Whitewashing is a problem that has been spotlighted repeatedly since the 20th century, and the awareness of it has increased especially in the past year with the growing prevalence of whitewashing in Hollywood. Despite opposing opinions, whitewashing is a legitimate racial issue: it is an instance of American media erasing POCs’ stories and histories, removing opportunities for much-needed POC visibility and representation. Furthermore, as whitewashing removes POC visibility and representation, it is also an instance of American media affirming the stereotype that to be American is to be white.
To be clear, there are five major forms of whitewashing: first, when characters that were originally drawn or described as POCs are replaced by white characters or actors in live-action adaptations of fiction; second, similar to the first, is when POC characters are played by white actors, but the white actors pretend to be POCs (eg. blackface); third, when films based on true stories about POCs portray these stories from a white perspective, by prioritizing or privileging the white experience; fourth, is when while the majority of characters are played by actors of color, all of the major roles or most developed characters are played by white actors. (Examples for each are: The Lone Ranger, The Last Airbender, Dances with Wolves, and The Last Samurai respectively.) Finally, the fifth is arguably when most films produced by a particular industry, or of a particular genre, feature only white actors.
Recent cases of Hollywood’s live-action adaptations of originally Japanese works are just more examples of whitewashing. Let’s take a look at the following remakes: Dragonball Evolution (2009), Ghost in the Shell (2017), and Death Note (2017).
Dragon Ball is not set in Japan, but there is a basic understanding that unless made clear otherwise, all manga and anime characters are East Asian, and usually Japanese at that (even if they are blond). Dragon Ball specifically, although it is a Japanese creation, is a story inspired by a famous Chinese novel, Journey to the West. Journey to the West is one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature (read: it’s a big deal), and one of its main characters is named Sun Wukong. Dragon Ball’s protagonist, Son Goku, is based on that character and his name is derived from Sun Wukong’s as well; Son Goku is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese name Sun Wukong.
Do you know what this means? This means that Dragon Ball is inherently East Asian. No, it is not set in Japan, but its narrative is inherently Asian. Asian is not white. Goku is not white. So casting Goku with a white person, is whitewashing. Furthermore, this whitewashing of Dragon Ball is also problematic because the film remake preserves only the stereotypical Asian elements where a white protagonist has an Asian mentor while no other main characters are Asian, (as in the case of Karate Kid for instance). Films like this not only plays into the stereotyping of what Asian elements are, but also suggests that even when elements of a character are Asian, the role should be given to a white person.
Ghost in the Shell
Similar to Dragon Ball, Ghost in the Shell is an internationally acclaimed manga and anime created by a Japanese person. Unlike Dragon Ball however, Ghost in the Shell is explicitly Japanese both in terms of its setting and its narrative.
Ghost in the Shell is, as summarized by a critic, “sacrosanct among a generation of artists, writers, animators, and filmmakers who witnessed anime’s ascendency as a cultural export”. Therefore, it’s especially outraging that Major, “a character traditionally coded as a Japanese woman working at the behest of a Japanese domestic terrorism unit” is being played by Scarlett Johansson who is undeniably not Japanese (nor Asian for that matter). However, despite the whitewashing of the lead role, Paramount’s film still sets itself within a futuristic Japan with elements from other Asian locations.
The original plot-line of Ghost in the Shell is also integral to the Japanese narrative. As comic book writer Jon Tsuei explains, both the manga and the first film were released at a time when Japan was considered the world leader in technology. Japan, after having gone from being positioned to conquer the Pacific to being forcibly disarmed, poured their resources into their economy and set a new standard by producing all the new technology. What does that mean? It means that Japan has a highly unique relationship with technology and since the story of Ghost in the Shell plays off of all of those themes, it is inherently a Japanese story. Furthermore, Major’s Japanese identity is actually integral to the story because Major struggles with her identity specifically within the Japanese society. These elements that make the story richer are all lost when the cast is whitewashed.
To make things worse, Paramount decided to try to address this anger towards whitewashing by running special effects test to make Johansson appear “more Asian” (read: CGI yellow-face). They failed. But they tried again, this time by straight-up altering the plot of the Ghost in the Shell story itself. The plot-twist of the remake is that Major is a Japanese mind in a white body. This is a change the filmmakers created in an attempt to justify whitewashing – it’s a change from the original story, the source material.
It doesn’t stop there though. As a critic on Bustle explains, “It’s not just that Major is, essentially, a Japanese mind in the body of a white person, it’s that the white body is that of someone largely considered one of the most bankable movie stars and most beautiful people in the world — someone who has become a Hollywood beauty standard. In the film, Major’s body is the ultimate desire, the pinnacle of mechanic ‘enhancements’ enjoyed by everyone in Ghost in the Shell.” In other words, Major’s white body is considered an improvement from Motoko’s Japanese one – a problematic subliminal message.
Netflix, as if eager to partake in whitewashing, shared the news of its latest original film while Paramount’s Ghost in the Shell was still being criticized. The film is Death Note, an adaptation of the popular manga of the same name. Unlike Ghost in the Shell, Netflix’s Death Note is a completely westernized version of the original (similar to the remakes of Shall We Dance? and The Ring) – the cast has no Asians and the story is set in Seattle, instead of in Tokyo.
This adjustment, however, is still problematic. The casting choices imply that an Americanized version of an Asian story means none of the cast can be Asian. Whatever happened to Asian-Americans? It is not as if there were no Asian-American actors available to be cast. Asian-American actor Edward Zo has been vocal about how he was openly told not to bother auditioning for the role of the protagonist, Light Yagami, because “they were not looking to see Asian actors for [that role]”. Asian-American actors were explicitly excluded from even being considered, despite Light Yagami, and the rest of the leading characters in Death Note, being Asian characters.
In addition, the Japanese culture is integral to the story of Death Note. For instance, the Japanese school life culture largely affects the protagonist’s motivation in becoming a serial killer. It is also notable that the epicenter of what later becomes an international problem begins in Japan, and therefore the Japanese police force leads the investigation on the protagonist’s murders with the FBI acting as the backup force, (differing from stereotypical expectations). Furthermore, L, also a main character, is a person of mixed race – he is a quarter Japanese. Therefore it is meaningful that he, a mixed Japanese person, is the world’s number one detective, relied on by every country’s police force for solving the most difficult cases. Additionally, another one of the main characters, Ryuk, is a Shinigami – a death spirit particular to Japanese religion and culture. You wondering yet how Netflix is going to “Americanize” Ryuk?
But What About the Reaction of Japanese People?
Here’s the thing; Americans cannot use the relatively positive reactions of Japanese people to justify whitewashing – in America. This is because Japan and the U.S. are very different countries demographically. While the U.S. is (for the most part) celebrated as a country of diversity, Japan generally prides itself in its apparent homogeneous population. Majority of the people in Japan are ethnically Japanese and homogeneous in appearance, and as a result there are no problems of “erasure” or “representation” like in the US – at least, not the same kind.
In other words, Japanese people looking at a whitewashed Japanese film from a Japanese perspective, wouldn’t see anything wrong with it. In their minds, the thought process may be something akin to the following: Americans are mainly white. So, a remake of any film in the US would have a white person in the lead role. Just like how a Japanese remake would have an Asian person in the lead role, since Japanese actors are usually Asian. They don’t understand the stakes like Asian-Americans and other POCs do regarding whitewashing in the US, because they have never experienced it. They didn’t grow up as an ethnic minority in their home country, wondering why almost no one in the media looked like them. They didn’t grow up questioning the validity of their identities, while POCs still do because American media teaches them that to be American is to be white. They didn’t grow up with a media that whitewashed their voices, their stories, and their histories. Hence, Japanese condemnation of whitewashing, or lack thereof, does not matter; their reaction in no way validates said whitewashing.