Thursday, April 21, 2016

White as a Ghost

Let me start by saying that the problem with the Major being portrayed by Scarlet Johansson is not that the Major is Japanese character and can thus only be played by a Japanese actor. The Major's body is pretty much entirely artificial with the exception of her brain and she occasionally switches up bodies so that she looks different (which is a built in escape for changing leading ladies, really). There is plenty of reason for why you could explain away why she looks Caucasian at the moment.

That may make it sound like I am in favor of a white Motoko Kusanagi. I am not. While it is easily possible to explain why it makes sense that she could appear Caucasian if she wanted to, there is also no reason to force making that explanation. If the studio had several actresses of a large variety of ethnic groups, mostly Asian, trying for the role and out of the entire group found that the person best suited to capture the personality of the Major (something I doubt Johansson will pull off) was a non-Asian, then I could see defending the choice. Especially if it was an exception to a normal rule, which this is not. There is a persistence of Hollywood casting white actors regardless of whether the original character is white or not.


Currently, the studios put out this idea that white actors sell better than non-white actors which is bogus. The difference has very little to do with ethnicity and more to do with name recognition. The reality is that famous actors sell better than unknown actors and there are far more famous white actors than famous non-white actors precisely because Hollywood has been dominated by Caucasian actors for nearly a century now. The studios have difficulty getting funding if they can't guarantee the success of a movie for their sponsors. There's a documentary called "Seduced and Abandoned" featuring Alec Baldwin and director James Toback trying to get funding for a film concept while at the Cannes film festival. It shows a great deal about the process of getting money for a film and how quickly investor interest drops when the idea of using untested talent comes up. Again, most of the well-known talents are Caucasian with a handful of African-American names.

Beyond that, we, as the public don't really have a way to convince the studios or their investors that they're wrong. Traditionally, what has happened with anime based movies coming out of Hollywood is that they tend to have a large number of changes to concept, story pacing and the like as the studios and investors insist on cutting out the stuff that they find iffy and unlikely to make money. This includes cutting Asians out of story that is about Asians. When said movie bombs horrendously, they don't decide "well maybe we shouldn't have changed so much and maybe we should have cast some Asians". Instead they tend to decide that anime makes bad movies and that tables the idea of anime inspired movies for years. If we, as the viewing public, boycott the movie, they won't look at the boycott and decide "we shouldn't have changed things". Instead they'll just look at their loss and decide "anime movies are doomed to fail."

Even when the film production team manages to have the movie create a rather faithful rendition of the personality of the original anime then the studios tend to sabotage themselves in other ways such as by tweaking the marketing. This is what happened to the Wachowski production of Speed Racer. Anybody watching the trailers was likely expecting some sort of heavy psychological allegory with deep metaphors and a grim storyline reminiscent of their Matrix series. This likely turned off a lot of people who were fans of the rather campy and Saturday Morning Cartoon-esque feel of the original anime. Which means that a lot of Speed Racer fans likely decided not to see it. As for the people that went expecting the same sort of storytelling found in the Matrix were instead faced with fight scenes seemingly ripped from the 1960s Batman show and a mix of sight gags and slapstick in between high paced racing sequences. The marketing for the movie doomed it from the start.

The studios are not about to gamble and, in their perspective, a faithful rendition of an anime or other Japanese IP is always going to be a gamble. Given that anime fans are a comparatively small niche, they're not strictly wrong. The sort of money that goes into a big budget Hollywood movie can not be sustained with the anime fans of the West alone, the movie has to be able to capture a significant portion of the general audience as well. 

Another problem facing the removal of this issue is the problem of licenses and copyrights. Once a studio has purchased a license and failed to make a successful product off of it then they sit on it for as long as they are able. They won't immediately make a second version featuring fewer changes from the original and a more expected casting because as far as they're concerned, the American viewing public has decided that the movie isn't worth their time. 

I am not going to fault a studio for wanting to make money. It's a business. We can talk all we want about the authenticity and strength of the art, but a studio that isn't making money is essentially stealing money from their stock holders and investors. It would be like if your cousin came up to you asking to borrow money for an investment and promising to pay you back with much interest only his idea of an investment was the local poker game and he ended up losing. However, eventually someone is going to have to take a gamble in order to prove to Hollywood that Asian leads are as viable as Caucasian ones and that Asian storytelling standards are as effective as Western ones.

Until we get investors and studios who are both willing to risk losing money on a project to keep it faithful to the original, we're going to continue to get anime-inspired movies with weird shifts in plot and casting. For that matter, the Hollywood machine hasn't even trusted Asian live-action movies to be able to do well in America. Tale of Two Sisters, The Eye, The Grudge and The Ring all got white-washed Americanized versions that included completely unnecessary elements such as implying that the shadows in the Eye were evil spirits rather than just a part of the process of death as they were in the Chinese movie. 

At one point in time, there was a consideration for an American live-action TV show of Ranma 1/2 set in California but it was eventually cancelled because they thought that America couldn't handle the idea of a guy turning into a girl. Bear in mind that we're the same country that produced Tom Hanks in Bosom Buddies, Mrs. Doubtfire, Dr. Jekyll and Ms Hyde, Scooby Doo's and Bugs Bunny's cross-dressing antics and numerous other such gender bending situations.

Until that gamble is made, there is no way for us to show the studios that, yes, that movie can make money. Still, I'd keep an eye out for such a movie. Even if it is a genre you're not terribly interested in. If you see an anime-inspired movie where the Hollywood studio has decided to cast Asian actors and to avoid changes to the story to remove parts that they "didn't understand" or else "didn't think Americans would understand", then perhaps you should go to see it just to support the idea of a more diverse Hollywood.

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