The first glimpse of Scarlett Johansson playing an Asian woman in the upcoming live-action film "Ghost in the Shell" upset many of people of color, including me. Actress Ming-Na Wen tweeted that it’s disturbing to see an Asian character whitewashed. The Nerds of Color, a website that offers pop culture commentary, tweeted a photo of the actress with the statement, "This is what Hollywood thinks Mokoto Kusanagi should look like."
In America, Japanese anime-manga franchises have inspired some of the most diverse comics and animated series, some of which include the magical girl comic "Zodiac Starforce" and the aforementioned "Avatar: The Last Airbender." Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Hollywood films, which rarely cast Asian leads, or whitewashes them when they do.
Justin Chatwin — another white actor — was cast as Goku in "Dragonball Evolution," the 2009 live-action adaptation of Dragonball, a Japanese anime-manga franchise. In 2010, the live-action adaptation of the American animated series "Avatar: The Last Airbender" also had its Asian and Inuit protagonists white-washed.
It's clear that whitewashing and stereotyping Asian characters is still a major issue in Hollywood — and detractors often offer a disturbing and racist reason why: Some critics and tweeters argue that Japanese anime characters should be portrayed by white actors because they look white.
Newsflash: When you suggest that Japanese anime characters "look white," you are projecting a Western idea of what Asians should look like.
There is a particular reason that anime characters look the way they do. Japanese anime characters are drawn with the technique known as mukokuseki, according to the book "Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Anime."
The word mukokuseki means, "without nationality,” so anime characters are drawn with varied physical features that are associated with different ethnic groups such as round eyes, light skin, and different hair colors. This technique is used by creators to make bold anime that isn't associated with the uniform culture of Japan.
"In Japan, white is not the default," writer Brian Ashcraft explains at Kotaku. "Japanese is. Thus, there is no need for them to 'look Asian,' because no matter how ridiculous the characters look, everyone will assume they are Japanese."
In other words, Japanese anime attempts to stand out in a monolithic culture where everyone is expected to be the same. Anime is the spot of color you'd notice in a sea of grey.
For example, unique hair colors on Japanese anime characters can be found in popular anime series like "Bleach" and "Fairy Tail." In franchises like Pokémon, mukokuseki is even used with certain locations so some fictional locations resemble real places.
But just because these characters can pass as white, doesn't mean that they are white.
Japanese anime characters are Japanese, because they were created by Japanese people in Japan. Even if they don’t have a name like Motoko Kusanagi, it doesn’t change the fact that the character originated from Japan. If you think this doesn’t matter because these characters are fictional, then you underestimate the impact they have on the real world.
Studies find that the lack of diversity on television and in movies can lead to low self-esteem and increased racial biases. The Media Action Network for Asian-Americans recently released a memo to Hollywood informing the powers that be that the only way to combat negative portrayals is to offer positive ones.
Many Asian actors have discussed Hollywood’s diversity problem. A few years ago, Lucy Liu told xoJane that she wishes casting directors saw her as more than the emotionless Asian girl with killer fighting skills. On the other hand, Will Yun Lee said in an interview with Deadline that seeing one Asian actor onscreen made him feel like he could be an actor as well.
Even Hollywood studios understand the impact: Screen Crush even reported that Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks — the studios releasing "Ghost in the Shell" — used visual effects tests to shift Johansson's ethnicity, so she'd appear more Asian on screen.
Paramount Pictures refuted the allegation to Screen Crush, but did say a visual effects test was done. This tells us that Hollywood does want to tell Asian stories, just without including Asian people.
It is crucial that Hollywood undo their preconceived notions of what Asian characters should look and act like. Just because an Asian character looks white, it doesn’t mean that they or their viewers are all white.
In order to end the limited and whitewashed portrayals of Asians, it is high time we acknowledge the diverse potential of Asian actors, their stories, and their viewers.
Cover Image: Twitter/XLNB