Justin Chang and Jen Yamato debate 'Ghost in the Shell' and the dangers of Hollywood whitewashing

Justin Chang and Jen Yamato debate 'Ghost in the Shell' and the dangers of Hollywood whitewashing, Film critic Justin Chang and film reporter Jen Yamato discuss the whitewashing controversy around the casting of Scarlett Johansson in 'Ghost in the Shell'

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What does the current crop of film and TV shows accused of whitewashing Asian roles say about Hollywood’s ongoing diversity crisis? L.A. Times film critic Justin Chang and film reporter Jen Yamato sat down to discuss the latest example of the issue — Scarlett Johansson’s casting as a futuristic cybernetic cop in Paramount’s “Ghost in the Shell,” adapted from the Japanese manga of the same name. (Warning: This conversation includes plot spoilers for “Ghost in the Shell.”)

JEN YAMATO: Congrats to Scarlett Johansson on her latest celebrity endorsement gig: the new face of whitewashing in Hollywood! It’s a contract she signed the moment she agreed to star in Paramount’s “Ghost in the Shell,” and a position of almost defiant ignorance she solidified by suggesting, in carefully curated media interviews, that playing a strong female action hero in Paramount’s anime blockbuster somehow trumps the cultural erasure of non-white identity. Nope! Not how it works.

JUSTIN CHANG: Don’t hold back, Jen. Lord knows the Internet hasn’t ever since Johansson’s casting was announced. We seem to have fallen into a dispiritingly familiar pattern where Hollywood-goes-East blockbusters are concerned, and it usually starts with the announcement of some fresh casting outrage: Tilda Swinton enlisting as a Celtic version of a Tibetan mystic in Marvel’s “Doctor Strange,” or Matt Damon being called in for white-hero duty on “The Great Wall” (a China-U.S. co-production, incidentally).

From there, the woker-than-thou factions of the press and public react with unsurprising anger. The marketing campaign becomes a passive-aggressive exercise in damage control. The movie is released, and the casting is duly dubbed either the worst thing ever or a complete non-issue. And neither reaction, I think, really gets at the more complicated truth of the matter.

YAMATO: In your “Ghost in the Shell” review, you actually did praise Johansson’s acting performance as Major, a killer lady Robocop with a human brain dealing with glitchy software and an existential quandary in a tech-dependent dystopian future. It’s worth mentioning that plenty of liberties are taken in the film, which was directed by a white man, Rupert Sanders, and produced by more white men, and adapted by three other white men from the original Masamune Shirow manga.

The problem lies in the most extreme “creative” liberty these filmmakers made in the name of box-office receipts: They changed “Ghost in the Shell’s” original protagonist, Major Motoko Kusanagi — a Japanese woman — into, well, Scarlett Johansson.

CHANG: Guilty as charged: I liked Johansson in “Ghost in the Shell,” just as I liked Swinton in “Doctor Strange.” And I was perfectly fine with Damon in “The Great Wall,” in which he’s not really a white savior at all, and is in fact amusingly upstaged by director Zhang Yimou’s make-China-great-again production design.

As she demonstrated in “Lucy” and the masterful “Under the Skin,” Johansson can be a mesmerizing screen presence, with the kind of otherworldly aura that naturally lends itself to science fiction. All of which is to say: It’s possible to admire a performance while still acknowledging the ways in which it’s — to use a word I loathe, but sometimes there’s no alternative — problematic.

YAMATO: It’s one thing for a film or television show (see Marvel’s “Iron Fist” and Netflix’s upcoming Americanized “Death Note”) to be problematic. It’s more insulting for filmmakers — and the stars whose white faces are plastered on posters and billboards in front of exotic Asian scenery — to ignore the damage their failures have wrought. That is both irresponsible and cowardly.

The “Ghost in the Shell” campaign trail was littered with deflections of whitewashing accusations from producers who insisted the end product would justify the means once haters saw the final film. Johansson even had the audacity to insist that her character was “identity-less,” which the movie itself proves patently false. With “Ghost in the Shell” making $19 million its opening weekend, short of the $20 to $30 million that box-office analysts projected (and Johansson’s 2014 action vehicle “Lucy,” which opened with $43.9 million), I hope the filmmakers know how very wrong they were from the start of this ill-conceived ordeal.

CHANG: Like you, I was galled at how blithely the filmmakers tried to get around the whitewashing charge, mainly by exploiting the story’s very premise: that the body inhabited by the Major formerly known as Motoko Kusanagi is not really her own. Surprise: She used to be Japanese, but she isn’t anymore! (Or is she?) The erasure of the character’s ethnic identity, far from being denied, has in fact been incorporated into the story itself. Honestly, I wasn’t sure whether to splutter in outrage or marvel in grudging admiration at the sheer ingenuity of the artistic compromise on display.

The thing is, as calculating as this “Ghost in the Shell” is, there’s also something surprisingly, even touchingly, naive about it. The dystopian world that Sanders depicts — and on a sheer craft level, depicts rather beautifully — is for all intents and purposes a post-racial society, where individual identity doesn’t appear to be constructed predominantly along racial lines. That’s (almost) a lovely idea. But every film of course must bridge the gap between the world it depicts and the world we’ve got. In a more equitable situation, Johansson’s claim that her character is “identity-less” might ring less hollow. But in an industry that is only just beginning to tell stories about people who are neither white nor black, it inevitably smacks of celebrity privilege.

YAMATO: The Major also has a Westernized name, Mira Killian, to go with her new face and weird action-heroine strut and her reconfigured life’s purpose as a hot and humorless terrorist-hunter. But the subtext is even more appalling — and as an Asian woman of Japanese descent, it feels like a direct slap in the face from Johansson, director Sanders and everyone involved in this mess. In the film, Johansson is constantly objectified and celebrated as an ideal of beauty and function in a selectively multicultural but predominantly Asian society. Her “shell,” artificially designed and optimized by corporate scientists, is cooed over by the camera and by other characters as an upgrade from the one her “ghost” was born with.

The implication is that her Western beauty is superior, an ignoble message hammered home by the fact that we never get a good look at the face of the Japanese actress, Kaori Yamamoto, who plays Major’s previous self. The same is also true of the cybernetic hacker villain Kuze played by Michael Pitt, an actor so Caucasian he basically played Kurt Cobain in a Gus Van Sant movie, who is revealed to have also once been … drum roll, please! … a man named Hideo. The end-movie reveal of their true identities and origins just adds insult to injury, particularly to the female Asian moviegoers who might at least see themselves represented on-screen in a rare lead role, in the heroine of the original anime.

CHANG: Generally speaking, this issue seems to have stirred more outrage among American and Asian American commentators than it has among potential audiences in Japan (a distinction worth making!), who mostly greeted Johansson’s casting with a massive shrug of indifference — as though signaling their complete lack of interest or stake in what Hollywood does. Paramount’s campaign even found a useful ally in Mamoru Oshii, the brilliant Japanese director of the 1995 and 2004 “Ghost in the Shell” animes, who defended Johansson’s casting on grounds of artistic freedom.

Oshii, of course, has forgotten more about “Ghost in the Shell” than I will ever know. But his argument still strikes me as unexamined, since the “artistic freedom” being exercised here is so clearly predicated on commercial expectations. And the fact that the film has disappointed at the box office further calls into question the point of all this blanket Hollywoodization — an unwieldy term that I somewhat prefer to “whitewashing,” since race is merely one factor in the industry’s longtime practice of rendering stories in the most Western-friendly, English-conversant manner possible.

YAMATO: It’s easy to argue semantics over the term “whitewashing,” as Damon did while clumsily defending “The Great Wall” from critics, by insisting that his character was never meant to be anything other than white. Maybe we collectively need to find a more inclusive umbrella term for it. But whether you call it yellowface, white saviorhood, race-bending, erasure — it’s all whitewashing if a story rooted in Asian origins or an Asian setting defaults to a white normative reality. The filmmakers behind these properties, nearly all white men, are forcing white preference and white privilege into the spotlight and blaming it on a system that necessitates bankable white stars. The more these movies bomb while others like “Get Out” flourish, the more these excuses get exponentially more tedious.

CHANG: I’ll leave it to someone else to coin an all-encompassing term for a phenomenon that, for all the prominent forms it has taken recently, is certainly nothing new in the history of Hollywood. Mickey Rooney in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is the most notorious and perhaps most frequently cited example. John Frankenheimer’s “The Manchurian Candidate” is a masterpiece, but try watching it today and not recoiling from Henry Silva as the “North Korean” agent Chunjin.

True story: I once watched a box set of Charlie Chan DVDs with my dad, a Chinese American immigrant who — far from being offended at the Swedish actor Warner Oland, with his faltering English and deliberately mangled Confucianisms — thoroughly enjoyed the performance and the character, to the point of quoting him for days afterward. Naturally, Hollywood can and should be doing better at this point than it was in the 1930s (and let’s not forget that Charlie Chan was actually perceived as progress at the time). Judging by the upcoming release calendar, “Ghost in the Shell” is hardly the last we’ve seen of this unfortunate trend.

YAMATO: In a post-Obama, post-election era of heightened identity politics, Hollywood has managed to make Asian Americans (still) feel utterly invisible by making white lives matter more than other lives in the content that we watch. (Case in point: Japanese actress Rila Fukushima, whose casting was used as a diversity shield to deflect whitewashing accusations in the trades, only shows up as a killer geisha-bot in the film, her real face hidden behind a robotic mask.) But keeping execs honest on inclusion outside Oscar season is a tall order. Which film critics are holding studios to greater standards, and which of them simply pass the buck on accountability onto someone else’s think pieces or the career-risking tweets of celebrity activists like George Takei or “Fresh Off the Boat” star Constance Wu?

CHANG: I think it’s important for those of us speaking up about this and other representational issues to react with nuance and consideration even to projects that don’t display much of their own. I’m reminded, Jen, of your exceptionally thoughtful Daily Beast interview with “Doctor Strange” director Scott Derrickson, who acknowledged the challenges and compromises of this kind of adaptation far more honestly, and self-critically, than those associated with “Ghost in the Shell” have done.

I’m also struck by the fact that we wouldn’t even be talking about this if there weren’t clearly significant interest in stories that, like “Doctor Strange” and “Ghost in the Shell,” are to some extent rooted in Eastern fantasy and science-fiction elements. (It’s precisely because we’re dealing with fantasy that these characters’ ethnic identities can be treated so elastically.) That’s great and all, but the need for diversity applies to genres and aesthetics too. As the recent critical and commercial renaissance in black cinema reminds us — witness the Oscar triumph of “Moonlight” and the smash success of “Hidden Figures” and “Get Out” — no culture can survive on one kind of movie alone.

YAMATO: My fear, even after “Ghost in the Shell’s” box-office crash and burn, is that there has been a great Unwokening after the triumphs for visibility since #OscarsSoWhite. “Moonlight” was a huge and well-deserved win for inclusion, but the fight to be seen, for so many people, is far from over. “Ghost in the Shell” sent a clear, cold message to me as an Asian woman that I am not as worthy of owning my own identity. It’s a dehumanizing concept to sell so cheerily to mass audiences. The entire film is the sunken place for Asian American consciousness. It’s time we all demand better.

jen.yamato@latimes.com

@jenyamato

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