A storm of criticism struck recently when Scarlett Johansson was chosen to star as the protagonist in the Hollywood adaptation of Japanese media franchise Ghost in the Shell. Loyal anime fans and Asian-American artists argue that an Asian actress deserved the role because the story is set in Japan, and the character is (presumably) ethnically Japanese. While Hollywood is notorious for whitewashing characters, anime drawings challenge our notions of racial characteristics.
Johansson plays Major Motoko Kusanagi, who is a cyborg with super intelligence and incredible strength. She works under the counter-cyberterrorist organisation Public Security Section 9. The plot focuses on Kusanagi exploring her origins and sense of being while hunting down a mysterious hacker, the Puppet Master.
We can assume Kusanagi is Japanese, and the story features Japanese people. Hence, fans expect Hollywood to cast Asian artists in prominent roles so the film stays loyal to the story's setting.
The uproar reveals the deep-seated frustrations over Hollywood's legacy of whitewashing, or casting white artists to play non-white roles. Asian-Americans still don't get a share of the limelight as they struggle to land main roles in big blockbusters. Unfortunately, they're usually typecast to play stereotypes like the cello-playing nerd, the academic high-achiever, the foreign exchange student or criminal masterminds with extraordinary martial arts skills. Fans thought Ghost in the Shell could be a big break for Asian actors.
At the height of the Yellow Peril, Hollywood often used white actors in non-white roles, such as Warner Oland playing the super villain Fu Manchu. Oland also starred as the Chinese-American detective Charlie Chan -- who was a stark contrast to the overtly racist caricature of Fu Manchu. Paul Muni played the male protagonist Wang Long from Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth while Luise Rainer starred as O-Lan. Despite an increase in non-white artists in Hollywood, white actors are still preferred. Such examples include The Martian, which originally featured Asian characters who were swapped with white characters in the film version.
But anime is a different affair. The cartoons are well-known for their assorted hair colours, very large and coloured eyes, and sometimes wildly exaggerated body proportions. Kusanagi is no exception; she has dark violet hair and blue eyes. Even the other main characters, such as Kusanagi's second-in-command, Batou, resemble the Hollywood tough-guy actors.
It's an age-old debate whether Japanese anime artists deliberately draw characters to have Caucasian features due to the country's perception that Europeans are more beautiful. In Japan and other Asian counties, women have spent generously on cosmetic surgeries to obtain a more 'European' look. The idealisation of having more Caucasian-looking characters and people could only be realised through cartoons. Neon Genesis' Dr Ritsuko Akagi, for example, sports blonde hair and green eyes with a very Western-looking appearance, despite being 'Japanese'. Other examples include Sailor Moon characters, and Naruto Uzumaki in the manga series Naruto.
Or perhaps it's merely an attempt to distinguish the characters' appearances. What's so seductive about anime is that these cartoons don't adhere to rigid conventions of what racial groups should look like, or be like. Anime allows us to explore society, race, culture and themes in ways beyond our concrete thoughts. The characters may be culturally Japanese but don't necessarily bare Japanese physical characteristics.
In countries such as Japan, racial and cultural identity don't play a prominent role in people's lives since it's a homogeneous society. Conversely, in multicultural societies like Australia we're forced to think about race, and we take a more hard-line approach in categorising people to process and understand our differences.
Motoko is a futuristic cyborg that supposedly shouldn't be defined by race. It's not to say she is specifically white, but she isn't strictly Japanese either. Hollywood believes casting more well-known actors will guarantee box-office successes. Indeed, the film industry has been sluggish in embracing diversity but since anime defies rules of physical racial differentiations, it's not wrong to select Scarlett Johansson for this role.