Ghost in the Shell proves white-washing isn’t so profitable, so why does it continue to happen?
Paramount’s $110 million dollar film, Ghost in the Shell, has had a disappointing dull reception at the box office, finishing the weekend with $18.6 million and placing third behind Beauty and the Beast and Boss Baby.
Since the first announcement of its cast, the film has been shrouded in heavy criticism of white-washing, with Scarlett Johansson portraying Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg working for the Japanese National Public Safety Commission. Ghost in the Shell is one of the most successful anime franchises of all time and is quintessentially Japanese, leading many to wonder why Paramount would take on such a classic in the first place. Not to mention, many films with a white-washed cast are flops- recent examples including Exodus: Gods and Kings, Gods of Egypt and The Great Wall. White-washed films are much less profitable and less critically acclaimed- for example, Hidden Figures and Moonlight, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, were highly popular and did not a predominantly white cast, proving audiences are yearning for more diverse films. So why does Hollywood continue this trend of white-washing despite the criticism and animosity towards it?
The Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) heavily criticised the casting of Johansson and Michael Pitt as Kuze, or Hideo as it is revealed to be in his past life. MANAA President Robert Chan explains “in Hollywood, Japanese people can’t play Japanese people anymore. There’s no reason why either Motoko or Hideo could not have been portrayed by Japanese or Asian actors… We don’t even get to see what they looked like in their original human identities- a further white-wash.” The film also faced staunch criticism last year when it was revealed producers reportedly tested visual effects that would make Johansson appear more Asian. Johansson’s films have also faced criticism throughout her career for representing Asians in a less than positive light- Lucy and Lost in Translation were panned for portraying Asians in an offensive and stereotypical way.
The Founding President of MANAA has condemned Hollywood’s casting choices. “Hollywood continues to make the same excuses, that there aren’t enough Asian/Asian American names to open a blockbuster film. Yet, it has not developed a farm system where actors get even third billing in most pictures. Without a conscientious effort, how will anyone ever break through and become familiar enough with audiences so producers will confidently allow them to topline a film? When will we ever break through that glass ceiling?”
The director of the original Ghost in the Shell Mamoru Oshii has defended the casting, saying “Major is a cyborg and 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 actress must portray her. Even if her original body were a Japanese one, that would still apply.” Whilst this is indeed a fair argument, why does her physical form have to be that of a white woman? Screenwriter Max Landis argued that Johansson was cast due to her popularity and prominence in the action genre, starring in the Marvel franchise as Black Widow. But star power could not help Ghost in the Shell, with only 45% on Rotten Tomatoes and critics calling it ‘style over substance,’ even ‘vaguely insulting’ to its source material.
However, there is hope for the future. The backlash against white-washing has become such a force to be reckoned with that last week Disney was forced to confirm it was not “white-washing” its Mulan remake and that the main role and supporting cast will be Chinese. Whilst it is arguably a small victory that a Chinese actress will play a Chinese role, it is a victory nonetheless. As money talks in Hollywood, there is hope that the string of white-washing flops will show producers that audiences simply do not want to see white actors taking roles from other races and that a white cast is not the key ingredient for a successful film.