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Hollywood and Cultural Appropriation

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I generally have little patience for denunciations of “cultural appropriation” — I tend to think that appropriation is at the very heart of all culture, and absolutely intrinsic to creativity — but yesterday’s tweetstorm by artist/writer/photographer Jon Tsuei gives a sense of the complications.

Tsuei was writing about the forthcoming adaptation of the classic manga Ghost in the Shell and explaining why he doesn’t like it. After explaining that Japan in that era was a disarmed country whose identity was largely invested in technological pre-eminence, he wrote:

And therefore:

Then this final warning:

I want to take Tsuei’s argument seriously here, but I also have some questions. Let me focus on two of them.

1) Would casting Japanese, or Japanese-American, actors address any of the issues Tsuei raises? (I ask this question because much of the controversy here seems to be focused on the casting of Scarlett Johansson in the lead role.) If the actors were ethnically Japanese but the film were in English, and marketed to a Western audience, would that not be removing the story from its proper context just as much as the current adaptation-in-progress would? Is there a way to present this story to a non-Asian audience that wouldn’t, in Tsuei’s view, fundamentally “bastardize” it?

2) In light of the argument that Tsuei makes here, what should we say about Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and Ran? How would Tsuei respond to, say, a Shakespearean actor who denounced Kurosawa for wrenching the stories out of their proper context, who said, “Macbeth is inherently a British story, not a universal one … Respect the work for what it is and don’t bastardize it into what you want it to be”?

Please understand that these are not “gotcha” questions. I think one could legitimately argue that Kurosawa indicated that he was using rather than translating Shakespeare’s plays by creating his own titles and taking significant liberties with the story, and that therefore he’s not simply “bastardizing.” (In that case, would a film “based on” Ghost in the Shell but with a different title and a somewhat different story line be acceptable to Tsuei?) One could also distinguish, as Tsuei is implicitly doing, between stories that are “universal” and hence theoretically translatable into other cultures and stories that are so deeply embedded in a particular culture that they are simply incapable of translation — but how can we tell whether a given story is one or the other? Or whether some elements of it are translatable and others are not?

Again, I’m a let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom kind of guy — to use a phrase that may be untranslatable — and am not inclined to think that harm is done to any original culture or original work of art by even the schlockiest and crassest Hollywood adaptation. But Tsuei raises some fascinating issues. I hope to return to them later.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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