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White Words: Moving Beyond Whitewashing in Cinema

Feature / by Festival Formula

Lately, it feels like any big movie adaptation is never too far away from courting controversy – especially when ‘whitewashing’ appears to be involved.

Whitewashing plays out in many ways. The Sociological Cinema outlines four distinct types of whitewashing; historical events about people of colour are reimagined with white actors, only stories about white people are told, works of fiction about stories of non white people are played out with white characters, and white actors are given the most substantial roles with people of colour being relegated to background characters. While, at face value, having traditionally black and minority ethnic characters played by white characters shouldn’t be a problem – save for potential implausibility, depending on the nature of the story – the reality of this recurring themes has real implications for audiences, industry and the culture at large.

The latest film taking a fair bit of berating is the live adaptation of the Japanese Manga Ghost In The Shell. Many actors in the main cast, including Scarlett Johansson, are white – and all will be playing Japanese characters. As a fan of anime and Manga, I was somewhat perplexed by the visceral backlash against it, especially considering that anime characters rarely look Japanese. However, after researching why anime characters do not always appear to be ‘’Japanese’’ in any concrete or obvious way, I was astonished to learn that the characters aren’t supposed to be ‘’Westernised’’. In fact, it’s mostly non-Japanese people who perceive the characters as Westernised, while Japanese people view them as Japanese.

“In Japan, white is not the default,” writer Brian Ashcraft explains at Kotaku. “Japanese is. Thus, there is no need for them to ‘look Asian,’ because no matter how ridiculous the characters look, everyone will assume they are Japanese.”

Most anime series have a tendency to contain hyper-real concepts. As a viewer I could always accept that characters may not appear Japanese to me, but the interpretation was there. A lot of the worlds are international and when non-Japanese characters communicate with non-Japanese characters, language barriers are never considered, mostly I imagine, for the fluidity of story. Although anime isn’t a genre in and of itself, they often require audiences to suspend their disbelief. While easily done in animation, the global world is not, to my Western eyes at least, separated by appearances but instead ideologies and character traits.



Racism isn’t completely glossed over in anime, and is even highlighted in the anime series Code Geass. In this Anime, the Japanese are a subordinate slave race to the British empire with America presented as interfering bullies. A similar theme can be found in the Ajin series, with Americans hunting immortals who disregard Japanese sovereignty in order to capture their targets. Godzilla is a byproduct of anti-American imperialism, with early versions of Godzilla representing America’s use of nuclear weapons.

There may be a lingering sense of damaged pride hiding in the Japanese backlash to whitewashing. One of Japan’s most successful animes is getting a live action adaptation by the US studios and is most likely made for their audiences, and that’s fine, if not good. But it would be an insult to take away the Japanese traits inherent to the story, the most notable being the Buddhist elements and the idealisms of spiritual transference. However, by the look of the trailer, there is an almost like for like comparison – so for all intents and purposes, that element should be intact.

As someone from a smaller nation, I feel a swell of pride when Scottish talent do well – but I sometimes feel slightly irritated when non-Scots play Scottish characters; the ridiculousness of Highlander somewhat dispels the outrage of a French actor playing a Scottish character, but it was irritating all the same. I can imagine it must be more incensing when a whole industry implicitly suggests your ethnic background simply isn’t marketable. Studies even suggest it has a deeper emotional impact on ethnic groups who are exposed to this, as well as to race relations: “The lack of diversity on television and in movies can lead to low self-esteem and increased racial biases. The Media Action Network for Asian-Americans recently released a memo to Hollywood informing the powers that be that the only way to combat negative portrayals is to offer positive ones”.

It could be said, in the period of peak social awareness we’re currently experiencing, that it’s time to take some positive steps forward. But that would be largely contingent on one of humanity’s long-debated questions: Is it culture that dictates production, or does production shape culture? For filmmakers working on large-scale projects, the chief priority is finding actors who are marketable so that their film can sell. Ridley Scott, who famously came under fire for casting white actors for Exodus: Gods and Kings, famously said: “I can’t mount a film of this budget… And say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such… I’m just not going to get financed.”


A still from Exodus: Gods and Kings

A still from Exodus: Gods and Kings


However, there is an argument that directors of influence have the unique means and power to create positive change for representation on screen.  “If eight white men — Wes Anderson, David O. Russell, Richard Linklater, Steven Soderbergh, the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino and Woody Allen — were to commit to diverse casting, the Oscar conversation would be totally different,” author and journalist Jeff Yang told IndieWire in a roundtable last year pegged to #OscarSoWhite. And arguably, there is a truth to this that dispels Ridley Scott’s argument. Or, instead, indicates the lack of pulling power his name has these days.

But the Mel Gibson film Apocalypto was white-free and even English language-free in what was an attempt at something more authentic. The film was a huge success, so there is some evidence that audience interest isn’t entirely dependent upon the whiteness of a film’s cast. In any case, it might be a while until the biggest decision makers believe their profit margins won’t be threatened by not having a white cast, thus making whitewashing becomes a faux pas of yesteryear.

While there should be increasing efforts by cultural producers to buck the trend to reflect the real face of society more, adaptations are often licence free and not bound to honouring the original material. Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Trooper’s core message was more or less flipped upside down from the original source material, with Verhoeven claiming the original novel by Robert A. Heinlein was a subversively pro-fascist text, adapted the book to show the dangers of following fascist rhetoric. And perhaps, if there is anyone who has the right to lambast a creative adaptation, then it is most certainly the original creators. I’ll leave you with this snippet from a Guardian review of Ghost in the Shell: “Mamoru Oshii [was the] director of the original anime. In fact, he thought Johansson was perfect casting. He pointed out that the character was a cyborg, after all: “Her physical form is an entirely assumed one. The name Motoko Kusanagi and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actor must portray her.” From a Japanese perspective, in a culture abundant in its own stories and characters, Ghost in the Shell is a flattering novelty”.

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