Whitewashing Anime

I know some anime fans and some people of Asian descent will hate me for saying this but, I really don’t get all the fuss over Scarlet Johansson’s casting as Major in Ghost in the Shell.

Before I go any further, let me explain that I am a non-Asian American who agrees that Hollywood has really given Asians and Asian-Americans a bum rap. In movies, people of Asian descent are either non-existent, relegated to background characters, made fun of or killed off. And their cultures and traditions are stolen and reused for other ethnic groups. I find it so laughable how celebrity after celebrity keeps calling out the current president for being racist yet fail to see the racism of the industry they work in (quick, when was the last time you saw a Hollywood film where a person of Middle Eastern descent wasn’t a terrorist? No, Aladdin doesn’t count.) If you want to learn more about racism against Asians in Hollywood, here’s some articles by Jana Monji over at rogerebert.com (although I don’t agree with everything she says).

Another thing I’d like to add before I move on is that I’m not an anime or manga fan. I’m not familiar with the Ghost in the Shell franchise so I wont go into details about the setting and characters, just what I’ve learned through Wikipedia.

But back to my original statementWhy do I have less issues with the live action Ghost in the Shell than, say, the mostly white voice cast of Kubo and the Two Strings?

Because Scarlet looks like Major.


In America whenever a cartoon gets a live action adaptation, audiences expect the actors chosen to bear a resemblance to the cartoon character they’re playing. My biggest issue with the recent Beauty and the Beast remake is that Emma Watson, Dan Stevens and Luke Evans looked nothing liked the characters of the beloved animated film I grew up with. They weren’t even attractive enough to play Belle, Adam and Gaston convincingly (Emmy Rossum would’ve made a better Belle. At least she looks like her and can sing). By contrast, Emile Hirsch and Christina Ricci looked like Speed Racer and Trixie respectively and nobody complained of “whitewashing” when the live action Speed Racer was released in 2008. So why are people now complaining when a white woman takes a role of a white-looking character created by Japanese men?

Rei Kashino from the romance manga Mars (right) and the actor who plays him in the film (left).

Notice the keyword I used: white-looking. This is an aspect of anime that always struck me as odd. Despite being an art-form created by the Japanese, the characters of anime always have the same European features: white skin, various hair colors ranging from blonde to purple and big, round or square eyes of different colors.  Even their clothing at times will be European in origin. This isn’t limited to anime and manga. Video Games made in Japan will also depict their characters this way (Devil May Cry, Resident Evil, even Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts) and again, I ask: “why?” Do the Japanese hate the way they look? Do these features appeal to them? I decided the smart thing to do was to ask a fan and so I turned to my anime loving brother for information. He told me that most of today’s anime is influenced by Osamu Tezuka and Astro Boy, a franchise that introduced the anime aesthetic. Tezuka designed the characters as a homage to American artists like Walt Disney and Max Fleischer and the the style has been that way ever since. Perhaps its time for the Japanese animation industry to break the mold and start drawing their characters to resemble the people of Japan so that if and when Hollywood (or any other studio) makes another live-action anime adaptation, they’ll (hopefully) give the roles to Asian actors.

Update: it appears Mamoru Oshii, the director of the 1995 animated film, agrees with me.

Do you agree? Should the part of Major been played by an Asian actress? Is anime fine the way it is or should it change? Sound off in the comments!





Filed under anime

7 responses to “Whitewashing Anime

  1. I really don’t care about all this hullabaloo, but they couldn’t just drag Kelly Hu to play the Major? Also, it is quite annoying that for an industry set in California, where Asians are very populous, that Hollywood finds some way to shaft us.


    • Your comment reminds me of two incidents of Asian casting controversy: the 1st one was in 2005 when there were complaints about Gong Li’s, Michelle Yeoh’s and Zhang Ziyi’s casting in Memoirs of a Geisha because both actresses were Chinese women playing Japanese. Before that, with memories of WW2 still fresh in their minds, Chinese-Americans denounced the casting of Japanese actress Miyoshi Umeki as Chinese immigrant Mei Li in Flower Drum Song(1961). As for the second half of your comment, yeah, it’s a mystery to me too why Hollywood hates Asians so much. I think it’s because either it’s run by a bunch of old farts who’re still mad about Pearl Harbor or they’re jealous of China for having a better education system than the US, and Japan for making better cars.


      • I say it’s more than that. Hollywood directors care little for national history or ethnicity-they’re just lazy. The “diversity” they pursue is not one of helping minorities out of the kindness of their hearts, it’s one where they answer to race-baiters who bitch about representation. Hence why they answer to blacks and Latinos, but since Asians never whined about not having enough parts in movies, they don’t get their share of the pie. Or maybe the liberal elites in Hollywood just don’t like Asians because Asians are hardcore capitalists with traditional family structures, a big no-no for liberals who love socialism and hate the patriarchy.


  2. Gaia Nicolosi

    It depends on the manga. Yes, the characters from “Mars” have well-defined eyes, thin lips, and well-defined french noses.

    But this is not every anime


    • If only we saw more of that…


      • Gaia Nicolosi

        We do, it depends on the style.
        1950’s anime was the one who had the Astro Boy art style. Humans did look sorta European.

        1960’s anime often had the Astro Boy artstyle too, often changed up a bit.

        I guess you could say they still look caucasian and\or western-influenced.
        1970s anime started with the big eyed sparkly look and was more complex, it’s a bit disney influenced but not much but they still look kinda european often. It also started to bring red, brown, and blonde hair, and blue, green, grey, and amber eyes, into its Japanese characters. But unnatural colors were stuck on magical beings and cyborgs and aliens and the like.

        So I guess you still could say they look European.
        1980’s anime style was’nt really disney or western anymore but they still often had defined, European-like (or even mixed) features.

        1990’s anime tended to lose the western influence and ended up looking more like they were suppose to be Asian. There started being more anime with more unnatural-colored hair and eyes due to stuff like Sailor Moon, but they still look asian just with dyed hair and contact lenses. Some of them still look a bit mixed though.



        and then we get to the more modern styles where they don’t look like white people anymore


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