Hollywood’s pale ghosts

Image: Fashion Gone Rogue

Colonialism isn’t dead. The quest for dominance exists to this day in the realms of culture and the syndication of exportation. As the balance of economic power shifts evermore towards eastern Asia, there has never been more at stake for transatlantic, Caucasian culture, or so filmmaking executives like to believe.

Cracking the Asian marketplace has become an increasing passion for Hollywood in the past few decades but it’s been neither a mean feat nor victorious monopolisation. When budgets may swell well over $200 million for a blockbuster – if rumours are to be believed, the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War two-parter will, in fact, see Disney fork out a record breaking one billion dollars – success in China and Japan particularly can make or break the fortunes of a film. The last “all-in” Avengers film to be released (Age of Ultron in 2015), made $164.4 million less than Avengers Assemble (2012) domestically, yet managed to raise overseas profits on its predecessor by over $50 million, this shifting the overall shares of the worldwide gross to 32.7 per cent in the US box office and 67.3 per cent abroad.

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow (C) Disney

In less economic terms, play your cards right and you can make more money from exporting a film than by distribution in your own country. This has long been the case in Britain of course, our sole entries into the billion bucks club — Skyfall and the final Harry Potter — having made a comparatively pithy 10 per cent of their profits on familial screens.

The ultimate result of such a shift is the imperial desire to capitalise, predominantly through market targeting. For example, 2014’s The Martian saw the China National Space Administration save the day, providing the crew of the Hermes with their vital booster rocket, whilst Furious 7 and Transformers: Age of Extinction likewise managed to squeeze in a trip to the People’s Republic within their 2015 and 2014 respective plots. It’s more than just ambitious international storytelling; Hollywood is fighting against attempts to hold back their domination in China where specifically designed quotas favour locally produced cinema. Currently, just 34 foreign films may reach Chinese audiences through legal means, and there is the added frustration of strict censorship laws.

One way Hollywood has sought to circumnavigate these restrictions has been to fragment traditional borders with a more fluid osmosis of production. In 2015, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation broke records in China by becoming the country’s highest opening Hollywood 2D film. The fact that the film was in part financed by two Chinese corporations, Alibaba Pictures and China Movie Channel, can only have played to its advantage. Taking the overlap a step further, last year saw Matt Damon decamp to east-Asia for The Great Wall, a US-China co-production that, at a cost of around $135 million, has taken the title of the most expensive film ever to have been filmed entirely in the country.

Despite boasting Raise the Red Lantern director Zhang Yimou and “one of the largest Chinese casts ever assembled,”

the casting of Matt Damon in the film’s lead role has made The Great Wall a very easy target in the critique of “whitewashing.”

(C) Paramount Pictures

Whitewashing is the term given to a long-standing trope in Hollywood for casting white actors in non-white roles. Breakfast at Tiffany’s may well be Audrey Hepburn’s perennial classic, but you’ll struggle not to stumble on your little black dress as Mickey Rooney, clad in heavy yellow makeup and prosthetics, turns in an ill-judged performance as Golightly’s Japanese neighbour Mr. Yunioshi. Similarly shameful was Kentucky-born Johnny Depp’s casting as the iconic and Native American Tonto in 2013’s The Lone Ranger or the transformation of Doctor Strange’s Ancient One into the very much not Asian Celtic representation realised by the very much not Asian Tilda Swinton.

Which brings us to Rupert Sanders’ newly released Ghost in the Shell. Based on Masamune Shirow’s original Japanese manga franchise. The film sees Scarlett Johansson play the Major, a cyborg law-enforcer in Niihama (a fictional city in the serial’s cyberpunk envisioning of our near future) coming to terms with her existence as a human mind within an entirely synthetic body.

Ghost in the Shell’s is a complex plot for Hollywood popcorn fare. The film tackles the lead’s quest for identity amid philosophical debate on the nature of humanity’s ever more interlinked relationship with technology. Many of the inhabitants of its world do indeed utilise “cyberbrains” themselves, this allowing them to connect to the mainframe interface. Naturally, for Japanese enterprises, the manga serials and their numerous anime counterparts feature a cast of specifically Asian characters. Now, Johansson may be many things, but Asian is not one of them.

Just before you leap astride your high, and rightly liberal, horse: whilst the statement “Caucasian to play Japanese law-enforcer” may klaxon a legacy of the white-saviour figure in cinema and literature, things may not be quite so black and white-washed. What critics of Damon’s casting in The Great Wall overlooked was that his role in the film was never not a Western European character by conception, and is far more superfluous to any “saving” in the film that a passing glance clearly suggested. With Ghost in the Shell, on the other hand, the situation is a little more slippery. The principal character of all previous iterations is not merely titled “the Major” that Johansson plays in the 2017 film, but is also given the Japanese name Motoko Kusanagi.

(C) Paramount Pictures

As Oshii has himself been quick to point out, however, that “the major is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one,” which is to say that the “shell” that is her android form is itself artificial and therefore beyond any conventional nationality. To repeat: slippery. Oshii’s is a fair point and well-made, but where such logic arguably falls down is that instead of negating the issue of race, it further enforces the concept that the ideal figure of justice in twenty-first century Japan is indeed a white American — and one of Marvel’s Avengers as well.

Perhaps surprisingly, the reaction to Johansson’s casting in the character’s home nation itself has been far more muted than among Western medias. As the international business director of the original Manga’s publishing company, Sam Yoshiba, put it to The Hollywood Reporter, “we never imagined it would be a Japanese actress in the first place.” There you go, Hollywood’s reputation globally continues to precede it, with little faith in change. Johansson has herself not been passive in the debate, arguing that the character is “identity-less” and that it is more important to see the film as an opportunity for a strong female role to front an international franchise. One may wonder why such a film could not go further and tackle both issues.

Max Landis, writer of American Ultra, was subject to intense backlash when he sought to answer the question back in the April 2016 wake of Johansson’s casting announcement. According to Landis, there is simply a dearth of “A-list female Asian celebrities” able to secure funding from the major American production companies. Ridley Scott, director of 2014’s similarly controversial Exodus: Gods and Kings, corroborated the suggestion, telling Variety: “I can’t mount a film of this budget… and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such… I’m just not going to get financed.” His is a crassly made argument, but one that seems to be sadly and restrictively true.

It’s important not to judge Ghost in the Shell before you see it, but one final rumour surfacing around the shell of the film has been the accusation, sourced by ScreenCrush, that pre-production experiments were carried out in an attempt to “shift [Johansson’s] ethnicity.” Whilst not going so far as to deny the experiments, Paramount have firmly stated that the star was not herself involved.

Either way, perhaps in the future, if Hollywood can’t afford to get translation right, they ought to leave it be.


  1. Like a lot of reporting on the Ghost and the Shell whitewashing issue, this article offers the indifference of Japanese people as a point in defense of Johansson’s casting. However, it is not Japanese people who are hurt by this whitewashing – it’s Asian-Americans. Read up on Asian-American critiques of the casting for a fuller picture of this issue.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.