The Makers of Ghost in the Shell Don’t Seem to Give a F*ck About Whitewashing

By  · Published on November 14th, 2016

Paramount Pictures planned a very strategic trailer release and hoped we wouldn’t notice.

Paramount Pictures

The movie studio Paramount Pictures dropped the trailer for Ghost in the Shell on Sunday and it confirms everything we thought we knew about the film and more. We already knew Scarlett Johansson is playing Major Motoko Kusanagi, a Japanese “full-body prosthesis augmented-cybernetic human” who kicks ass and takes names while flaunting her taut physique. We also knew the film is based on the Japanese anime and manga series created by Masamune Shirow. Unfortunately, neither Paramount or director Rupert Sanders (yes, that guy) seem to have listened to the backlash about whitewashing and yellowface that fans called out when the film’s first photo was released.

Now that we see the trailer, we can confirm that the issue isn’t simply that Johansson is a white woman playing a role that could have easily been played by a Japanese or Asian woman. (Yes, it sucks, but Disney and Marvel just got away with that with Doctor Strange.) The larger problem here is that this film continues to perpetuate the notion that Asians can only play exotic extras or evil villains in movies even when the movie’s actual source material is from Asia. As we shared previously, here’s the film’s trailer and official synopsis so you can see it for yourself:

Based on the internationally-acclaimed sci-fi property, Ghost in the Shell follows Major, a special ops, one-of-a-kind human-cyborg hybrid, who leads the elite task force Section 9. Devoted to stopping the most dangerous criminals and extremists, Section 9 is faced with an enemy whose singular goal is to wipe out Hanka Robotic’s advancements in cyber technology.

As seen in the trailer, the white savior trope lives on in this Japanese manga-turned-movie through the character of Major. The filmmakers attempted to erase signs of her ethnicity by removing her actual name in the synopsis, and she refers to herself as simply “Major” in the trailer. But we can see that they managed to keep some of her more convenient Japanese traits like her savvy martial arts skills and suggestively Asian-looking eyes and hairdo. (Remember, Paramount tested “digital yellowface” on this film.) While it’s nice to see Johansson adding her Black Widow spunk to Major, it’s unfortunate that the filmmakers didn’t seek out any of the other bad ass Asian actresses out there who could have easily fit the bill for Major.

Paramount Pictures

The trailer shows a high-tech Tokyo-esque city inspired by futurist films like Blade Runner and The Matrix, with a Japanese twist, of course. The geisha restaurant scene has the most apparent Japanese influence, but we can also see it in the cityscape with bright lights, holograms and Japanese characters sprawled across buildings. But the greatest backdrop of all are the Japanese/Asian characters because in movies it’s totes okay to have Asians as long as they’re in the background.

As we’ve written about time and time again, Asians only exist in Hollywood movies as foreigners or characters marked as “other,” despite the fact that Asian-Americans have been living in the U.S. for decades. In this trailer, it’s not hard to see the “othering” taking place starting with the robotic and creepy-looking (though admittedly kind of cool?) geishas to the funkily-dressed Japanese women of this futuristic Tokyo. Takeshi Kitano makes an appearance as some sort of mysterious side character who we’ll presumably know a little bit more about in the next trailer. Juliette Binoche plays the role of a non-Japanese woman advising non-Japanese Major while wearing a very Japanese kimono. Nice touch.

Last but not least are the Asian bad guys that Major fights off. They are nameless, faceless villains with high-tech gadgetry covering their faces or on their person. They are anonymous save for the fact that they are Asian, or maybe even Japanese in this case. Because even in a world where a white woman plays the lead role in a story set in Japan, Asians still inhabit the role of the bad guy. And these guys are likely not even the movie’s major villain – they are the disposable baddies with about a 2-minute on-screen lifespan before Major or some other sidekick knocks them out. This continues a rich tradition of Asian men playing bad guys in Hollywood movies from Fu Manchu to Mr. Chow and beyond. (Fun fact: There’s a whole movie about the awesome Asian bad guy phenomenon which includes legendary Die Hard actor and stuntman Al Leong, Karate Kid II’s Tamlyn Tomita and Fresh Off the Boat’s Randall Park.)

It’s okay, they’re in the background. (Paramount Pictures)

Maybe it didn’t occur to Paramount executives, Sanders or the rest of the production team that they would ever receive any kind of backlash for their whitewashed casting. The manga’s publisher even supported the casting of Johansson in the lead, with some fans saying it’s totally cool since it’s an American movie produced by an American company. But the thing is that we live in a globalized world. Just because it’s an “American” movie, it doesn’t automatically equal casting a white American in the lead role. And it doesn’t automatically make it okay to use Asians or other ethnicities as exotic props or disposable background characters.

Despite all the backlash they’ve received, Paramount is playing it smart. They released the trailer on the first Sunday after the U.S. election, perhaps with the hope that nobody would notice stateside. They held a “global launch party” in Tokyo to celebrate the trailer’s release with Scarlett Johansson, Takeshi Kitano and Rupert Sanders in attendance. The studio was also very careful in revealing the trailer itself – they initially dropped a set of clips back in September before releasing the full trailer this weekend, perhaps as a way to test the waters (read: fan backlash on social media). Releasing the first trailer after a big U.S. news event shows that the studio is prioritizing an international audience for this film, especially the original manga and anime fans in Japan. They might have also wanted this news to sink below other major national news to quell Asian-American backlash or to start the process of normalizing the film’s whitewashing before it reaches theaters in March 2017. Nice try.

The First Ghost in the Shell Movie Footage Won’t Help Dispel Any Backlash

But here’s the real kicker: Paramount needs a hit. Their parent company Viacom has been going through some major management changes. Their releases so far this year have included box-office duds like Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (Budget: 35M; Domestic Gross: $23M; International Gross: n/a), Star Trek Beyond (Budget: $185M; Domestic Gross: $159M; International Gross: $184M) and Ben-Hur (Budget: $100M; Domestic Gross: $26M; International Gross: $68M).* The Denis Villeneuve-helmed Arrival just opened to an estimated 24 million this weekend, which is good but not great. The studio is going to need a whole lot more to get them out of last place in market share among the major movie studios. So, yeah, they need this to be a hit. That’s why they cast Johansson of Avengers/Lucy fame instead of a Japanese or Asian actress who could (theoretically) pose a box-office risk.

Unfortunately, the choice of whitewashing this film comes at the price of disregarding all the discussions about diversity in Hollywood over the last few years. It makes the filmmakers look insensitive and the studio unconcerned with race and diversity issues that have received even greater attention over the course of the election. The trailer itself feels out of touch with its predictable beats and cliché slow motion action sequences. Maybe we’re expecting too much from this typical studio action movie. This is being produced for sheer profit, after all, and it’s unlikely to break any glass ceilings or crush racial stereotypes anytime soon. Unless we see anything more impressive in the next trailer, this 2015 FSR piece sums it up perfectly: Reality check: Ghost in the Shell will be another generic action movie.

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Writer. Audio/Creative Producer. Columnist, Film School Rejects.