Yellowface For The Digital Age

Scarlett Johansson in her role as Major Motoko Kusanagi in DreamWork’s 
2017 rendition of Ghost in the Shell.

Japanese manga is a style of Japanese comic book and graphic novel, often including highly developed art and intriguing story lines. The books are are very common throughout Japan and are read by people of all ages. If a manga series is popular enough, it may even be transformed into a television or big-screen production during or after its original run.

In recent months, a multitude of well-known manga story-lines have made their way across the Pacific Ocean and into the offices of many high profile Hollywood filmmakers, actors, and actresses alike. Great excitement accompanied the initial press-releases of production plans regarding such manga as Ghost in the Shell and Doctor Strange, but just as the world of manga seemed to have expanded a thousandfold at a thousand miles an hour, it all slammed to a screeching halt.

On April 7th, 2016, DreamWorks, the production company sponsoring and funding Rupert Sander’s latest project, Ghost in the Shell, released a statement that left thousands reeling and feeling betrayed.  

It was announced that the gifted, award winning film actress Scarlett Johansson had been cast to play the lead role of Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg-human hybrid who hacks into the minds of other cyborg-human hybrids and and works for a police force hunting one of the world’s worst hackers — an individual named the “Puppet Master,”. One may think this is a great victory for the Ghost in the Shell production as Johansson has received critical renown for her roles in various films such as the Avengers series, Lucy, and Her but in this scenario there is one major issue: the original Major is Japanese, and Scarlett Johansson is white.

“DreamWorks and Paramount provided a glimpse of Scarlett Johansson as the cyborg Motoko Kusanagi in their adaptation of the Japanese anime classic 'Ghost in the Shell.' The image coincided with reports that producers considered using digital tools to make Ms. Johansson look more Asian — basically, yellowface for the digital age.” Keith Chow of the New York Times said in a recent op-ed on the subject.

This manga has helped shape much of the cyber-reality universe in Hollywood for years, and for individuals with the power to create more diverse representation in Hollywood, one of the world’s most prominent entertainment hubs, to overlook this opportunity to do so is a sorrowful waste. Numerous other successful, talented Japanese actresses have since been cited as perfect for the role through individuals on social media and news outlets in response to the casting in Ghost in the Shell. Actresses such as Academy Award nominated Rinko Kikuchi, who has starred in films such as Pacific Rim and 47 Ronin, and Kill Bill: Volume One supporting actress Chiaki Kuriyama, who also played a role in Battle Royale in 2000, have both been informally nominated for the role of the Major.

A second famous manga that has recently come to Hollywood has also been casted with a white individual replacing a character originally depicted as Asian, in this instance Tibetan. In the original Doctor Strange comics, Stephen Strange himself is a former neurosurgeon who travels the world after a car accident destroys his hands, searching for a cure/fix for his amputated limbs. Along the way, he encounters "The Ancient One", a man aged about 500 years who's native land lies in a hidden region near the Himalayas. The Ancient One serves as a mentor and teacher to Stephen Strange and over time, Strange becomes the superhero Doctor Strange, acquiring powers and magical tools along the way. 

Tilda Swinton portrays "The Ancient One" in Marvel's Doctor Strange.

In the Marvel edition of "Doctor Strange", The Ancient One will be played by Tilda Swinton, a white woman. Although casting a woman for a major rule in an industry where actresses are drastically under-represented is certainly a victory, this triumph is spoiled by the fact that the individual's race does not align with the race of the original character, thus effectively whitewashing The Ancient One and stripping the opportunity for many qualified Asian actors to fill this role.

Asian actors and actresses in the film industry have faced this unfortunate whitewashing hurdle for decades and throughout their respective careers. It’s up to the viewers at home to keep producers, directors, and employees behind big-screen productions such as these informed of the inequity in Hollywood, as well as encourage them to change their practices for the better.

There are many ways to fight this unfortunate under-representation. Creating hashtags or accounts on social media can make a huge difference, as noted by the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, created in protest of the alarming amount of white individuals nominated over PoC actors and actresses in advance of the 2016 Academy Awards. The hashtag drew attention from many influential individuals in the film industry such as Steven Spielberg, Sylester Stallone, and Eddie Redmayne, as well as from countless news outlets such as the LA Times and CNN.  

Organizing protests and events can also make a very impactful statement. The British version of the Academy Awards, The BAFTA Awards (British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards) also came under fire this year for a lack of diversity in the nomination pool. In response, The Creatives of Colour Network planned and carried out a large scale protest outside the Royal Opera House in London where the event was held, promptly titling the demonstration “BAFTA Blackout”. The protest drew the attention of many British news outlets such as The Independent, The Telegraph, and The Mirror. The event even garnered the support of the chief executive of the BAFTA Awards, Amanda Berry, who acknowledged the severe lack of diversity within the 2016 nomination pool.

Until the United States sees the diverse representation in Hollywood that actors and actresses of color deserve, the battle must go on. In this age of extraordinary human advancement, society has seen the rise of gender and sexuality equality, religious equality, and social equality, which have all brought great change and positivity to society. Breaking the barrier of racial equality in Hollywood is the next step in tearing down the walls that have been restricting entertainers of color for too many years. With grit and determination, equal opportunity is visible on the horizon, ripe for the taking. Take the stand, make your mark, and show Hollywood that there is more out there to be heard, to be seen, and to be enjoyed.

Recently, a petition calling for the recast of Johansson’s character in favor of a Japanese individual has been created and posted on Care2, a popular petition-host website. To access this petition, click here.

article by: Sam Falb