We Appreciate the Thought…but Let Us Decide.
The fact that Scarlett Johansson has been cast in the role of Motoko Kusanagi in Hollywood’s (admittedly terribly misconceived) remake of Ghost in the Shell/ ????? as a live action movie is drawing a lot of heat. This is based on the fact that Motoko, in the original manga (and the more famous anime adaptations), is Japanese, and therefore, the logic goes, the role should go to an Asian actress. Which I suspect is logic that seems unassailable to Americans, particularly with the many problems Asians face in Hollywood. It’s great to be concerned Asian actors don’t get a fair shake in American movies…but I’m troubled by an automatic assumption being used here: that “Japanese” people (as opposed to Japanese-Americans) have to look a particular way – specifically East Asian.
It’s true that modern Japanese identity is one built upon a myth of ethnic homogeneity. I also want to make it absolutely, blindingly clear, however, that this is, and has always been, a myth. The history of how and why this myth came to be is a convoluted one (which I will be exploring in a future post), but the simple fact is, the idea of an ethnically homogenous “Japanese” people was constructed after World War II – specifically as a method of creating a new “pure” national identity unsoiled by the ethnic complexities of running a multi-national empire.
As such, Japan has traditionally had a problem accepting mixed race children into its society, and dealing well with ethnic minorities within its midst like Japan-born Koreans (the so-called “Zainichi Kankokujin”), the Ainu, and until the last 50 years, Okinawans. It is in fact so bad, that the post I have been writing on this subject for the better part of the last two years (and can’t seem to finish) is entitled Already an Apartheid State: The True Shame of Japanese Ethno-Nationalist Myth. Taking into account the hyperbole present in the piece being a blog post and requiring a provocative, click-baity title, the racial attitudes of Japanese people in the post war era have been truly, exceptionally awful in a way that’s hard to describe to people who haven’t seen some of its ugliness first hand (not that they were great BEFORE the war, either…).
Still, a funny thing is happening in Japan. It’s in fits and starts, imperfect and often showing off the glaring problems with Japanese racial attitudes or ignorance…but gradually the idea of a more expansive definition of what it means to be “Japanese” is taking root. Celebrities can be a shallow way to gauge cultural acceptance of “foreign”ness, but celebrities with foreign parents or grandparents of one stripe or another are nigh ubiquitous.
Attitudes ARE starting to shift. Yes, there was vocal backlash by a group of internet trolls against the selection of Ariana Miyamoto as Miss Japan in 2015, but their opinions, are not universally held. Indeed, there are a series of great YouTube videos (especially great are the 80 someodd year old women who talk about it) that show what I feel is more representative: acceptance of globalism as it comes to Japan, with some clumsiness from not really being used to it, but a desire to try to continue to make things better. In all the interviews I’ve seen of her, her mannerism is distinctly Japanese, her views, her attitude, her knowledge, all of those things in fact, probably make her more Japanese than I am, despite the fact that my ancestors have been from various parts of Japan well into the 16th century.
Further, my sincere opinion is that the best American actor to have portrayed a Japanese person in the last 20 years…is Dante Carver. Sure he doesn’t fit the stereotypical “oriental” look that Hollywood execs might want in portraying a Japanese person, but he gets everything from the mannerism, humor, delivery, and attitudes all down pat in a way that’s, frankly, uncanny.
…and this is an important point, because Hollywood does orientalizing Japan very well. One of the most disastrously and truly AWFUL movies about Japan in recent memory is Memoirs of a Geisha. It was so comically offensive in how much it focused on the veneer of seeming “exotic” and “asian”, while getting basically everything about Japanese society, mannerisms, culture, and verisimilitude wrong. One can also note the constant stream of “Any Asian Will Do” Hollywood resorts to in casting characters of Asian nationalities. Another atrocious example was the casting in (yes, I know, I know) The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. None of the major “Japanese” characters were played by Japanese people.
Indeed Hollywood’s casting has more in common with the Waitress in this skit than it does with anything to do with getting the nuances with actual Japanese people right…
…all this is a long-winded way of saying: We get that you guys mean well…and that you have an idea of what “Japanese” is…but it’s also wrong. I for one LIKE this newly emerging Japan, where we will (slowly and imperfectly) identify people by their language, cultural affinities and way they think rather than by appearance. And I want a world where ScarJo, Michael Pitt, and Christopher Obi are all as Japanese as Beat Takeshi. We’re JUST starting out…and while I have no faith that Paramount won’t find some way to screw this up in ways that’ll make this post seem silly in hindsight, maybe we can give this a chance.