Hollywood is no stranger to the erasure of Asian-Americans. Asian actors have worked in the industry as early as the 1910s with Sesshu Hayakawa, a Japanese actor who found movie-star success in America, but the act of whitewashing roles can be traced as far back as 1935, when German actress Luise Ranier was cast over Anna Mae Wong as O-Lan in the film adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s “The Good Earth.”
For the past century, the film industry has somehow found it very difficult to find East Asian actors to fill East Asian roles, an act stemming not from a lack of East Asian actors but from a refusal to acknowledge them.
The most recent controversies regarding yellowface and whitewashing surrounds two films: Marvel’s “Doctor Strange” and the live-action Western adaptation of Mamoru Oshii’s “Ghost in the Shell” anime. Interestingly, both films are based on previously existing stories featuring Asian characters.
In “Doctor Strange,” the character of the Ancient One, a male Tibetan sorcerer, will be portrayed by Tilda Swinton, a white actress.
Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige cited the company’s initiative to change outdated, stereotypical elements of early Marvel comics. This would be all fine and well if Feige’s progressive posturing wasn’t contradicted by his assertion in an interview with Birth Movies Death that “the phony mysticism is part of what makes Doctor Strange interesting.”
On one hand, Feige is content in diversifying Marvel’s roster, but not by much. In the same interview, Feige even mentions erasing the Ancient One’s Tibetan origins. The erasure of Tibetan origins in Marvel’s canon aligns, curiously enough, with Marvel’s popularity in China, “a huge film distribution market and a country which, to put it mildly, doesn’t like Tibet,” according to The Mary Sue. Apparently, diversity is great only when it’s convenient and profitable.
“Ghost in the Shell,” however, is a live-action adaptation of a 1995 animated Japanese science fiction film, which was already an adaptation of a manga series. The controversy behind the film involves the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the film’s protagonist, Maj. Motoko Kusanagi.
Unlike “Doctor Strange,” which is a Western interpretation of an Asian fantasy, “Ghost in the Shell” is distinctly Japanese. Series creator Masamune Shirow wrote the story at the tail end of the 1980s, right before Japan’s economic bubble burst, leading to a recession that the country still has not entirely recovered from.
Casting a white lead actor in a story exploring issues that have echoed through Japan for the past 20 years is, at best, ignorant. At worst, movie studios are openly hostile toward the idea of casting Asian-American actors, as ScreenCrush reported that Paramount may have commissioned a visual effects team to “make the Caucasian actress appear more Asian in the film.”
In response to the criticisms, Max Landis, writer of “Chronicle,” uploaded a YouTube video insinuating that casting white actors was more profitable and that the lack of diversity is the fault of audiences who pay to see these films.
It’s difficult to take Landis’ argument seriously considering other recent films facing whitewashing controversies such as “Gods of Egypt,” “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” “Aloha” and “Pan.” All these films star major white Hollywood actors and were unmitigated box office failures.
But maybe there just aren’t that many actors to fill the vacuums white actors would leave. That would be true if actors like Keanu Reeves, John Cho, Steven Yeun, Lucy Liu, Sung Kang and Rinko Kikuchi all simultaneously perished in a “The Day the Music Died”-style airplane crash.
Kikuchi would, in fact, be a perfect fit in “Ghost in the Shell” as a Japanese, Academy Award-nominated actress, according to Forbes. She even sported a similar look to the Kusanagi character in 2013’s “Pacific Rim.”
Casting in Hollywood is a zero-sum game. When a role formed by Asian origins is taken by white actors like Swinton and Johansson, that role is denied to any actors of color who might fit the role better. If Hollywood was willing to take chances on little-known white actors — as Keith Chow wrote for the Nerds of Color, who was Chris Hemsworth before Thor? Who is Garret Hedlund? — why couldn’t it take the same risk on non-white actors?
As film critic Walter Chaw wrote on Twitter, “We’re really talking about two things here: we don’t want you to stereotype us; and if you do, we would like you to at least use our faces.”