Whitewashing in the movie adaptations of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea

Way to break with the fluff and glitz of my posts up until now with that headline, huh?
Well, I called this blog “Me, all over the place” because I wanted to talk about things that run through my head. Ursula K. Le Guin is one of those things people, and so is racism.
Initially I intended to post a whole essay that I wrote on this topic for university. I think it’s good and I think it’s relevant, but I am also apprehensive, because I’m not sure if I shouldn’t be looking for other ways of publication, plus, I ultimately figured that probably hardly anyone would flip through 31 pages of academic rambling and a lot more people would settle for running with me through my markedly less academic rant here.

Before I start off, let’s all remember that it is me, a white, German man writing this. I say this to remind everyone that one of the reasons people might even bother to read it is because I am in the privileged position that people assume I have an objective approach to the subject, because it’d affect me only peripherally. That’s not true, it affects me as much as anyone else (though in a way that puts me in a position of white-western privilege) and there is no way that people approach the subject a hundred percent objective in the first place. Also, I try to not be insensitive about terms and identities but out of sheer ignorance stemming from lack of experience it might happen. I wish for you to point it out to me and would like to apologize in advance.

I will use the terms “race” and “racial background” in this essay although I am aware that there are no differing human “races”. Nevertheless the term refers to a powerful concept in that it functions as the label for social constructions, all the while disguising these (hierarchy-producing) constructions with biologist categorization. “Race,” as a social concept refers primarily to skin-color and a variety of physical features (although the concept has further implications about “purity of blood,“ and crap like that). I welcome all respectful contributions and discussions in the comments to problematize these terms and concepts further.

© by Marian Wood Kolisch, via ursulakleguin.com

The Earthsea-series, written by the very popular Ursula K. Le Guin, consists of seven short stories, two of them published before any Earthsea novel was written, the other five all being part of the 2001 publication Tales from Earthsea, and five novels. The first three novels are called A Wizard of Earthsea (1969), The Tombs of Atuan (1971) and The Farthest Shore (1972). Le Guin was approached by her publisher to write one or more novels targeted at an audience of young adults in the genre of fantasy. She drew upon her two short stories The Word of Unbinding (published first 1964 in the January issue of Fantastic) and The Rule of Names (published first 1964 in the April issue of Fantastic) to further explore Earthsea, the world she created for these two.
While the first three Earthsea novels soon came to be considered en par with fantasy classics such as the Lord of the Rings and the Narnia novels, they have also been criticized by feminist critics, for they feature mainly male protagonists and delegate the power to the men, while rendering mainly isolated male wizard characters as wise. This changed when Le Guin opened the second trilogy of Earthsea with the 1990 publication of Tehanu. The feminist tone of Tehanu, expressed in the focus on women’s lives in Earthsea’s society. Tales from Earthsea was published in 2001 and features the stories The Finder, Darkrose and Diamond, The Bones of the Earth, On the High Marsh and the article A Description of Earthsea. Le Guin herself intended the last story, Dragonfly, to be the link between Tehanu and The Other Wind, the last novel of Earthsea, also published in 2001.

“My color scheme was conscious and deliberate from the start. I didn’t see why everybody in science fiction had to be a honky named Bob or Joe or Bill. I didn’t see why everybody in heroic fantasy had to be white” – Le Guin 2004

Although admittedly writing in a fantasy tradition that draws upon Nordic myths that usually accepts being white as the norm, Le Guin refused to adhere to this norm and decided for her Earthsea-series (but also for most of her other works) to establish protagonists of color.
Le Guin herself admits to didactic intentions, claiming that she expected her reading audience to be mainly white American adolescents who might have had some trouble identifying with Earthsea’s main protagonist Ged, which is why she chose to present his skin-color only after readers would already have eased themselves “into Ged’s skin” before realizing that “it wasn’t a white one” (- Le Guin 2004).
Even though we can also find somewhat problematic depictions of ethnicity (in itself a problematic term) in Earthsea that are not explicitly addressed by Ursula K. Le Guin, she acknowledges the fact that her presentation of non-white characters could be perceived as being problematic. She states that she is “intensely conscious of the risk of cultural or ethnic imperialism—a white writer speaking for nonwhite people, co-opting their voice,” and that she knows that this can be considered to constitute “an act of extreme arrogance” (- Le Guin 2004).

Earthsea, anime and racial representation

The Japanese film adaptation of Earthsea was produced by Studio Ghibli, famous throughout the World for Oscar-winning movies such as Spirited Away and nominees like Howl’s Moving Castle, and Princess Mononoke. All of these were directed by Miyazaki Hayao, one of the Co-founders of Studio Ghibli and it was him who expressed an interest in producing and directing an animated version of the first three Earthsea novels in the early 1980s. But it was not until July 29 2006 that a movie adaptation called Gedo Senki (Ged’s War Chronicles) saw a theatrical release, later released outside Japan with the English title Tales from Earthsea. This movie however was not directed by Miyazaki Hayao due to his time restraints, being involved in the production of Howl’s Moving Castle, a fact that Ursula K. Le Guin bemoans on her official homepage, since she initially agreed to the production based on her admiration for his earlier work. Instead of Miyazaki Hayao his son Miyazaki Gorō directed the film. Gedo Senki reached the Nr. 1 position of the Japanese Box Office in its opening week and held this spot for five non-consecutive weeks. It wasn’t a big commercial success abroad and still has not been released in the U.S. due to Sci-Fi Channel still holding the rights for the Earthsea novels there.

We can often encounter human bodies that transgress their biological boundaries in anime, e.g. by incorporating technology into the body and becoming or creating a Cyborg. Susan Napier in her 2005 book “Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle. Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation” observes that

“what animation can do to the human body is one of the most interesting and provocative aspects of the medium. Anime representations of the human figure range across an extraordinary variety of types (and archetypes), implicitly promising a vast range of fictional identities for the viewer to revel in.”

It is therefore interesting to look at how the human body is represented in anime in terms of skin-color, and there is a startling observation to be made. Anime characters do not look specifically Japanese, but in fact very white-western. Most characters are white, meaning they exhibit fair skin, often with blond or light brunette hair. Susan Napier argues that these body types are neither Japanese nor Western but rather “anime-style”-bodies that display the notion of mukokuseki, being stateless, and refers to statements, that Japanese try to de-Japanize the anime characters in order to create an alternative world that serves escapist tendencies or underlines the incongruence with Japanese reality. By referring to these character-types as “postethnic” (especially with regard to dystopian fantasies of future worlds) she also points at their hybrid nature, the result of merging ethnic and racial identities within the course of time. Nevertheless many Japanese anime, even in futuristic settings, still stress Japanese cultural practices and traditions. She claims that it is this Otherness, that is neither Japanese nor Western, in relation to familiar cultural settings, that allows Japanese audiences (but to some extent also other, especially Western, audiences) to explore their identities without the constraining boundaries of realistic depiction. The anime style is considered to produce characters that work as a projection surface with features that render them human,
If we examine the characters in Gedo Senki bearing all this in mind, it is striking to see how conventional the protagonists are depicted in this cultural context of anime production. Apart from the villain Cob, who turns out to be a wizard of uncanny power, who was transformed by the evil that possesses him in his search for eternal life, all the other main characters exhibit neither surprising hair-colors nor exaggerated eyes. Their hair colors range from brown to blonde and their skin exhibits different shades of what could be called white. Even with regards to “extras”, characters that appear for only a few moments in scenes that take place in cities or villages, there are no characters who deviate from this color-scheme.
The extraordinary potential of anime in the production of human bodies that transgress at least national stereotypes and at most the human form itself is only used in Gedo Senki to render the antagonist as non-human, or beyond human. But it does in no way disrupt the patterns of perception of its viewers by introducing characters of a different racial background. Although the characters might not be Japanese, as their target audience, they nevertheless exhibit common anime-style conventions of depiction that make them easily identifiable and easily consumable – even if the movie is watched in so-called Western nations.
It seems that in the process of adaptation, the dealing with the issue of skin-color was dismissed in favor of presenting characters that were easy to identify with and believable in a setting of a somewhat medieval high-culture. And obviously the decision had been made that characters of color would not be able to be believable in this setting or achieve identification. To pick up on Ursula K. Le Guin’s critique, not only has the evil potential within human beings been externalized in the movie, but also the problematic issue of skin-color, to the extent, that it only becomes an issue external of the movie for those who are interested in it, but not within the context of the film where this issue was obviously considered to be too unsettling for an (Japanese and/or white-western) audience.
Even if the filmmakers would have kept their choice of not problematizing the issue of race and color in their movie, they still could have depicted all of the characters to be black, but they obviously chose not too. If they had, they would have been able to place characters, who are usually not considered for heroic deeds in the Japanese context, at the centre of an heroic tale and call into question not only stereotyping processes in the individual viewer, but also the foundations of power assumed and wielded in human societies.

Earthsea, U.S.-American television and whitewashing

Earthsea was picked up by the Sci Fi Channel and produced as a miniseries consisting of two parts that run each for approximately one and a half hours. Sci Fi Channel (by now named SyFy Channel) is a cable channel in the U.S. that, as the name already suggests, airs mainly series and movies in the genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror.

Le Guin does not express any delight in seeing the reworking of her material in the way it happened in the miniseries, explaining that she feels unable to make any sense of the narrative the way it is presented now in the films and calls the overall product a “generic McMagic movie with a meaningless plot based on sex and violence” (- Le Guin 2004). She makes clear that she had not been involved in the writing or the production process, although she had wished to and communicated this wish to the producers. She claims to have been infuriated by comments made by one of the film’s producers, when he talked about what her intent with the books had been and how the production would have been faithful to that intent. She equates the situation with imagining The Lord of Rings ending with Frodo putting on the Ring and ruling happily ever after in the movie versions and how the producers could have stated that they were just trying to be faithful to Tolkien’s intentions.

One of the miniseries producers, Robert Halmi, stated in an interview that

Legend of Earthsea, the miniseries, was cast completely colorblind, as any of my productions have been. We searched for the right actors for the roles and brought in diversity to the cast as a result. There was no decision to make Ged blond and pale-skinned.”

Halmi’s exclamation is very problematic, in that it does not take structural racism within society, culturally ingrained prejudices and Hollywood conventions, supposedly based on market logic, into account. He claims that diversity of the cast is a result of the principle of “color-blindness”, yet fails to elaborate in how far diversity can be observed in a film that features almost exclusively white actors, with only one central character being black (and few others of the same skin-color) and another being “somewhat” Asian-American. Diversity in the sense of a multicolored cast could also have been achieved by sticking to the novels’ color-scheme. But this sort of diversity was obviously dismissed for white protagonists that fit well into the color-scheme of white-western prime-time television series and action movies.
The miniseries tries to produce an image of multiraciality by featuring Danny Glover in the role of mentoring wizard Ogion. But as Ursula K. Le Guin expressed in her critique of the films, his skin-color seems arbitrary and odd, raising questions as to where his character comes from, living among villagers and seemingly a whole people that is exclusively white.
This blindness to one’s own color can then be extended to the character Ogion within the filmic narrative, where the difference in skin-color is never problematized or even addressed, neither by his character nor any of the others. He does not “cover” himself here, but passes because of his status as “white dark man”, his character being non-white but nevertheless morally incorruptible and of admirable wisdom which grants him the status as an honorary white person. Under closer scrutiny all characters of color appearing in the miniseries prove to be less a sign for a multiracial society than for ornamental use of token skin-colors in order to heighten the exotic and fantastic flavor of the narrative targeted at a white audience that seeks – much like the Japanese with the anime-style characters as mentioned above – to avoid its own national identity in a fantasy realm without really leaving the social norms and conventions that govern this national identity and space.

The unconventional rendering of Le Guins protagonists as being people of color has neither been translated into the U.S. television version nor to the Japanese anime version. Although both adaptations claim to have given thought to the issue and to have come to the conclusion that the allegedly multicolored casts in the films represented the best solution to the issue, my impression is that both production teams have dealt with the issue only to the extent that they arrived at the decision to dismiss it by eradicating most traces of being non-white in principal characters with only a few token exceptions. They abandoned the concept of presenting heroes of color, a step that would have been challenging to production and casting norms in both U.S.-American television and depiction of human bodies in Japanese anime, in favor of a seemingly safer way, that transforms racially subversive characters into white (here standing for both western-white in U.S. tradition and Japanese appearance, that nurtures an ideal appearance modeled after “western looks”) characters in order to cater to a white mass audience that is thought to be constituting the targeted markets. The sad outcome of this white-centered market logic is that it cannot give any insight into how successful a version with protagonists of color would have been – we obviously have to wait for future adaptations that decide to take more courageous steps.

“Not to choose, these days, is a choice made. All fiction has ethical, political, and social weight, and sometimes the works that weigh the heaviest are those apparently fluffy or escapist fictions whose authors declare themselves ‘above politics,’ ‘just entertainers,’ and so on.” (Le Guin, quoted after Elisabeth Anne Leonard(1997): “Into Darkness Peering” – Race and Color in the Fantastic)

If you haven’t read Earthsea yet, I highly recommend you to do so!

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