Representation... Does it Matter?
I caught the movie Ghost in the Shell the other night. My initial feelings were mixed because of the obvious reason everyone’s been bitching about since the casting was announced. All those White people playing Japanese characters in a Japanese city.
I am a long-time fan of the anime TV series, so admittedly there was some bias. Yet it seemed so glaring, even though the overall movie was pretty good. So I asked a friend, Chris, who lives in Japan about what the Japanese perspective was on the issue. He explained that they were actually excited by the new movie and had no problem with the casting. They also see no problem with such issues when adaptions of their works are done.
After Chris told me about this, I recalled how many anime I have seen where the characters did not look Japanese. It was just about all of them. Even the Ghost in the Shell anime series had most of the main characters looking like other races. So it was apparently true that the culture had no issue with white-washing. When the studios and actors say that they are acting in non-racial roles, they actually get a free pass this time.
Part of the issue at play with my initial feeling is that I live in a culture that is highly sensitive to the issue of diversity and the obstacles it faces. Arguably, America is the most sensitive country in the world to these issues because of our history. So when I am watching a film from another culture that doesn’t appear to obey those progressive rules of having a multi-racial cast or a cast not accurate to the source material, I automatically want to call foul.
It never occurred to me that the creators of the product I enjoyed may have given their blessing to make an adaptation the way that they did.
No Borders, No Race... Still Japanese
There is a term in Japan called mukokuseki. It roughly translates to meaning without nationality. The idea is that the Japanese don’t have issues with their characters not looking racially accurate because they just naturally assume the character to be Japanese to begin with. That is their base setting and is not determined by how a character looks.
Many of their most successful exports demonstrate this idea. The Dragonball franchise has no real racial distinctions nor makes any deliberate attempt at diversity. Samurai Champloo seamlessly blends its own history with foreign, hip-hop culture in its stories. Many fighting games like Tekken and Street Fighter feature characters that are Japanese or Chinese but look nothing like their respective nationalities.
The reason the characters look this way is to deliberately establish that the show is not set in reality. People don’t naturally have blue or pink hair. Their eyes are not naturally the size of a radar dish. They are telling a story and everything else in it is meant to convey that story. The reason some critics say that we notice physical and racial differences is because White people are our default for normal. Or in other words, we are projecting our values onto theirs, even overruling them entirely.
Another blogger, Julian Abagond, has said that what we see as normal is what is dominant in our environment. So us seeing Goku power up into a blond-haired fighter and thinking it’s a racial statement says more about us than it does about the Japanese.
Apparently, the Japanese have translated this perception of mukokuseki into the live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. The only ones complaining about white-washing, at least in this film, is us.
The Case for Diversity Against the Norm
The argument has been made by those defending proper racial casting that just because the Japanese don’t have an issue with it, doesn’t mean there isn’t an issue. Hollywood’s record is well known. Studies and cases show that a lack of racial representation in media leads to low self-esteem in those groups and that it does not represent the modern world. A multi-racial society should have people of all colors represented properly by their respective cultures.
Of all the main characters in the film, only two are actually Japanese. Granted, this casting was done for marketing reasons. The point is that our dominant societal beliefs instruct us that the norm should be that a Japanese adaptation should have Japanese actors.
Another point is that not all cultures share the Japanese acceptance of not being physically identified as that race or culture. When the movie 300 came out with an exaggerated version of the Battle of Thermopylae, Iran was noticeably perturbed by the portrayal of their Persian ancestors as being weak, deformed, or without morals. This was contrasted by the superhero-like, White Spartan protagonists. And even the Spartans earned critics for not looking Greek!
When Rogue One came out, a Mexican child who had seen it urged his father to go see the movie because it had a Mexican actor in one of the lead roles. The father apparently couldn’t believe it until he saw the movie and was deeply impacted. It is clear that some cultures and people do care about accurate representation on the large screen.
Similar issues have cropped up in several other contentious areas besides movies, including feminism, the role of religion, and civil rights. In most of these cases, the struggle between the Western and non-Western parties is their perception of what the norm should be. But that is another topic for another day.
These people feel they have special insight into a type of righteousness that other cultures may be ignorant of. They believe that their interpretation of justice is the most progressive and righteous version of it out there. So sure, the Japanese don’t have an issue with white-washing, but that is only because they are not aware of it.
Take It for What It Is
What I took away from this was confronting a prejudice that I did not know I had. Why would I? I wasn’t trying to oppress anybody and force someone to conform to my views. And yet I was. It is not easy giving Hollywood studios a free pass on something that they have done for decades that is rooted in racism. Or to say that such issues are a matter of perspective and subject to a case by case basis. Americans don’t like that sort of grayness, no matter how liberal or conservative they are. But within the context of Western interpretations of Japanese stories and media, I have to go by the latters’ standards. At least in terms of not crossing that line of doing physical harm to other people or justifying it. That is my one red line.
Otherwise, I will take Ghost in the Shell for what the actors and directors say it is, a non-race-based story. I will have to put aside my natural bias and be aware that the next time I find myself squirming because I find a cross-cultural adaptation unnatural, the problem may be with me and not what I am watching.