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Hollywood’s whitewashed version of anime never sells

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Ghost in the Shell is just the latest example

20th Century Fox

Ghost in the Shell’s biggest failure — and there are many — is its representation of race. The film replaces the original anime’s Japanese leads with an overwhelmingly white cast, a frustrating oversight that’s familiar to Western anime fans.

Ghost in the Shell isn’t unique in this regard, and neither is its poor reception. Asian erasure has been commonplace in Hollywood adaptations of anime over the years. Movies based on properties with Asian leads often see the hero role go to a white actor, and they tend to fail spectacularly at the box office.

Looking back at how films like Dragonball Evolution, Speed Racer and The Last Airbender — each one either drawn from a Japanese source or about non-white heroes — fared, it’s not surprising that Ghost in the Shell is struggling with ticket sales. It’s also hard to rationalize why studios continue to insist on white leads for these expensive projects when all available evidence suggests it doesn’t actually help them find an audience.

speed racer
Speed Racer’s Japanese roots have all but vanished since the series came overseas in the 1960s.
Warner Bros. Entertainment

The Wachowski siblings released Speed Racer in 2008, adapting the classic Tatsunoko Productions anime for the Western viewer. Hollywood’s Speed Racer keeps the Americanized names adopted by the English-langauge dub of the original cartoon from the 1960s, but that doesn’t forgive the fact that the entire primary cast is white. It is worth noting that Speed Racer’s Western reinvention did not begin with the Wachowski duo, with the Americanized cartoon having a long history in the United States.

Perhaps this history is why Speed Racer caused less of a stir for its racial representation when it hit theaters; critics more routinely panned its dizzying effects and incoherent storytelling. But there was some backlash on a smaller scale. Bloggers and forum users called out the film for again ignoring the Japanese roots of the Speed Racer franchise, although commenters on these kinds of posts were divided over whether the film really constituted a whitewashed take.

But they didn’t look Japanese!

The characters in Speed Racer — and many of these other properties — don’t always immediately read as Japanese or Asian to Western viewers. They’re abstracted by design; they appear “unmarked,” which can lead to people used to seeing white characters on-screen reading them as white, not Japanese as intended. Here’s an insightful commenter from 2008 articulating it well:

Wise words from Nenena.

The whole concept of people seeing human beings as white by default is upsetting for its own reasons, but the practice may explain why this whitewashing thing keeps getting a pass with Hollywood execs.

This argument can be made for the cast of Speed Racer, an anime that is beloved by a bygone generation more so than modern-day genre fans. It’s harder to accept this reasoning for 2009’s Dragonball Evolution, however.

Dragonball Evolution is a mess on numerous levels. Most memorable of those many messes is that Goku, Dragon Ball’s martial arts-mastering superhero, is played by a reedy, young white man. All the names are the same, from Grandpa Gohan to Master Roshi, from Bulma to Chichi. There are Asian people playing a few of them, although none are Japanese; Goku, Bulma and the literally whitewashed villain Piccolo are all white.

This kind of warped representation is glaringly apparent from the get-go. The story is still about collecting mystical artifacts inspired by traditional East Asian culture, and martial arts still figures heavily into the entire proceedings. Unlike those of Speed Racer, Dragon Ball’s fans are younger and greater in number. The show is iconic as one of the shows that heralded anime’s push into the mainstream in the 1990s; it maintains a massive fanbase and presence across media today.

20th Century Fox came under fire quickly for how the film maintained the integral Japanese specificities of the series’ setting and storyline while having a white person replace its most beloved character. The film bombed, and Dragonball Evolution heralded in the conversation of Hollywood’s disappointing approach to adapting Asian-fronted stories.

What’s interesting, though, is that the conversation still took quite a few years to really take off. Looking back at reviews from when the film came out, it’s surprising to see that few critics actually called out Dragonball Evolution for its embarrassing cast. The backlash really ramped up in the 2010s, when we saw the worst example of Asian animated characters being repainted for American viewers: The Last Airbender.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is not an anime in the most quintessential sense. Its creators are American, and it was animated in South Korea. But the Nickelodeon cartoon borrowed heavily from East Asian history and culture while featuring character design inspired by Japanese animation.

Avatar’s premise is inherently Eastern, but M. Night Shyamalan’s 2010 adaptation of the show dropped both the Avatar prefix and the non-white cast of characters. The Last Airbender stars three white teens in roles that were designed to be Asian. In a stunning example of poor optics, there are Asian actors highly visible on-screen — they’re just all villains. Actors of Indian origin play members of the evil Fire Nation.

the last airbender
Sure, there are non-white faces in The Last Airbender. They belong exclusively to the villains.
Paramount Pictures

The film is poorly made and exhausting to watch. Its cast’s skewed racial makeup is a huge part of the problem, with the white actors completely out of place in a setting so beautifully designed in the cartoon as a love letter to the anime that clearly inspired it. Critics were finally keen on bringing up the racial issues with the cast.

“It speaks volumes when the initial casting decision was to cast four white leads,” Guy Aoki of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans said in 2010. “For [production company Paramount Pictures] to be comfortable with that … it’s embarrassing. It says a lot about their attitudes.”

Shyamalan didn’t understand the concerns. Speaking to reporters that same year, the director spoke of anime’s “ambiguous facial features” as a way to rationalize his casting.

“It's part of the art form,” he said. “You got a problem with that? Talk to the dudes who invented anime. It's not my issue, OK?”

It’s an argument we’ve heard before — just scroll up! — but two years after Speed Racer, critics weren’t buying it anymore. The controversy was so fierce that The Last Airbender even popularized a new term for the whitewashing process: “racebending.”

“They’ve constructed a film that is contrary not only to what fans expected to see but is also contrary to what America expects to see in a film released in 2010 featuring Asian culture and Asian and Native American characters as heroes,” Michael Le, one of the leaders in the anti-racebending movement, told the Los Angeles Times.

Paramount was forced to speak out in defense of Shyamalan’s work, but the film limped into and out of theaters. The Last Airbender earned $319 million worldwide against a budget of $150 million. That’s comparable to the total grosses of Dragonball Evolution, which made a total of $57 million, and Speed Racer, which earned $93 million off a $120 million budget.

Death Note
Next up on Hollywood’s list of series to mess with: Death Note.

As audiences become more aware of the inanities of whitewashing Asian stories, it may seem shocking that Ghost in the Shell made it into in its current state. Many Asian-American actors have contributed their voices to calling out Hollywood’s insistence on shunting them into the background when these films are made, despite years of evidence that relying on white leads does nothing to help box office.

Talks of adapting further anime and Asian-led stories without Asian actors in main roles continue, however. An adaptation of Death Note will hit Netflix this summer, and it ticks off all the boxes on the Hollywood bastardization checkbox. The psychological thriller, which already has a Japanese-made live-action film to its name, is coming stateside with its Japanese teen anti-hero transformed into a bratty white kid.

More offensive may be that a live-action remake of the beautiful, classic anime Akira is back on the table, despite years of behind-the-scenes turmoil and extreme fan disapproval. Leonardo DiCaprio is set to produce it, transforming Akira’s Neo Tokyo into Neo Los Angeles and further removing the Japanese parts of the story.

Ghost in the Shell’s first weekend at the box office follows another key part of this trend, bombing hard with audiences of all kinds, while science fiction and action films with diverse casts are making huge amounts of money internationally. Hollywood has tried to strip Japanese heroes from Japanese stories for a long time, and its efforts keep flopping. It’s time to focus on the characters instead of the assumption that only white actors can carry these roles.