FEATURE: Hollywood’s Asian Casting Problem Goes Beyond ‘Ghost In The Shell’

Apr 21, 2016

We’ve heard plenty about the outrage and calls of whitewashing when concerning Scarlett Johansson‘s casting in Ghost In The Shell from westerners, but what do fans from Japan and the Japanese publisher of the original manga think about it?

Kotaku posted an interesting varied collection of reaction postings from “the Japanese internet”, which had some equally upset by it, open to Johansson in the role and others were completely apathetic as they never had plans to see the film.

The Hollywood Reporter has another more official opinion from a representative from Kodansha, the Japanese publisher of Masamune Shirow’s manga from 1989 (came before both the anime films and series). Stating they “never imagined” a Japanese actress in the role in the first place.

“Looking at her career so far, I think Scarlett Johansson is well cast,” Sam Yoshiba, director of the international business division at Kodansha’s Tokyo headquarters, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “She has the cyberpunk feel. And we never imagined it would be a Japanese actress in the first place.”

He added: “This is a chance for a Japanese property to be seen around the world.” Yoshiba recently returned from a visit to the New Zealand set of the movie, where he says he was impressed by the respect being shown for the source material.

Another odd story wiggled it’s way online to make the producers sound even dumber than we had previously assumed they were. Producers like Avi Arad are rumored to have attempted digital effects tests to make the Ghost In The Shell actors look Asian, a sort of digital yellowface as you will (via Screen Crush).

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You’d think in 2016 this wouldn’t be coming up after how horribly the yellowface was received in the Wachowskis’ extremely ambitious Cloud Atlas and how silly yellowface is in general.

Here’s an interesting perspective on the Shell casting that for the most part I share. As it points-out the source material mostly focuses on the concepts of transcendence and what it means to be human as a cyborg, rather than the Japanese identity of these cyborg characters. It’s a universal theme rather than distinctly Japanese one, while I can’t understand why people think robots automatically equal Japanese identity.

This doesn’t mean I endorse overlooking an Asian lead, it’s just that a lot of people don’t know the themes of Ghost In The Shell.

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There’s also a level of misogyny from the source material that nobody really feels the need to talk about either, as only the female “shells” are shown as nude while all the male characters keep their shirts/pants on. This likely won’t be an issue in the new PG-13 film, but it should be noted that the source material isn’t perfect and could use some updating itself. Nudity is fine, but when it’s specifically one-sided and used to titillate teenage boys rather than develop characters or plot it seems bothersome.

Fixing whitewashing and adding equal representation in Hollywood projects is quite the hot-topic lately, to say we’re champions of both is an understatement. I felt the need to point-out that Ghost In Shell isn’t the first or even the last example of Hollywood’s unwillingness to give Asian characters or leads a chance.

Hollywood of course is a living-breathing contradiction.

They’ve attempted to cater to the growing/profitable Chinese film market by including scenes set in China and sprinkling-in Chinese actors in small roles, Transformers 4 and Iron Man 3 the more recent successful examples of this. However, neither of those two films had Chinese leads, only small supporting roles. They want love from China, but not at the expense of hiring Asian leads.

While not a perfect film, The Wolverine did a couple of things right. The film being set in Japan actually hired a majority of Asian cast members, which you’d expect should be the norm due to it’s setting.

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Being respectful and not using Asian faces as window-dressing is a lot more progressive than creating a Chinese-cut like Marvel did with Iron Man 3, that most western audiences didn’t even get a chance to see.

One thing that sort of get’s annoying is the thinking that Rinko Kikuchi should be playing every single Asian female lead in Hollywood, people used to say the same thing about Lucy Liu and it’s a frustrating to see a wave of people defaulting one actress for all roles. People used to do this to Will Smith and Denzel Washington whenever a black male lead was up for grabs, it’s offensive we have “default actors” because people are unaware of other actors of color are out there.

Helping her to become an Asian superstar actress is one thing, but ignoring everyone else seems a bit insulting to other Asian actresses. Defaulting, is giving-up on the rest of the potential candidates out there, Rinko isn’t the only Asian actress seeking roles.

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This speaks to another problem, most can’t name many current actresses that just happen to be Asian, defaulting is a result of this.

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Here’s  list of Asian actresses that have been involved with recent Hollywood films not named Rinko that could have played The Major in Ghost In The Shell. They include Pom Klementieff, Lana CondorClaudia Kim, Fan Bingbing, Li Bingbing, Tao Okatomo, Karen Fukuhara, Bae Doona and Rila Fukushima.

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Another role that has been potentially taken away from an Asian actor is Rita Repulsa in Lionsgate’s new Power Rangers movie. Originally played by Japanese actress Soga Machiko, is now played by one of the whitest women in Hollywood Elizabeth Banks.People are claiming this Rita might be a hybrid of the original villain and the Green Ranger, but I don’t think that explains everything away.

This is the same studio that had Scottish actor Gerard Butler playing an Egyptian god.

The 90’s Power Rangers series was an Americanized version of the very Japanese series Super Sentai, which had been around since the 70’s. This reboot could have easily been Japanese centric along with it’s casting, reflecting the original source material.

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Marvel claimed “sensitivity”, when casting The Mandarin in Iron Man 3, instead of hiring an East Asian actor they went with Sir Ben Kingsley. Writer-director Shane Black claiming that the “Fu Manchu” archetype stopped them from hiring an Asian actor. It sort of sounds like a thin premise as a talented writer could easily fix those racist aspects from the source material.

There are plenty of Asian villains in Asian movies that aren’t outdated racist caricatures.

In the film, it would be revealed that Ben wasn’t even the real Mandarin to begin with and the villain didn’t even exist, only to see Marvel retcon that mistake later in a one-shot. I don’t get the thinking there, is the Mandarin too racist or was Marvel just being super lazy rushing a third Iron Man film into production to give a shit about tackling the villain properly?

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Marvel would do a similar casting tactic when hiring Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange, a mystical Tibetan character in the comics replaced with a British white woman. There had been talk that the casting move was go against the Asian mystical elder mentor stereotype, but again good writing can combat that.

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Benedict Wong’s Wong was oddly missing from the trailer as well, considering how important the character is in the Doctor Strange comics. I’m most curious to see how Wong is handled, as he’s essentially the only major Asian character in Doctor Strange.

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There was an online campaign to have an Asian-American actor take the role of Danny Rand (traditionally a white male in comics) in Marvel TV’s Iron Fist series on Netflix. Apparently, they had tested Asian actors but ultimately went with Game of Thrones actor Finn Jones instead.

Asian superhero Colleen Wing will be the female lead of the series played by fellow Game of Thrones alumni Jessica Henwick, with some expectations that other Asian actors will fill out most of the other roles as well including rumored characters like Davos and Shang-Chi.

If they indeed include Shang-Chi, how will they ever bring-up that his father is in fact Fu Manchu in the comics?

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WB’s Godzilla and Edge of Tomorrow excluded potential Asian heroic leads as well.

I get that people really really like Bryan Cranston, but can someone explain to me why an American dude was telling people what to do at a Japanese power plant, when that role could have actually gone to an Asian actor like maybe Ken Watanabe?

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Watanabe is stuck explaining exposition to the audience while not really doing too much.

Godzilla is the star of the film essentially, you don’t need a huge name because they hired Cranston and Aaron Johnson, two people without any real box office power to their names. Johnson would eventually become the heroic face of the film and we’re just scratching our heads on that move as well. I really hope they fix this with the sequel, it’s an Asian story and this is where Warner Bros. could be making diverse strides to casting.

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Another example of this is Edge of Tomorrow, a live-action adaptation of the Japanese novel All You Need Is Kill written by Hiroshi Sakurazaka. It’s lead Japanese character goes from Keiji Kiriya to American William Cage, and is played by Tom Cruise. There’s not much to explain here, they got a big star and switched the race.

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Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman gets a lot of flack for bad creative choices and out of all them I’m most concerned why he felt the need to make the only non-white actress canon fodder, as Tao’s Mercy Graves could have easily been a reoccurring character in the DCCU.

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I think we could go all day pointing out all the missed casting opportunities in films already released. There are still ones yet to be made that are clearly misjudging its fanbase and not being respectful to the Asian set source material.

 

All three are Warner Bros. films and the studio has been notoriously attempting an Americanized version of a live-action Akira movie.

Akira is distinctively a Japanese story, echoing a very insightful sci-fi take on Japanese societal thoughts and concerns with nuclear-arms post-WWII, along with the dangers of war-mongering and an arms race in general for Japan.

One of the most hated cases of whitewashing in recent memory as the studio wanted to move the Neo Tokyo location to Manhattan and cast a majority of white actors. It was reported by trades that a mostly white group of actors were in the mix for the Akira leads which included Keira Knightley, Kristen Stewart, Helena Bonham Carter, Robert Pattinson, Andrew Garfield, James McAvoy, Garrett Hedlund, Michael Fassbender, Chris Pine, Justin Timberlake, Joaquin Phoenix, Tobey Kebbell, Michael Pitt, Richard Madden, Rami Malek, Logan Marshall-Green, D.J. Controna and Paul Dano.

The project is currently in development limbo, but hasn’t stopped a likely false rumor circling that Christopher Nolan could be resurrecting it. It’s a project we’d hope that doesn’t get made and it’s saving-grace is being super expensive, which has been a major reasoning behind the studio not making it as they would have to commit to multiple installements.

George Takei, made an excellent point that if you’re going to buy the rights to Akira and not make it Japanese, call it something else.

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We’ve seen a handful of respectful western adaptations of Japanese material in the past. Some examples include Sergio Leone’s remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo with A Fistfull of Dollars and the Magnificent Seven which was based on Akira’s Seven Samurai. The clear difference is they renamed them completely and didn’t dance around the Asian influence, making these films clearly their own thing.

The Departed is Martin Scorsese’s homage of sorts to Infernal Affairs, but using real-life violent Boston gangster Whitey Bulger as the influence for Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello. Martin taking the time to make the film his own, but using the concepts of the original that worked best.

In a slight twist, Ken Watanabe starred in a Japanese remake of Clint Eastwood’s Oscar winning western Unforgiven.

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When did we stop supporting Asian leading actors in action roles?

Growing up I was exposed to a heap of action films with Asian action stars leading them, they included the likes of Bruce Lee, Sonny Chiba, Meiko Kaji, Ken Takakura, Toshiro Mifune, Gordon Liu, Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun Fat, Andy Lau and Jet Li.

Some of them crossed-over into leading roles in Hollywood films, but that rarely happens anymore.

The VHS culture helped many western audiences discover these gems that might not get a theatrical run. You’d think VOD and digital platforms like Netflix would be informing studios and audiences that these actors are still out there.

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To some extent Donnie Yen and Byung Hun Lee have sort of taken their place as modern Asian action stars, but they’re mostly seen in supporting roles in Hollywood made films. It’s still hard to believe how many less Asian action stars we’re being exposed to these days.

It becomes a complex problem, is it our fault for not supporting Asian led projects as often as we used to twenty years ago leading to economics becoming a sticking-point, or does simply the fault directly rest with the filmmakers and studios?

There used to be a similar debate about Hollywood downplaying their lack of using female leading characters in blockbusters, until projects like Alice In Wonderland and Frozen made over a billion dollars a piece, then Star Wars: The Force Awakens raking-in over two billion.

Movies with black leads are making good money again and it’s hard to ignore that representation can greatly help box office rather than hinder it, studies have shown inclusion puts asses in seats for the most part. Perception seems to the be the biggest stumbling-block to real change here, and fixing that will likely come from audiences voting with their wallets.

Money is what changes the tune of bad Hollywood trends, once we have that massively successful Asian led film made in Hollywood it’ll blow-up these hindrances and make it look even worse if whitewashing or exclusion continues.

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This could be Star Wars: Episode VIII, said to have comedic Asian-American actress Kelly Marie Tran in a major leading role, but it could also be something else like a Ghost In The Shell, Ninja Scroll or an Akira if studios had more of an open mind towards casting.

 

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