Generally I try to avoid doing two things that today I will engage in only under scholarly duress: write about something topical and Japansplain. I typically avoid “of the moment” pieces for the reason that once the controversy has passed, so too will the essay’s relevance, and I prefer to make polemical statements only after I have tried to understand an argument from a number of relevant angles. I also despise the kinds of arguments, so prevalent even today, that monolithically propose that Japan is like this (super exotic crazy thing that thankfully the Japansplainer is here to reveal!) and Japanese people are like that (gross stereotype sitting over there in the corner mumbling something in the made up samurai language they use in movies). The reality is, as always, far more complex, and Japanese public discourse is made up of a number of different voices sporting wildly contradictory ideologies: feminists, leftists, environmentalists, ultra-nationalists, LGBT, monarchists (!), etc. all coexist in a country regularly stereotyped as culturally and racially homogeneous.
However, since today’s kerfuffle involves a manga concerning which I have expressed a number of opinions in the past as well as the problems of racial discourse in Japanese I regularly concern myself with, I have decided to forego my hesitations and dive in, in the hopes that I can offer a perspective that so often gets no play when people in the West, in particular, broach the subject of “whitewashing” Japanese identity. But first, a funny video:
Before I get into the part that likely will upset people the most, a few reminders about my own politics are in order. Most of the films I will be discussing below I consider to be retrograde and quite often authoritarian dreck, and that, to some extent, includes Oshii Mamoru’s animated adaptation of the “beloved” Ghost in the Shell upon which the live action film in production is based and upon which most of the GitS branded media take their marching orders. This focus on Oshii’s film rather than Shirow’s manga is to be lauded, since the source text for all this is, perhaps, most remarkable for its sexist pandering to the masturbatory fantasies of adolescent boys and assorted ammosexuals.
In other words my perspective hails from the way way left of the political spectrum, the scary one that hard rightists use to caricature their center-right adversaries, you know, the one that believes the total resources of a society ought to be distributed fairly and equitably among the people who contribute to that society. If I had my way, stereotypes of Japanese media would derive far more from Shirato Sanpei or Hagio Moto and much less from Kojima Hideo or Miyazaki Hayao.
I apologize for taking so long to arrive at my thesis, my tl;dr, but I want you all to be aware that I am merely trying to describe a set of circumstances, not advocate for them as the way things ought to be. So, without further ado, the point:
Choosing Scarlett Johansson to play Major Kusanagi in the Ghost in the Shell live action film will likely go over quite well in Japan and Kōdansha never would have let it happen, if those in charge of managing the media property did not tacitly approve.
Some Perspectives on Race in Hollywood Depictions of Japan
Before digging into the problems with the whitewashing argument itself, I would like you, dear reader, to consider the example of two (somewhat) recent films, one of which did very well in Japan (the #11 top grossing film of all time there) and another which not only did very poorly but was subject to widespread critique in Japan and was outright banned in China.
2003’s The Last Samurai was a blockbuster by any measure in Japan, grossing over 13 billion yen in theaters alone. It tells the story of a washed-up Civil War veteran hired as a mercenary to suppress a warrior caste uprising not unlike the Satsuma Rebellion but never named as such. After being captured, he is cured of his undiagnosed PTSD by a beautified version of a “Japanese” authoritarian ideology recently supplanted by the West-gazing authoritarian ideology Tom Cruise had originally been hired to serve. After the rebellion is suppressed by a superior military industrial complex, Tom Cruise provides the Meiji Emperor with a showy reminder of the “authentic” oligarchic impulses that the then current government’s “modernizing” oligarchic impulses were at risk of leaving behind.
The film was a great success because it conforms, in large part, to the conservative and nationalist worldview of Japanese public institutions, the government most of all. It is itself a fantasy, one in which the much admired white movie star is made to see the light of the extra special pure Japanese spirit (barf). It is precisely the sort of propaganda that would appeal to members of the ultra-nationalist Nippon Kaigi, an organization whose tentacles run throughout government and the official bureaucracy and whose membership boasts three LDP Prime Ministers: Koizumi, Asō, and the current PM Abe.
On the other hand, 2005’s Memoirs of a Geisha fared rather poorly in Japan (even worse in China), and the controversy that surrounded it is particularly instructive for the current moment in which the problem is identified in Anglophone discourses as failing to cast an Asian actor for an Asian role. Memoirs did precisely this, casting Zhang Ziyi as Sayuri, Gong Li as Hatsumomo, Kudoh Youki as Pumpkin, Michelle Yeoh as Mameha, and so forth. Zhang in particular, coming off an international star turn in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, must have seemed like a sure bet to draw in audiences around the world, yet reviews were at best mixed, and in Japan the film was criticized for having cast Chinese (or ethnic Chinese) actresses in clearly Japanese roles.
This latter point is of particular importance because it undermines the whole framing of the GitS kerfuffle as white vs. Asian, when in Japanese racial discourse, the powers that be and their media mouthpieces would take none too kindly to being lumped in with, for instance, Chinese or Koreans of the North and South, all of whom have long-standing strained relations with the island[s] nation. If Ming-na, a certifiable star in her own right, had been cast as Kusanagi, perhaps progressive voices in the Anglophone sphere would be mum, but I can imagine there being real backlash in the Japanese press, given how closely tied Japanese journalism and media are to state interests, so much so that, for example, real investigative coverage of the ongoing disaster at Fukushima is unofficially verboten, and journalists have repeatedly been harassed for attempting to do so. The political environment in Japan is one where progressive voices are regularly stifled, and media represent entrenched, deeply (small c) conservative interests. In other words, it is not unlike the United States.
The idea that Japanese public discourse is amenable to what is a patently racist decision is really just the tip of the iceberg, though. Scarlett Johansson’s casting is a safe bet not merely because she is a big Hollywood star or because she has been set up as a beauty ideal within the Japanese cosmetics and fashion industries–I recall keenly, for instance, a massive billboard of her face just outside Nagoya station, back when she was more known for her roles in independent films. Now, admittedly, what “whiteness” means in Japan is a matter of critical controversy, but something remains to be said about why, for instance, the fashion industry is constantly hoovering up very white, very blonde, very blue-eyed Russian and Ukrainian models for domestic exploitation.
It is a safe bet, because the whole technological backdrop of the GitS properties makes for a very bad case upon which to hang the noble cause of expansive and more equitable coverage of a diversity of cultural experiences. This is because both Oshii’s animated film and its source material posit a world in which one’s racially marked body is rendered irrelevant, that it can be discarded at any time for another that in no way resembles one’s “original” racial makeup. To be sure, the choice to cast Johansson as Kusanagi is likely a cynical one, as Freddie Wong suggests in the video above, but at the same time casting a white woman in an “Asian” role could be read as a subtle reflection of the very indifference to race and to conspicuous racial markers that both the underlying narrative and the mukokuseki ethos of Japanese commerce cannot help but embody.
Which brings me to my second major point of contextualization. For many many years, Japanese companies, when operating abroad, have sought to hide the Japanese-ness of their products, under the assumption that a certain “cultural odor” would render them less appealing to foreign markets. Iwabuchi, in his excellent Recentering Globalization, discusses this phenomenon in much greater detail than I can here and connects the practice of softening racial and ethnic characteristics to the racially ambiguous characters one so often finds in Japanese animation and games. Kusanagi, though explicitly identified as a Japanese covert operative, plays into this “statelessness” (the literal meaning of mukokuseki) of Japanese commodities by quite literally transposing herself in and out of manufactured bodies. In the GitS manga in particular, Kusanagi has not one form but a multiplicity of forms, including at one point a branching network of neural pathways emanating from a robotic head, so insisting on her markedly Japanese body as synonymous with her identity is, perhaps, not entirely defensible.
I am not trying merely to be cheeky in the way academic know-it-alls so often are but to get at the heart of what makes nobly intended backlashes to things like digitally altering white actresses to look more “Asian” come off as–and I am not especially sanguine about saying this–rather shallow and, frankly, reflective of a racial discourse that simply is not meaningfully in play in the very country on whose behalf the well-intentioned seek to speak. It is a sobering reminder that, quite often, when you set yourself up as the spokesperson for some other, you also set yourself up to being exposed as woefully ignorant of that for which you presume to speak. For non-Japanese being mystified by Japan is at least as old as Commodore Perry and the black ships–it is why the whole genre of Japansplaining exists in the first place.
So let us turn back to the immediate concern that led to Rocketjump‘s brilliant parody. An article on Screencrush revealed how Lola VFX, the company responsible for aging and de-aging Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, had been hired to see whether Ms. Johansson’s own “cultural odor” could be digitally softened.
According to multiple independent sources close to the project, Paramount and DreamWorks commissioned visual effects tests that would’ve altered Scarlett Johansson in post-production to “shift her ethnicity” and make the Caucasian actress appear more Asian in the film. (“Exclusive: ‘Ghost in the Shell’ Producers Reportedly Tested Visual Effects That Would Make White Actors Appear Asian” accessed 4/16/2016)
The idea was immediately rejected, so we will likely be spared this exemplum of digital yellowface, yet, seen in the light of both public discourses of race in Japan as well as commercial interests’ tendency to erase or shift conspicuous racial and ethnic markers, it makes a perverse kind of sense why producers would try it. It may be cathartic to call out such behaviors as cowardice–and do not get me wrong, it is–but that assertion completely misses how institutionally these kinds of decisions get set up to be made at all, how they in fact reflect an acute attention to a variety of potential audiences, including the one ostensibly being represented, rather than simply pander to a lowest common denominator or to a safe, limited worldview. To give you a sense of how difficult this issue is, Oshii in his own essays bemoans the very cultural odorlessness noted above and yet, because of the media landscape in which he works, cannot help but get caught up in it.
Most of the Japanese language articles I could find concerning the original casting decision simply restated the press release, but there was one article on Yajilab, a site for international media news, that, it should be noted, both states the “whitewashing” argument but also refuses to own it.
There exists the opinion that says if the source material is set in a near future Japan, and if the protagonist, Kusanagi Motoko, is clearly established as Japanese (Asian), is there any justification for the beautiful, blonde, and white Scarlett playing the role? (“Mixed Reception?! Scarlett Johansson in the Lead Role of the Live Action Ghost in the Shell!” accessed 4/16/2016)
I apologize for the translationese of the above, but I wanted to highlight how even in making the critique it completely erases any agency of those who might wish to express said critique. The idea is merely out there, in the ether, and one is free to own or disown it as she pleases. The Yajilab piece and its rather evasive languages represents a fundamental ambivalence about these sorts of things in a culture where whiteness–or rather a form of ethnic erasure so clearly signaled by whiteness–is quite often valorized in popular media. When speaking on behalf of that culture, it is worth bearing this sort of ambivalence in mind.