Here’s an unexpected bit of synchronicity: the first concrete news of a live-action Pokémon movie has arrived the same day as the first photo from the upcoming live-action take on Ghost in the Shell. Both are towering icons of ‘90s Japanese pop culture, sparking waves of sequels, spin-offs, and merchandise. Both have long been courted by Hollywood studios who know a lucrative fan base when they see one. And both are really fucking Japanese.
Of course, anyone who’s been paying attention today knows that last part has been causing a bit of consternation. You see, Ghost in the Shell’s lead is Scarlett Johansson. She’s a great actor and a dab hand at action scenes, but she’s also really fucking not-Japanese. Like, not at all. Not even a little. Just as not-Japanese as Emma Stone is not-Hawaiian.
Because this is 2016 and we’re not fucking idiots, this has caused some concern. Especially in the wake of similar scandals for Aloha, Exodus, Gods of Egypt, Stonewall, Pan, and probably a shitload more. Hollywood loves white people, and it loves putting white people at the center of its films, even if that makes no sense. It feels like a small miracle that Indian-American actor Neel Sethi nabbed the title role in the new Jungle Book remake when Disney probably had thousands of white kids to pick from.
Right, got on a bit of a morally outraged tangent there. The point is, there might actually be an actual, real, live-action Pokémon film on the way from Hollywood. Apparently there’s a ‘bidding war’ at play between Warner Bros., Sony, and Legendary for the rights. It doesn’t look like anyone has yet suggested resolving this with, y’know, a Pokémon tournament, so let me be the first: please can we resolve this with a live-streamed Pokémon tournament between major Hollywood execs? Pretty please?
The Hollywood Reporter notes that there could be “a stir” if the Chinese-owned Legendary takes on the rights, given the not-always-friendly relations between China and Japan, but there’s no mention of the fact that this is essentially just one more Asian property for Hollywood to come along and white-ify for American audiences.
Sure, I suspect the Pokémon themselves are mostly safe from whitewashing concerns (Do they have races? Is there a slur for Pokémon?) but what about the rest of the Pokémon universe? Red, Blue, and Yellow are set in a place called Kanto – a name inspired, Wikipedia insists, by the conveniently named Kantō region of Japan. Subsequent games similarly drew on pockets of the Japanese peninsula, though at least had the good grace to create imaginary names.
If you want to get knee-deep into Poké-nerdery (and who doesn’t every once in a while?) you might point out that Black and White’s Unova region was modeled on New York City, while X and Y drew on France for inspiration. This is both true and irrelevant – do you really think any live-action, American-produced Poké epic is going to draw on anything other than the adventures of Ash Ketchum and Pikachu? Bollocks.
A lot of the discussion around Ghost in the Shell has revolved around the fact that its universe is emblematic of a certain prominent part of Japanese pop culture, playing both on the country’s unique relationship with technology towards the end of the 20th century and its long-standing philosophical traditions. Could any less be said of Pokémon?
Not so much the musing on the nature of existence perhaps (though there’s an article idea…), but Pokémon is one of the strongest symbols out there of Japan’s ‘90s gaming dominance, its continued drive for all things kawaii, its painstaking obsession with inventing some really weird shit. It’s as Japanese as sushi and sex robots, and we’re about to introduce it to Hollywood, the cultural equivalent of that grandparent you feel uncomfortable introducing your mixed-race girlfriend to.
I guess what I’m asking (and I can’t quite believe it either), is this: will 2016 be the year of the great Pokémon race scandal?