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We Appreciate the Thought…but Let Us Decide.

The fact that Scarlett Johansson has been cast in the role of Motoko Kusanagi in Hollywood’s (admittedly terribly misconceived) remake of Ghost in the Shell/ ????? as a live action movie is drawing a lot of heat. This is based on the fact that Motoko, in the original manga (and the more famous anime adaptations), is Japanese, and therefore, the logic goes, the role should go to an Asian actress. Which I suspect is logic that seems unassailable to Americans, particularly with the many problems Asians face in Hollywood. It’s great to be concerned Asian actors don’t get a fair shake in American movies…but I’m troubled by an automatic assumption being used here: that “Japanese” people (as opposed to Japanese-Americans) have to look a particular way – specifically East Asian.

It’s true that modern Japanese identity is one built upon a myth of ethnic homogeneity. I also want to make it absolutely, blindingly clear, however, that this is, and has always been, a myth. The history of how and why this myth came to be is a convoluted one (which I will be exploring in a future post), but the simple fact is, the idea of an ethnically homogenous “Japanese” people was constructed after World War II – specifically as a method of creating a new “pure” national identity unsoiled by the ethnic complexities of running a multi-national empire.

As such, Japan has traditionally had a problem accepting mixed race children into its society, and dealing well with ethnic minorities within its midst like Japan-born Koreans (the so-called “Zainichi Kankokujin”), the Ainu, and until the last 50 years, Okinawans. It is in fact so bad, that the post I have been writing on this subject for the better part of the last two years (and can’t seem to finish) is entitled Already an Apartheid State: The True Shame of Japanese Ethno-Nationalist Myth. Taking into account the hyperbole present in the piece being a blog post and requiring a provocative, click-baity title, the racial attitudes of Japanese people in the post war era have been truly, exceptionally awful in a way that’s hard to describe to people who haven’t seen some of its ugliness first hand (not that they were great BEFORE the war, either…).

Still, a funny thing is happening in Japan. It’s in fits and starts, imperfect and often showing off the glaring problems with Japanese racial attitudes or ignorance…but gradually the idea of a more expansive definition of what it means to be “Japanese” is taking root. Celebrities can be a shallow way to gauge cultural acceptance of “foreign”ness, but celebrities with foreign parents or grandparents of one stripe or another are nigh ubiquitous.

Attitudes ARE starting to shift. Yes, there was vocal backlash by a group of internet trolls against the selection of Ariana Miyamoto as Miss Japan in 2015, but their opinions, are not universally held. Indeed, there are a series of great YouTube videos (especially great are the 80 someodd year old women who talk about it) that show what I feel is more representative: acceptance of globalism as it comes to Japan, with some clumsiness from not really being used to it, but a desire to try to continue to make things better. In all the interviews I’ve seen of her, her mannerism is distinctly Japanese, her views, her attitude, her knowledge, all of those things in fact, probably make her more Japanese than I am, despite the fact that my ancestors have been from various parts of Japan well into the 16th century.

Further, my sincere opinion is that the best American actor to have portrayed a Japanese person in the last 20 years…is Dante Carver. Sure he doesn’t fit the stereotypical “oriental” look that Hollywood execs might want in portraying a Japanese person, but he gets everything from the mannerism, humor, delivery, and attitudes all down pat in a way that’s, frankly, uncanny.

…and this is an important point, because Hollywood does orientalizing Japan very well. One of the most disastrously and truly AWFUL movies about Japan in recent memory is Memoirs of a Geisha. It was so comically offensive in how much it focused on the veneer of seeming “exotic” and “asian”, while getting basically everything about Japanese society, mannerisms, culture, and verisimilitude wrong. One can also note the constant stream of “Any Asian Will Do” Hollywood resorts to in casting characters of Asian nationalities. Another atrocious example was the casting in (yes, I know, I know) The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. None of the major “Japanese” characters were played by Japanese people.

Indeed Hollywood’s casting has more in common with the Waitress in this skit than it does with anything to do with getting the nuances with actual Japanese people right…

…all this is a long-winded way of saying: We get that you guys mean well…and that you have an idea of what “Japanese” is…but it’s also wrong. I for one LIKE this newly emerging Japan, where we will (slowly and imperfectly) identify people by their language, cultural affinities and way they think rather than by appearance. And I want a world where ScarJo, Michael Pitt, and Christopher Obi are all as Japanese as Beat Takeshi. We’re JUST starting out…and while I have no faith that Paramount won’t find some way to screw this up in ways that’ll make this post seem silly in hindsight, maybe we can give this a chance.


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Nob Akimoto is a policy analyst and part-time dungeon master. When not talking endlessly about matters of public policy, he is a dungeon master on the NWN World of Avlis

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51 thoughts on “We Appreciate the Thought…but Let Us Decide.

  1. This is a fantastic post. I’m just really happy that I actually know who Beat Takeshi is.

    The thing that confounds me when I try to think about this in an organized way is this: Does Macbeth have to be Scottish? Does he need to be played by a Scottish actor? Was, for instance, Throne of Blood a legitimate adaptation of it? Is it important that Kurosawa changed the title?

    Yes, I’d like to see more Asian actors on screen. We could do that by not chaining them to parts that are “Asians”. I think a move in that direction would make ScarJo’s casting make a lot more sense.

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    • I don’t think people are that specific. Plenty of scripts are adaptable but as I said below, the default in Hollywood goes against casting minorities and this is frustrating to actors and they are working against it.

      If it was easier for minority actors to get cast, I think you would see fewer complaints.

      Casting is interesting though. Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia takes place among the gentry in Regency England. I have seen productions that use minority actors and it was fine. Does theatre have more license to do this than movies and TV? Possibly.

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    • I’m reminded of a tidbit about the movie Nixon where it was decided early on that one thing that was essential was that Richard Nixon be played by an American.

      Which, of course, didn’t happen. They found that Hopkins was the right guy for the job. Given his performance, it was pretty hard to disagree. That said, there was a guy who was perfect to play Nixon and he was in that movie! I suspect he actually got that relatively bit part after trying out to play Nixon. Dan Hedaya would go on to play Nixon in the movie Dick, was was a fun little movie but not the best use of his pitch-perfection for the role.

      I can nonetheless understand why they went the route they did. Maybe they could have made Hedaya’s career with that role, but Hopkins was a name with heft. He was essential for the role that had nothing to do with how well he played it (which was well!).

      This is all easier to stomach when we’re talking about white dudes, though, and there’s no special difficulty for white American actors to find work (even ethnic ones). I can understand why it goes over differently when we’re not.

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    • We don’t think twice when a Scot plays a Lithuanian submarine captain or an Egyptian metallurgist by way of Spain, an English Shakespeare veteran plays a French starship captain, or a Frenchman who speaks English only phonetically plays a Scot opposite the canonical Scottish actor of our time. Or, for that matter, a pirate from the Guilder/Florin sea lanes playing a Bostonian. It only gets really noticed when it’s funny because they’re horrifically bad at it or they don’t even try.

      Kenneth Branagh snuck Denzel Washington into Much Ado About Nothing, but as elevator casting pitches go, that’s not a difficult one.

      Hell, in Hollywood “sophisticated villain” is a nationality, and it’s part of the UK.

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  2. I think there are lots of competing angles here.

    1. From a pure business prospective, Hollywood wants a star with power and popularity to be the leads in movies. That is Scarlett Johanson to a T. Warner Bros. felt like she would attract an audience bigger than anime fans.

    2. On the other hand, Hollywood has a huge problem with just making white the de facto casting choice. Asian actors might be the hardest hit by this. There has been improvement in recent years but still a long way to go. Why not make this the break out role for an unknown actor? This has happened many times before. Peter O’Toole was largely unknown when he was cast as Lawrence of Arabia. Same with Harrison Ford as Han Solo and Dustin Hoffman in the Graduate. Unknown actors can carry leads in successful movies.

    3. Related to #2. Warner Bros. felt that there was enough of a comics/anime fanbase to justify making a Ghost in the Shell movie. Why not cast an Asian actor as the lead? Maybe have faith that people will see it. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a hit and had an all Asian-cast.

    4. The truth is that color blind casting can be used more often than it is in all things from sitcoms to movies. This makes the default to white frustrating. Why couldn’t Lisa on Friends be played by a non-white actor as an example? Or one of the characters on Girls? I think this makes it incredibly frustrating for persons of color in the arts because the source material is explicitly Asian and the character has a Japanese name and it goes to Scarlett Johanson. They get denied roles where this is some or a lot of justification for casting a person of color. I’d guess this probably happens to Asian actors more than black or Hispanic actors actually.

    5. The only time I can think of a character going from Whitebread to ethnic is in the Graduate. In the book, the protagonist is a blond-haired, blue-eyed Boarding School guy. The movie casts very Jewish Dustin Hoffman as the lead. The famous story is that Robert Redford wanted the lead in the Graduate. Mike Nichols asked Redford “Do you know what it is like to strike out with a girl?” Redford replied “what do you mean strike out with a girl?” Hoffman got the role.

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    • Well come on. Of course unknowns can lead big pix. But a proven star is a lot more of a sure bet and that is what the studio wants. A star that can almost guarantee a big box office the first weekend, not a gamble. Why would a studio head give out a lead based on the faith people will go see it. It’s an old anime at this point, yeah it has a following. How many people in america are anime fans? How many around the world?

      Star Wars was a not a big project so giving Ford the lead was not a gamble. Getting Guiness to sign on was the big name. Crouching Tiger was a chinese flick that just happened to do well here. O’Toole was frickin O’Toole, you could see his talent and blue eyes. Also directors were a bigger deal back then. Lean was the name.

      For the record casting SJ in this looks silly and a live action GITS is an even worse idea.

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      • …so giving Ford the lead…

        Are we remembering the same movie? The Han Solo character wasn’t even on the theatrical release posters. Luke, Leia, the droids, and an overarching Darth Vader in the background. Give Harrison Ford credit for making the most of it, but the role was a stock supporting character out of traditional American westerns. Indiana Jones was a real leading role, that was originally offered to Tom Selleck, who had to turn it down because of time commitments to the Magnum, P.I. television series. Ford was cast as Indy about three weeks before filming began.

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    • Hollywood has a huge problem with just making white the de facto casting choice. Asian actors might be the hardest hit by this. There has been improvement in recent years but still a long way to go.

      I agree. When you boil it down, I don’t think this is actually a complaint about cultural appropriation or ethnic identity, so much as it is a complaint about Hollywood’s HR practices. Which is a reasonable thing to complain about, but its a different complaint to the one that’s commonly presented whenever this comes up.

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      • Except that, is it a complaint about cultural appropriation? I almost always see it as specifically a complaint about racist casting practices in hollywood.

        I mean, the ur-example is Shamalayan’s Last airbender movie, to the point that the practice is commonly called “racebending”. If people were upset about cultural appropriation in regards to that though, they’d presumably be complaining about the asian-influenced cartoon created by white animators, instead of the way that cartoon has been cast in its live-action form.

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  3. Can it be simultaneously true that Hollywood has a problem casting non-white leads and complaining about any specific casting decision is essentialist and unhelpful?

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    • I wouldn’t say that it’s unhelpful; if anything, this particular casting decision serves well as an illustration of the problem. You are right in that the larger problem with acting opportunities for actors of color can’t just be addressed by looking at individual cases.

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  4. I have conflicted feelings on this issue. I can understand the annoyance of Japanese and/or Asian-American actors for losing an opportunity in an industry where they have fewer opportunities to score big roles. I also sympathize with the impulse that, as a multicultural society, our popular culture should to some degree reflect our own diversity.

    However, I also can’t help but see a certain condescension in being wildly outraged on behalf of other people in the realm of art and entertainment. It both fails to grapple with the complexities of another culture (this post was great for bringing Japanese insight into the issue) and assumes weakness in a manner that’s at best pretty patronizing. I’m reminded of the Kimono Wednesday debate, and not only because both involve things Japanese.

    I wonder if it’s really reasonable to expect multi-billion dollar entertainment enterprises to be the bearers of cultural enlightenment. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t criticize racism when we see it but the mission of these films is to make money, not meet the standards of a race-studies department at an American university. I’m baffled that anyone would ever think otherwise.

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    • But if we really don’t criticize anti-Semitism, does it actually exist?
      (There’s a rather famous character that’s essentially all anti-Semitic stereotypes rolled into one — originally designed for the NYC set… shows up on TV and nobody bitches…)

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  5. It’s a bit more tricky. While actual Japanese people might be fine with casting Scarlet Johansson as the lead in Ghost in the Shell, many Asian-American could be justifiably angry for reasons Saul outlined. This movie was a potential big brake for them and they can’t have it.

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  6. Tangential to Nob’s post (and I too am looking forward to the follow up post), but brought up sorta but some people above, I thought there was a trend to cast *more* Asian (Asian american, east asian and south asian) actors – or maybe just Chinese american and Chinese actors – to generate buzz and ticket sales to boost the world wide gross for big tent pole flicks.

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    • When done well, you’re pulling off the linguistic signifiers just as well as “who” you’re casting.

      Heroes (first season) had a few Japanese lines that were… completely untranslatable. Totally designed for “Japanese is your first language”
      They were also pulling hard for an Indian audience.

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  7. Related:

    Japan is making a live-action Fullmetal Alchemist movie. Despite the fact that the main characters are ethnically European, Edward Elric is being played by an ethnically Asian actor.

    I kinda feel the same way about this that I do about SJ in GitS: That it’s racism shutting a minority actor out of a job.

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  8. I’m not actually finding a lot of evidence that Asians are underrepresented in Hollywood. For example, this study found that Asians played 5% of speaking roles in a selection of 500 top-grossing films, which is slightly greater than their share of the total US population. Blacks were only slightly underrepresented (10.8% vs 12.2%), while the most underrepresented groups were Hispanics (4.2% vs 16.3%) and women.

    Edit: Oh, I see from one of your links that they’re underrepresented in lead roles, but not in speaking roles.

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  9. As stated above, this wouldn’t be an issue if there were Asian (or other ethnicities) being cast for white roles. When you have guys like Horowitz saying that Idris Elba is too street to play Bond, people are going to wonder. If only white people can play white roles and white people can play other ethnicities, what’s left for non-whites? If we get to the day where Superman is just as likely to be cast by an Indian actor as would be cast by a white one, then we can talk. I would guess there would be handwringing, but from different corners, if Mindy Kaling was cast in the role.

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    • For example imagine the outcry from the same people who are totally fine with ScarJo as the major if marvel had cast an Asian/black woman as black widow in the marvel movie.

      Or remember the pout-rage when idris Elba was cast in Thor.

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  10. I’d be willing to give the benefit of the doubt that Scarlett Johansson could play a convincing Asian character if there was any proof that she could play any character convincingly.

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  11. Motoko Kusanagi isn’t an “Asian” character, she’s a Japanese one. That distinction matters, and yet even in comments to this post, I see that point keeps getting elided.

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  12. Also, here’s where I nerd out about this.

    Motoko Kusanagi is a robot. Or, rather, a robot body with a human brain riding around inside. (And the original artist claims that “Motoko Kusanagi” is an alias, sort of like calling herself “Jane Smith”.) She can look like whatever she wants to, changing bodies about as conveniently as you’d buy a new car.

    In fact, the original sources say that her robot body is actually kind of a generic one. There’s an oft-misunderstood scene in the first movie where Kusanagi is looking up, intercut with scenes of her looking down, and what we’re supposed to realize is that she’s looking at another person with exactly the same robot body.

    So, if we go back to the primary sources, it’s not actually required that Motoko Kusanagi be played by a Japanese actress.

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    • This is actually a little complicated, too. Motoko is in fact a cyborg, and she actually stops really being an individual (or at least how we understand the term) after a certain point in the manga.

      In the manga (and various anime spinoffs), Motoko’s name is written using kanji. Araki’s I think, the only one who also has that distinction. The others in the 9th who have Japanese-ish names like Saito, Ishikawa, and Azuma have their names rendered in katakana.

      So there’s something a little weird going on there, where the idea is for Motoko, as the POV char, is supposed to be distinctly Japanese-ish in how we look at the world. (The fact that Ghost in the Shell’s setting is explicitly Japanese and relies on that fact is kind of connected to that.)

      So yes, her ethnicity as a matter of who portrays her physically isn’t important. But it’s actually kind of important for the actress playing her to be familiar with the differences between, say, Japanese, and American culture and extrapolate on that.

      Rinko Kikuchi could do it. I’m not sure any other Asian-American in Hollywood can. And here’s the thing about ScarJo: She might actually have more experience with this than most other actresses. Yes, Lost in Translation had some serious problems in portraying Japanese characters, but she’s at least had to try to think of the cultural gaps.

      So I agree it’s not necessary for the actress playing the character be ethnically Japanese. At the same time, it would behoove the director and the actress to have some understanding of what “Japanese” can actually mean to portray the character correctly.

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