a central cultural Japanese commodity to Hollywood may eventually result in the loss of national heritage once the source material is remade and so to speak, whitewashed.

Lastly, to consider our postmodern era and its dominant ideologies, notions such as “originality,” “authenticity,” or “centrality” are interpreted and referred to differently from what they once denoted in, say, modern era (for more information about postmodernist concepts, read Fredric Jameson’s influential essay “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” (1991)). On the one hand, as mentioned before, once the source material becomes known internationally and attracts fans all around the world, the material loses its originality with the passage of time. On the other hand, the very fact that the rights to a central Japanese story are sold to Hollywood like a commodity decenters the story, meaning that it removes and displaces it from its origin and will be treated accordingly (for example, for the sake of beneficial political expressions) on American soil.

The portrayal of white actors in roles initially originating with characters of color is not a new issue, and the importance of advocating diversity on American screens needs to be taken into account deeply. However, in the light of these matters, it is worth asking whether it would not be more appropriate to approach the subject of whitewashing and Japanese roles by shifting the focus to transnationality as well as considering both the Japanese and American powers at play behind this representation, as the primary category that needs to be analyzed.

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