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Stepping Away




Essays, Not Rants! 286: Stepping Away


Ed Skrein – the dude who played Ajax in Deadpool — made headlines recently. Not for taking a role but rather for stepping down from one. See, he was tapped to be in the reboot adaption of Heckboy. But the character he was slated to play, Major Ben Daimio, is Japanese-American in the comics, and Ed Skrein is decidedly, er, white. Upon finding out that his casting would be whitewashing, Skrein stepped down from the role in order to not be part of that machine that decides to make people-of-color white.


And good on him! This is a guy who’s not a Big Actor and had the opportunity for a Big Role, but turned it down after getting hired because, well, whitewashing. So seriously, cheers to him.


'cuz whitewashing’s an issue. The movie 21 took a team of mostly Asian mathematicians and made them mostly white. Aloha famously cast Emma Stone as a part-Asian character with the last name Ng (as a part-Asian, I can attest that Emma Stone neither looks nor fits the part). Then there’s the Avatar: The Last Airbender movie which takes the wonderfully Inuit and Chinese inspired cast/cultures of the cartoon and makes the main characters white.


I can go on.


And what the heck, I will!


Dragonball Evolution made Goku white. Extraordinary Measures stars Harrison Ford as Dr. Robert Stonehill, a character whose achievements are based on that of Dr. Yuan-Tsong Chen. Scarlett Johansson plays Major in the American adaption of the decidedly Japanese Ghost In The Shell.


In light of all of that, seeing an actor walk away from a project because he’s a white guy playing an Asian guy is absolutely remarkable. Maybe I have half-a-horse in this race, but there’s a noticeable precedent for making Asian characters (and real people) white in adaptions. Sure, I’ll give something like Doctor Strange a pass for playing around with a stereotype, but there’s a point when it is just recasting a character of color because Scarlett Johansson will get more folks to theaters than Ming-Na Wen.


It's in this context that Ed Skrein’s choice to step down from Heckboy so remarkable. Or at least unusual. Not too long afterwards, it was announced that Daniel Dae Kim, known for Lost and, more recently, not continuing his role in Hawaiian Five-O because the studio did not want to pay him as much as his white co-stars, would be playing Major Ben Daimio in Heckboy. Which, wow, an Asian actor playing an Asian character (albeit a Korean actor playing a character who’s Japanese)? That sounds like a regular fairytale happy ending.


Now, Ed Skrein should never have been cast in the first place. Duh. But the fact of the matter is that this happens far too regularly. It's not that there aren't enough Asian actors to go around, or even (actors of color), it's that there aren't that many roles in these big-budget movies for them. And even if there is one, there's still the chance it'll go to some white dude instead.


Diversity and representation isn't just about creating roles and characters, it's also about making space. It's partially why I find Star Wars’ new stable of characters so wonderful; they're consciously making room in their movies and video games for women and people of color. Making the protagonist of Battlefront II a brown woman also means making the choice to not have a white guy in the lead. Something’s gotta give. It's not always just an easy decision.


So here, at the end of it, there's a part of me that wants to be hopeful. We got to watch whitewashing happen and then be undone. Maybe this means we’ll see more room for Asians and other actors of color in these big films. And then maybe after that we can split hairs about a Korean-American actor playing a Japanese-American character.

But baby steps!

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I'm all for diversity and think it leads to more interesting characters and settings, but I take issue with most of the discussion surrounding the new GitS movie. Your argument is that because the story is Japanese, so is the Major, but that's never made clear in any of the previous shows or movies (to my knowledge, though I'm not as familiar with the Arise part of the franchise). The Major's body is almost completely artificial, and switched out several times(in SAC), her name was made up by her, so even if she is Japanese, that has no bearing on her in any part of the series or movies. Focusing on that is missing the point of character and the series at a whole.


Now, I'll admit, I'm not a fan of the new movie, as it seems to completely ignore the point of Ghost in the Shell and Americanized the plot and themes beyond all recognition, it's like a generic action movie with pretty good visuals. Which is far more tragic in my opinion.


Contrast that with A:tLA, in which the interactions of the cultures is the focus of the series. Changing that changes the entire tone of the series. That being said, had they gotten that right I doubt the movie would have improved in quality.

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Oh, I agree to an extent. Manga/Anime's a weird space in general when it comes to casting, but characters like Goku or Major are such icons, it's odd to seem them white. Having not seen the adaption of GiTS, I can't speak to it in and of itself, but my main gripe is that here was a chance to cast an Asian woman in the lead aaaaaaand it went to ScarJo. 

I think GiTS is a lot less cut and dry than it's usually made out to be. I know (some of) the response in Japan was something along the lines of "Oh cool, Scarlet Johansson wants to be in our story!" which makes it hard for me to throw stones. I suppose my issue, as pertinent to this post, is that it's such a missed opportunity. 


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I just think that it's not really made clear enough that she is Japanese, or rather is supposed to look Japanese. Ultimately, had a Japanese actor been cast, I would have no issue with it, as I feel it's not made clear and ultimately makes no difference to the story, due to it's nature and The Major's Character. Though, I would not have Picked ScarJo to play her, but that's probably personal preference. And I imagine she was picked to get the movie on your average persons radar, as I doubt the franchise is that popular in the states, Which I suppose is probably an issue in of itself.


GitS is anything *but* cut and dry, and part of the reason why I like it. 

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Yeah. I had a long talk about this with my girlfriend back when the news first broke (because that's what we do over food and drinks, woo!) and my big thing was that I wasn't as ticked off as someone people. Like, I get it, and I am kinda annoyed, but this isn't the hill I wanna die on (compared to some of the other examples I gave). 


I think some of the issues comes because they gave her black hair and all which, I mean, in some contexts would be fine, but in this one it kinda seems like they're Asianing her? It's a nitpick, but I think they could have done better with making her Major without trying to make her look like Asian!Major.


...ain't thorny issues fun?

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Yeah, I'd have to say, if they had cast a white main actor in virtually any other anime movie (That i'm actually interested in enough to notice, as I don't follow the film industry) I'd probably have an issue with it.


In their defense though, in the original movie, Major had black hair and blue eyes, which from what I could tell is pretty rare, but not unheard of, but I think that's where most of the debate over her ethnicity comes from. Though most other appearances give her purple hair and I want to say red eyes but that might not be correct. Last time I checked those where pretty uncommon so make of that what you will.


I actually like discussing things like this, as most people I know either don't care or get *really* offended on subjects like these so I avoid them usually. But it's nice to get different perspectives on stuff like this.

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Yeah, but Ed Elric has yellow eyes and yellow hair but do you make him (and the rest of the FMA cast) white? 


It's a tricky issue and I don't think there's a right answer — well there is: cast someone Asian, but I think that just complainging about ScarJo in GiTS is like throwing rocks at the road in front of a wall without actually tearing it down.


So it's cool in Japan because "Hey, big western actor in our Anime adaption", cool. But why is it that most Big Western Actors are white? Not counting outliers like Will Smith, the majority of Big Name Actors are white dudes, with ScarJo being one of the few women who can carry a tentpole movie.


And I think this is where it gets harder to critique, because now you have to look at the systematic racism in the industry, where people of color get glossed over. Why isn't someone like Daniel Dae Kim a hollywood leading man? He's good looking and has the acting chops to match. Why isn't there an Asian woman with similar prestige as ScarJo? 


It's a lot harder to rail against systematic discrimination than it is to get mad about whitewashing a character.

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I wouldn't, no. But if it where an american made movie, that's probably what would happen. But I think that has to do with white being painted as the default, as if it's colorless. Similar to vanilla being a neutral flavor, or an original version of something, despite the fact that it really isn't. and due to that, it's nosedived as a much safer option, as the character tends to be put under less of a microscope.


The problem is, from what I can tell, and I might be wrong, that Hollywood needs to make money.  Since that's the case, risk taking can be a bad idea (in their view). GitS isn't amazingly popular here in the states, But ScarJo is. They where basically selling the public a ScarJo movie that happened to be Ghost in the Shell. But, unfortunately, since the movie bombed, it's probably going to be assumed that the general public has no interest in GitS.


And I've had a few of my friends defend the movie, and they obviously only like it because it has ScarJo in it. Which is probably why this sort of thing happens, They also assume the Dubs of GitS are awful, despite not having seen them. Just so you know what I'm dealing with here.

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So, I was going to be done here but I found an article talking about a Japanese FMA movie, with an all Japanese cast. One thing I had not considered is that it takes place in Germany. It's been a while since I've seen the Anime and I made the mistake of thinking that since it was Japanese in origin it had a Japanese setting/characters. So I think that's something to consider as well.

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