When the first promotional shots of Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi surfaced, it confirmed everything a great many people feared about Paramount Pictures's live-action Ghost in the Shell project: it was being made by people who just plain didn't get it. It got worse when word surfaced that there had been attempts to give the actress a digital facelift to make her look Asian. Some part of me said: That they even tried, that tells me everything.
What I hate most is how I'm past the point where this stuff comes as a surprise to me. A shock, but not a surprise. Hollywood has no idea what to do with anime, because it unfailingly chooses properties that make no sense when filmed using the default Hollywood settings of ethnicity and locale, and it isn't prepared to handle the cultural and artistic dissonance that arises as a result. Even worse is that this difficulty could be easily avoided by just picking titles that aren't this thorny to work with — of which there are countless examples.
The wrong can of worms to open
The word that's been used to describe all that's wrong with Ghost in the Shell is "whitewashing", and I think there's more to it than just the mistake of casting a Caucasian actress for a role that is discernibly not that. It's the whole problem of picking material that needs to be whitewashed to be palatable to mainstream Western audiences in the first place (and I dispute that it is even needed; more on that later). Why not instead choose material that could arguably draw an even greater audience, engender fewer potentially bad decisions and less agony when localizing, and leave everyone happier, fans and audiences and studios alike?
That's the worst part about all this foofaraw in re Johansson: it's totally unnecessary. It wasn't as if the producers would have been doing themselves a disservice by not choosing GITS and instead opting for something that had a lower threshold of entry for everyone involved. Picking GITS and shooting it in the West automatically means opening all manner of worm cans — e.g., whether you could explain away Johansson's casting by saying that the character could have her pick of cyberbodies and just happened to pick this one. But that in turn opens up even more questions about why she'd go for a Caucasian look — stuff that would need to be made into an actual theme in the film for it to be palatable. I'm prepared to be pleasantly surprised, but the odds of something like that being woven into this substance of this film is pretty close to zero.
I couldn't tell if you any of this stuff crossed the minds of the director and screenwriter when they convened their first production meeting. Maybe it did. Maybe they were sincerely concerned about it, and maybe they tried to put it into the film only to have the studio push back with a note telling them to ditch that stuff because who the hell cares. But then I hear word surfacing that there were some digital tests to give Johansson yellowface-of-a-sort, and my willingness to give them the benefit of the doubt evaporates.
Stop making your jobs harder
Here is the chief question to ask: Why is it that when faced with the palette of anime/manga properties out there that could be adapted into live-action projects, Hollywood somehow manages to pick — not just once, but again and again — the projects that are the most culturally problematic ones to shoot in the West?
The short answer is simple: Hollywood doesn't see a problem. It's only the whiners out there who have a problem, and the problem is mostly in their heads anyway, and we made $75 million this weekend, so what's the problem? But audiences are more diverse, more culturally attuned, and more conscious than ever of how one size most definitely does not fit all. Being culturally insensitive — whether it's with a big-budget production or something derived from a fandom known in detail by perhaps 1% of the target audience — is a losing proposition, and you never know how big of a loser it'll be until it blows up in your face. Putting geeks in charge doesn't seem to have changed that much.
Another answer, one I've touched on before, is that it's drawn to properties that have some degree of name value, because something with a name, no matter how small, is better than something without it. But this is misleading. How widely recognized something like Naruto is has no bearing on how adaptable it is. A decent-sized slice of a whole generation, more or less, has been reared on Naruto on both sides of the Pacific, but that doesn't mean they'd want to see a Westernized version of it — in short, a version where all that was special about it in the first place has been siphoned off or diluted in the name of hypothetical marketability. (Notice the internal contradiction there?)
A third possibility is that adapters just plain don't know what else is out there, but I have a hard time buying that. The folks who mine Japan for licensable properties look at everything; it's more a matter of the pitch, whether or not money can be raised for it, and how marketable the results are. Something with even passing name recognition has a kind of built-in marketing angle, but again I feel that's overrated. If people don't know or care where something came from, but are fond of it anyway because it expresses something honest and engaging, that trumps everything.
It's not like there's any shortage of things out there that can be adapted without having to make awkward cultural handstands. Black Lagoon, Soul Eater, Claymore, Fullmetal Alchemist, Parasyte, Vampire Hunter D, Guin Saga, Berserk, Fairy Tail, Attack on Titan, Chaika: The Coffin Princess, My Hero Academia, A-JIN: Demi-Human -- all current and prior hits, all things that lend themselves to being ported as-is without breaking too much. All would make fantastic Western live-action projects. Picking a property for its name value alone — or, god help us, its geek cred — ensures any future Western adaptations of this kind will remain fear-driven creations, and thus whitewashed ones.