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Why is Scarlett Johansson’s Ghost in the Shell casting so problematic?

The latest instance in Hollywood’s long history of casting white people as non-white characters.
Scarlett Johanson Ghost In The Shell

Last week, the first photo of Scarlett Johansson as Ghost in the Shell’s Major Motoko Kusanagi appeared online, sparking a considerable negative response. Internet outrage over movie casting decisions is nothing new — Batfleck, anyone? — but the negativity surrounding Johansson’s casting has a special aspect to it due to the simple fact that Johansson, a white woman, is playing Kusanagi, a Japanese character, in a Hollywood adaptation of a critically acclaimed Japanese manga and anime franchise.

While Johansson is certainly a fine actress, with both arthouse and blockbuster bonafides to her name, this is just the latest in a long history of Hollywood “whitewashing,” i.e., hiring white actors and actresses to portray non-white characters. How long of a history, you ask? In 1961, Mickey Rooney played the broadly stereotypical I. Y. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And before that, the character of Charlie Chan — though originally intended to be a positive Asian character — was usually portrayed by non-Asian actors including Warner Oland and Roland Winters. More recent examples include the The Last Airbender, Dragonball Evolution, and Emma Stone’s character in Aloha.

There are arguments made for whitewashing but they usually come down to dollars. Essentially, Hollywood execs cast a white actress like Johansson because they’re afraid that an Asian actress won’t possess the name appeal to bring in audiences. It’s a business decision, and while there’s a certain logic to that, it’s no less unfortunate in this day and age where the film industry and pop culture have grown increasingly global. But it’s doubly unfortunate in the case of Hollywood adaptations like Ghost in the Shell and the long-in-development-hell adaptation of Akira — both being American adaptations of beloved Japanese titles.

When I first started getting into anime, some of the best advice I ever read was to remember that I am not its primary audience. Anime is made, first and foremost, with Japanese audiences in mind, and their particular social, cultural, and historical contexts. (Admittedly, this may be changing somewhat as anime has grown in worldwide popularity, but I think it still stands as a guiding principle.) As an American, I’m anime’s secondary audience, and I need to keep that in mind when evaluating a particular title. I can’t so easily write it off as “good” or “bad” without understanding some of the context in which it’s been created. Not doing so is, in essence, unfair to the title, those who made it, and even the broader Japanese culture.

Titles like Ghost in the Shell and Akira are more than just action-packed cyberpunk sci-fi titles; they are deeply Japanese stories that evolved out of a very particular context and speak about issues unique to the culture. In a series of tweets, comic book writer Jon Tsuei laid out why, from an Asian perspective, the Hollwood-ification of Ghost in the Shell is problematic.

It’s easy for Hollywood to see some “hot” title as yet another potential money-maker at the box office. But at their heart, movies are stories — and stories matter to the people telling them and the intended audience. Every culture has stories that are important to them, even stories that feature cyborgs, hackers, and artificial intelligences. And I think it behooves us all to take a second and think about where the stories we enjoy come from and what they’re trying to say to their people.

This was a critical lesson I learned in my art history classes as we studied art created by folks centuries ago for audiences now long-gone. There seemed little to appreciate in old art beyond how a piece looked or how it made me feel when I looked at it — when I consumed it. But learning more about the original audience as well as the artworks’ social/cultural/historical contexts actually made me appreciate them more, and even made them more relevant. I was no longer consuming; I was understanding. As it goes with with art from 16th century Europe, so it goes with 20th century manga and anime.

One argument that I’ve seen against what Tsuei tweeted is that, within the Ghost in the Shell universe, it’s entirely possible that Kusanagi — being 99% cybernetic — would be able to change her appearance to any ethnicity. In other words, in a hyper-technological future like the one depicted in Ghost in the Shell, a concept like ethnicity is largely meaningless. As such, there shouldn’t be any problem with Kusanagi having a Caucasian appearance.

To be fair, this idea does touch on some interesting notions concerning technology’s impact on human culture and society. There’s also some precedent for it within the Ghost in the Shell universe. (Kusanagi’s consciousness is transferred into a child-like body at the end of the original Ghost in the Shell movie, for example.) But I still find it a bit hard to swallow.

Within Ghost in the Shell, the concept of Japanese-ness is still important and issues concerning Japan as a nation and how it, as a people, responds to crises serve as important plot points. Or, to put it another way, Ghost in the Shell doesn’t really depict a post-ethnic world; borders and nationalities are still important, it’s still very much concerned with Japan and its people, and it still comes at issues concerning technology from a distinctly Japanese point of view.

Would a sci-fi film depicting technologically-enhanced individuals switching between ethnicities, genders, and other usual human distinctions be interesting? It certainly could be, but somehow, I doubt that Hollywood’s Ghost in the Shell is using Johansson’s casting as a way to be that imaginative, or to explore such thorny-yet-fascinating philosophical issues. I wouldn’t mind being surprised on that angle by the filmmakers, but I suspect we’re still left with Hollywood’s cynical notion that non-white actors and actresses can’t be trusted to bring in box office dollars. (Don’t believe me? Well, the movie’s producers did experiment with trying to make the film’s white actors look more Asian in lieu of hiring actual Asian actors/actresses.)

Ghost in the Shell is a fantastic series with lots of great story-telling potential; it’s one of the best examples of anime for thinking adults. And as a long-time fan of anime and Japanese pop culture, there’s a part of me that wants more Americans to become familiar with the rich, cutting edge stories found in Japanese pop culture. But not like this. No offense to Johansson, but Ghost in the Shell is such an intriguing story full of provocative questions concerning technology and identity that casting her feels like the easy way out… or an opportunity lost.

Rinko Kikuchi as the good Major? I can’t help but wonder what might’ve been.

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