Chiamaka Amadi and Owen Steinberger assess the repeated failure of Hollywood to offer Asian-Americans leading roles, and the damage this does to cultural expression as a whole.
“IT found a voice… now it needs a body.” Taken from the 1989 manga Ghost in the Shell, written by Masamune Shirow, this quote reflects the state of Asian roles in Hollywood productions. Great Asian actors are everywhere, but Hollywood’s insistence on neglecting their existence when casting Asian roles refuses them their rightful presence in the industry. They, like the undying spirit of the Puppet Master which haunts the 1995 film adaptation, have been made bodiless voices by American production companies.
The planned Ghost in the Shell adaptation, slated for 2017 as a Dreamworks and Paramount production, has opted to cast Scarlet Johansson in its leading role, a role which in the entirety of the property’s previous adaptations has been filled by an Asian voice actor. Serious, strong and well-written Asian roles are often shoveled the way of famous Caucasians, while caricatures, like the Mr. Miyagi in Karate Kid, are offered to Asian actors like table scraps.
This intentional ‘miscasting’ often results in a need for prosthetics in order to align the white actor’s appearance with that of the Asian character they are cast to play. Hollywood has proven itself willing to spend money to exclude minority actors from the top of the billing.
Fresh off the Boat actor Constance Wu was recently quoted on Buzzfeed speaking in protest of the proposed modifications of Johansson’s appearance. Altering a white actor’s features to appear more Asian, she said, “reduces our race and our ethnicity down to mere physical appearance. And as we all know, our ethnicity, our races, and our culture are so much deeper than how [we] look.” Wu argues that the proliferation of systemic racism can be traced to the use of white-washed caricatures in media, highlighting the need for Hollywood directors to ”create more roles for Asian-Americans,” lest the perception of other races become further skewed.
Hollywood has a troubled history with film adaptations as well. Though some, such as The Godfather and The Shining, have both paid homage to their originals and struck forward with new artistic intent, many others have faltered on both accounts. The case of Ghost in the Shell is especially fraught with problems, as an adaptation of a foreign product which has already been adapted to film and television to great acclaim.
To mute Japan’s massive contribution to this film through the intentional miscasting of a white actor speaks volumes of the director’s lack of artistic respect toward the original story and the fan-base that already surrounds it.
As cited by the Hollywood Reporter, producer Teddy Zee argued that “the key to all this changing is encouraging greater diversity behind the camera.” Such an effort has already proven successful in the Western world with Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, an adaptation of French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, which won over critics and featured a diverse cast.
However, even in this case the lead role was given to Chris Evans, a white male actor most famous for his portrayal of Captain America, and the film failed to garner the same support with audiences as it had with critics. Even in cases like these, managed by a South Korean director, distributed by a South Korean studio, it seems decisions based on what races are most marketable in the West still supercede creative decisions, to ill effect.
This problem of appropriation runs deeper than Hollywood, then, and runs aground of Western society’s fascination with the commodification of the other. In other words, Asian media is transported and modified for American audiences, not for the sake of entertainment or artistry, but in accordance with the whims of the market.
Caucasian re-tellings of foreign tales are often canonized in place of their originals – see Hunger Games’ tame take on the Battle Royale formula – as it seems relatability, rather than originality, is what sells. To many this is not new information; fans of all forms of art have come to see cultural appropriation as entirely expected, however harmful it may be. With Ghost in the Shell, however, the effects of this process may have far greater consequences.
The original film and manga reflected common Japanese anxieties over the increasing presence of technology in everyday life and the birth of the World Wide Web. Over two decades later, it is reasonable to argue that an adaptation warrants a more modern perspective, one aware of our current world, where we are approaching a level of tech integration reminiscent of the popular Deus Ex series, which has made a similar resurgence.
The demand for Ghost in the Shell’s societal critique is certainly real; however, to strip it of its cultural foundation is to dilute its original message. In casting Johansson, director Rupert Sanders and company risk deadening the film’s impact before it even premiers, preferring to conform to industry norms than to allow Shirow’s voice to be heard anew