Monday, May 25, 2015

The Great White Motoko Kusanagi

Howdie pardners! I wrote this a while back but then got busy with stuff and never posted it. So here it is, the movie actually comes out in two years so there's plenty of time to still be annoyed.

It's been a while since I talked about film and racism in Hollywood in relation to East Asian stuff. . .  so I'm going to do that now.

In this satirical College Humour sketch Nicholas Cage's agent is desperately trying to save Cage from himself to little avail. You can watch the sketch here. It's actually pretty funny.
Some years ago I remember seeing a short video on the popular website College Humor called Nicholas Cage's Agent and it consisted of a frustrated agent pitching movie ideas to a disembodied voice on the phone doing it's best Nicholas Cage impression. The joke is a simple one. The agent suggests that Cage be more selective with his films and keeps pitching more films which get progressively more ridiculous and offensive and Cage signs on for all of them. The short was made at a time when Mr. Cage apparently owed huge sums of money in back taxes (or something like that) and as the story goes, starred in whatever would get him a decent pay check (apparently he's debt free now so I guess it worked). During the sketch the posters for these hypothetical films are displayed behind the agent's desk after he pitches them. The one just before the last and when Cage's agent is at his wits-end, is for a hypothetical film titled "F*ck Asian People". Whether or not this was a stab at Hollywood by the College Humor folks for their all too often white-washed casting choices is not entirely clear, but honestly, at this point I feel that "F*ck Asian People" might as well be one of the many slogans of the Hollywood machine and perhaps North American media in general.

A poster for the 1995 release of Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell which is credited as being an early mainstream success for anime in the American market. 
It may not be news to some of you that there is a live-action adaptation of Mamoru Oshii's 1994 animated cult-classic Ghost in the Shell (itself an adaptation of a popular manga of the same name) in the works and that Scarlett Johansson is to star as the lead. I feel compelled to question the point of making a remake in the first place but then again Hollywood loves remakes so that's no surprise.

In any case, apparently it's now been confirmed that miss Johansson will in fact be playing the lead role of agent Motoko Kusanagi in the upcoming film.

Let that sink in for a second. . .

Scarlett Johansson is playing Motoko Kusanagi.

Johansson. . . sounds Nordic to me. . .  Kusanagi. . . well if that's not a Japanese name I dunno what is . . . oh. dammit! Why do they keep doing this?!

I suppose it doesn't help my argument that Anime characters tend to look racially ambiguous. . . but yeah Kusanagi. . . Kusa-frickin-nagi. In kanji that's 草 frickin' . (草薙 素子Kusanagi Motoko)  
So yes, Hollywood has voted yes on white washing Motoko Kusanagi, ostensibly one of the most "Japanese" characters to grace western popular culture. To me this is like getting Leonardo DiCaprio to star in the lead role in Toshiro Mifune's biopic. It's offensive and even more so considering that it's source material, the Ghost in the Shell animated film, is actually more popular in North America than its home country of Japan. No, this is not about adapting an obscure "Japanese classic" for "western audiences", this is about ensuring people will see this film. Therein lies the problem.

Naturally I'm not the only one vexed by this and myriad folks have taken to voicing their disdain or support for the project in droves. The argument for the casting choice I've seen most often used is nothing new. "Well who else is going to to play Kusanagi? Who else has enough star power to carry this film if not Scarlett Johansson?" A fair question perhaps, only that by asking it people are, even perhaps inadvertently admitting that there are currently no actors of East Asian decent working in Hollywood right now with enough star-power to carry the film on their own. Rinko Kikuchi is a name which seems to be popping up here and there and I think that could be an interesting choice but lets face it; casting her in a supporting role in Pacific Rim was risky enough by Hollywood standards and it's safe to say that she was likely not the main draw for most who decided they were going to see that film, she's also not a local which is important to consider for my next point.

Hollywood also has this tendency to tell stories about East Asia, but in most cases only if they can insert a white dude into them as the lead. The Last Samurai, while a fairly solid film, is one of the best examples of this especially given the historical implausibility of it's plot.
The real question we should be asking here is, why aren't there any East-Asian actors with enough star power in North America to carry this film? Let's narrow it down a bit, why aren't there any Asian-American actors with the star power or supposed acting chops who could fill in for Ms. Johansson in this role? Is it because Asian-Americans suck at acting? Yeah, that must be it! Cause Danial Dae Kim was awful in Lost and Grace Park was just so unconvincing as Sharon 'Boomer' Valerii in Battlestar Galactica, and let's not forgot how unpopular Masi Oka's portrayal of Hiro Nakamura was in Heroes am I right? Wrong.

Meditate on this and you shall find the answer. . . which is systemic racism. Unconvinced of the existence of systemic racism? I just provided you with an example. Think you can come up with another reason for the disproportionate lack of A-list Asian-American celebrities in Hollywood that isn't related to systemic racism? You can't. Not one that will satisfy me anyway. . . if I didn't think I was right I wouldn't publicly post my opinions on the internet for all to see.                              

Just one of the many photo comparisons on google images right now.
Now, let me just say that I like Scarlett Johansson, I honestly do. She's a great actress with impressive range and a generally neat person (as far as I know) and I don't blame her for this situation, not entirely anyway. I also think that she could probably pull off a pretty good Motoko Kusanagi. . . that is if we lived in a wonderful world where systemic racism didn't exist and never existed in the first place (could you imagine that!? All films would be like Cloud Atlas and no one would give a sh*t!). As it stands however, no, I don't think Johansson should play this role and it's frustrating and insulting that this hullabaloo-stirring conundrum has even arisen to begin with. But as we all know, Hollywood is an insensitive machine that doesn't give a hoot about your struggle, so they're going to go ahead and make this thing anyway, I just hope they have the decency to change her name to a English one - it doesn't solve the problem at all (and arguably makes things worse) but I personally feel like it would make for slightly smaller middle-finger to Asian-America. *sigh*

I'm not even entirely convinced Rinko Kikuchi would be the best fit for Kusanagi (and she's also not Asian-American) but this makes a lot more sense to me visually than the picture above at any rate and, ya know, film is a visual medium and all.
I would like to conclude by admitting that yes, as a fan of the series I realize that the whole Ghost in the Shell concept allows for characters to be able to switch their consciousnesses (or "ghosts") between bodies and all that neat sci-fi stuff. And yes, this means they could play it off so that Kusanagi had transferred her consciousness into a "shell" that resembled a white woman. You could argue these points validate the casting choice, but then you would be downplaying the fact that Hollywood and American media in general have been white washing Asian characters for decades and that this makes a lot of people sad and frustrated. Ghost in the Shell: The Remake, was a pretty good chance to not do that, but lo' and behold, I suppose my expectations were too high? So yeah, even though I'm a white dude, this stuff pisses me off, because as a human being I get pissed off at things that needlessly anger large portions of the population I co-exist with. Things like this make the world a somewhat less pleasant place to live in. Stop pissing people off Hollywood and start actually getting in touch with the people who consume your products. Tirade over. Food for thought and all that. Next time I'll talk about a book or something.      

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