On Monday it was confirmed that Scarlett Johansson has signed on to star in DreamWorks’ live-action adaptation of “Ghost in the Shell,” but not all fans are embracing the news that the studio is opting for a non-Asian actress to play the lead role.
While some fans of the franchise were excited to hear the project is moving further along in development, others lamented or even satirized the decision.
“Ghost in the Shell,” based on Masamune Shirow’s manga series of the same name, is set in a fictional Japanese city and follows protagonist Major Motoko Kusanagi and members of a covert task force within the Japanese National Public Safety Commission. The task force, known as Public Security Section 9, takes on various cybercriminals in a future where the line between technology and biology is blurred.
The manga series spurred Mamoru Oshii’s landmark 1995 “Ghost in the Shell” animated film, and the expansive franchise includes a subsequent anime series, feature-length anime sequels and video games.
Johansson’s acting qualifications are not in question, especially after 2014 saw her as the title character in “Lucy,” a sci-fi action film, and reprising her role as Black Widow in the ever-expanding Marvel cinematic universe, not to mention non-human roles like the alien seductress in “Under the Skin,” as well as voicing the intelligent computer operating system Samantha in 2013’s “Her.”
However, some say Johansson’s casting is yet another example of Hollywood “whitewashing.”
“We’re seeing Hollywood continue the trend of whitewashing roles from source material that features Asian and Asian American leads while failing to provide roles for Asian American actors,” said Marissa Lee, co-founder of Racebending, a grass-roots organization that advocates for diverse media representation.
Last’s summer’s “Edge of Tomorrow,” which starred Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt, is based on the Japanese novel “All You Need Is Kill” by Hiroshi Sakurazaka. For the film, the novel’s protagonist was changed from an Asian soldier named Keiji Kiriya to a white one named William Cage, played by Cruise.
And 2010 saw M. Night Shyamalan’s controversial “The Last Airbender,” a live-action adaptation of Nickelodeon’s animated “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” The anime-inspired series was known for its depiction of Asian and Inuit culture and characters, and the film sparked protest for casting white actors to play the Asian and indigenous protagonists. Similarly, other live-action anime adaptations such as “Dragonball Evolution”(2009) and “Speed Racer”(2008) feature non-Asian lead characters.
“I think people are tired of this constantly happening,” said Guy Aoki, founding president of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, an organization dedicated to monitoring the media and advocating for balanced, sensitive and positive portrayals of Asian Americans. “It is disappointing that they cannot find an Asian person to play the lead role because Hollywood very rarely volunteers to create a project where an Asian person will be the star.”
It is because of this dearth of Asian characters in original films that members of the Asian American community are hopeful when films are adapted from source material featuring Asian and Asian American characters, Aoki said.
“A lot of people in the community look to original source material as [the justification] to cast an Asian person as the star,” Aoki said.
That Hollywood is increasingly looking towards anime and other Asian source material for adaptation is also a reason to be optimistic about diversity on the big screen.
“[An] anime’s success provides a very strong argument for someone of a non-white ethnic background to play the [lead] role,” said Lee.
While 2014 introduced moviegoers to a hero named Hiro Hamada living in the fictional hybrid metropolis San Fransokyo in “Big Hero 6” as well as Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) in the “Godzilla” reboot, there is not a long list of characters that follows. In fact, a USC study examining on-screen diversity found that in 2013, Asian characters accounted for only 4.4% of speaking roles in the top-grossing films (and that includes “47 Ronin,” a film set in medieval Japan about 47 leaderless samurai avenging their master’s death).
“Actors of color are already underrepresented, even without whitewashing,” Lee said. “When Hollywood studios like DreamWorks Pictures decide to cast white actors in existing properties [like ‘Ghost in the Shell’] that originate with characters of color, it only further reinforces the disparity in opportunity for performers of color.”
Although Kusanagi is a cyborg, as well as a character originating from manga, anime historian Charles Solomon explains that “to Japanese viewers, Major Kusanagi is Japanese because she acts like a Japanese person.”
“Westerners often mistakenly think the large eyes on some manga [and] anime characters represent an attempt to ‘look white,’ [but] it’s a convention that Osamu Tezuka began because he was influenced by early Disney and Fleischer cartoons,” Solomon said. “Also, large eyes indicate a character is sensitive.”
While the details are sparse for this adaptation of “Ghost in the Shell” because the project has yet to be greenlighted, the choice to cast Johansson and proceed with a non-Asian or Asian American actor as the lead is significant, according to Lee, because of the themes explored throughout the series.
“Ultimately, ‘Ghost in the Shell’ is a story about what makes us human,” said Lee. “Having access to powerful media representation is key for minorities to be seen as human.”
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