‘Ghost in the Shell’: Scarlett Johansson casting called ‘whitewashing’

Jan. 10, 2015 | 5:00 a.m.
Actress Scarlett Johansson (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Scarlett Johansson will star in DreamWorks’ live-action “Ghost in the Shell.”  (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

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.”

Major Motoko Kusanagi from Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 film "Ghost in the Shell." (Kodansha / Bandai Visual / Manga Entertainment)

Major Motoko Kusanagi from Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 film, “Ghost in the Shell.” (Kodansha / Bandai Visual / Manga Entertainment)

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.”

– Tracy Brown | @tracycbrown | @LATHeroComplex

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Comments


75 Responses to ‘Ghost in the Shell’: Scarlett Johansson casting called ‘whitewashing’

  1. I don't even says:

    Roughly 4.8% of the US demographic are Asian alone, perhaps they are only trying to appeal to the larger white demographic. Hollywood IS a business after all and money is the name of the game, it would be prudent to design your product to the largest consumer base.

    I imagine all countries do this, just sayin'

    • Joe says:

      Sorry, that argument doesn't hold any ground. Hollywood movies make more money outside of the U.S. then in the U.S. It's one of the last things we export. Look at pretty much every Hollywood triple AAA movie in the last 5 years and you will see countries like China double or even triple the amount of revenue of that of the U.S. $50 million in the box office? Probably like $100 million in China.

      • John says:

        So, by your weak (and inaccurate) argument, every "Hollywood" movie should be cast entirely with Chinese actors.

      • akin says:

        indeed, if movies were casted based on market, then the cast should be chinese for being the biggest international market. the fact that it is not, tell us that casting "white" has nothing to do with marketshare. no it simply has to do with racism. can anyone really tell me that if a movie was to star a black person, then white will not go and watch the movie? of course not, most of will smith's fans are white so what is really going on here is a racist attitude hollywood has against non-white. and that is the truth.

        if asian are not marketable, than why even make a show call avatar? why is it popular enough to be made into a movie if it is not marketable? of course it is marketable, this unmarketable argument can only come from either a fool or a racist.

    • Except that nowadays hollywood is releasing their movies to the world, and in the world Asians outnumber any other ethnicities.

    • Charles says:

      The issue now is that most big budget films these days are global, not just in the U.S.

    • akin says:

      if that is the case, i call for my country to ban hollywood movies since according to you, they are not meant for anyone but US to watch.

    • Bill says:

      Imagine the uproar in North America if they cast Chow Yun Fat to do a Chinese remake of Batman or some other hero.

  2. Tali Adina says:

    Reblogged this on Uncanny Pop and commented:
    Via http://herocomplex.latimes.com/

  3. Summ says:

    Maybe more "people of color" should take it upon themselves to produce their own movies instead of expecting Hollywood (which is not institution created by them or for them, and shouldn't have to be) to provide them a voice in pop culture. Nobody is obligated to do any such thing for you. It's a business, not a charity. This article makes it sound as though Hollywood is the only place where movies can be produced in the world.

    • Luis says:

      Yeah, we can't force Hollywood filmmakers to 'do' anything. And there does exist alternative cinema that respects people of color (the term doesn't need quotation marks, thank you). But we still have the right to call Hollywood racist as hell. Pop culture doesn't belong to white people.

    • lana says:

      They did. It was called ghost in the shell, moron.

    • Truth says:

      Except these "businesses" are actually failing in trying to attain any success out of the cheap movies that manage to ooze its way out of their buttholes. Dragonball Evolution? Complete fail. The Last Airbender? Laughably stupid. Not even Hollywood itself accepted these movies as "acceptable", much less the fans.

      The problem isn't just the racial thing, it's a blatant disrespect for the fandom that has been built around these shows for years and years on end. When you gain the rights to this movie, you can guarantee 100% that you will gain the majority of your revenue from the fans who have followed the series since the very beginning. I am not shitting you when I say that anime fandoms are on the same level of intensity as the Harry Potter franchise, especially with anime series like Ghost in the Shell. The fact that these big-time Hollywood producers are so ignorant of this fact or don't even seem to care further proves that, in many ways, they don't understand how to capture their market. For a "business", they're making some really stupid mistakes, especially considering the majority of their viewers are not in the United States, but are in fact in Asian countries. Ironic.

      And there are industries that Asian-Americans can get into, don't worry. Many Asian media industries are rapidly developing as we speak. We only want some representation simply because we ARE Americans who do want to contribute to American cinema. Asian Americans make up 4% of the population, yet 1-2% of all film/TV characters are of Asian descent? And not even that, they're all an amalgamation of the most backwards stereotypes? I'm sorry, but these actual numbers speak more horribly about Hollywood and white America's perception about Asian Americans than Asian Americans themselves.

      And of course, there's always Youtube, where I would say that Asian Americans are represented more faithfully for who they really are, and not those cringe-worthy caricatures that many a hopeful Asian American actor is forced to play, because they are actually given the power to represent themselves just the way they are. Oh, and to top it off, the co-creator of Youtube is Asian-American. Just saying.

  4. luvstoki says:

    I wish movie directors would just respect the original source material. This goes for Japan too. I mean, look at the live-action Attack on Titan Japan is doing. Aside from a handful of characters like Mikasa, they are all descended Europeans. Eren Yeager (huge German last name), Armin Arlert, Annie Leonhart; all being portrayed by Asian actors. it's not just Hollywood that "whitewashes". I don't like the casting choice for GITS either, I think an Asian actress would have been way better, but don't turn it into a race issue, being that Japan does the SAME THING to its own manga that are going to the big screen. Pot! Kettle! Black! This is simply a lack of respect to the original source material.

    • Luis says:

      That's true, but Hollywood has an influence that extends around the world. Not that Japan doesn't, but Hollywood's whitewashing has a much more powerful effect on overall representation in film because it is consumed by more people. Furthermore, Japanese filmmakers filling European roles with Asian actors doesn't have the same kind of power and history that Hollywood whitewashing does. Like the article suggested, white actors always get cast in leading roles, so why should they also have the Asian leading roles as well? White supremacy, that's why. So while I'm not excusing Japan's film industry, Hollywood's whitewashing is a much larger problem, and racism is at fault.

    • Rachel Newman says:

      Well it's a bit harder to find US actors who speak fluent Japanese than it is to find Asian actors who speak fluent English. Lots of Japanese Americans who are actors, not many American's living in Japan who are also actors.

      • amir says:

        And how do u know this? Ive seen plenty of americans and other white westerners speaking japanese on japanse teli just fine.

    • Black Betty says:

      Yeah, like Annie, and Fantastic Four and the Kingpin and Nick Fury! Respect the source material!!!

  5. Raymond says:

    this is the 21st century we dont need big names to sell a movie, the story itself is what sells a movie

    • Marco says:

      Not true at all sadly. Big names get people interested in things they may not have been. Ask Angelina Jolie how it works.

  6. TEDL says:

    Great article!

  7. Happy says:

    Sure, this makes news, but nobody is allowed to criticize casting casting non-white actors for white characters because that’s racist.

    I advocate for diversity in movies, etc. but these double standards have to stop.

    • angryblonde says:

      Which movies are you referring to where non-white actors are cast in white roles? Do tell.

      • Jay says:

        The new Annie Movie

      • Kristen says:

        Mokoto Kusanagi is the face of Japan. Her ethnicity is still japanese since she was a child made into a cyborg through technology. It makes no sense for someone who identifies themselves as japanese, culturally Japanese, walking around as a white woman instead of a japanese woman. Especially when she could change her body whenever she wants to.

        Annie takes place in the 21 century. The story has been changed. Mr.Warbucks isnt even in it. The new Annie has not erased the 1900's Annie's. And Please tell me how Annie in the 21 century having a darker skin tone effects the story. I'll wait.

      • nuk0byaj says:

        Annie, Charlie’s Angels (one of them), Daredevil, Amazing Spider-Man 2, upcoming fantastic 4, plenty more if you, you know, ACTUALLY LOOK

  8. wtf81 says:

    Then make the movies yourselves, if you complain about who gets the role. They recast Annie to be black. Where are the Gingers protesting at? They recast Jonny Storm to be black in the new Fantastic Four. If your not happy dont watch it. That will show the studios that not staying true to the source material is not right.

  9. critic says:

    sigh should have cast cobie smulders – she's taller. as long as ron perlman plays batou then i may see it

  10. smith says:

    this movie will be a huge hit
    such a great way to introduce it to new audiences

  11. Allan says:

    More anti-white bigotry.

    • Luis says:

      Try living with the history of systematic oppression, slavery, discrimination, and mass murder that continues today in many forms and affects people of color every day, and then maybe you could understand why people roll their eyes when they hear a white person complain about 'bigotry'.

      • Sue says:

        Ever been called white trash by anyone. Time for all of us to move on and on. Some of us have heard all of this before from both sides. Life is hard for all of us at times. Move forward and work together to solve dilemmas without name calling and we all benefit. Just saying…

      • John says:

        As if YOU'VE experienced any of these things. It's absurd to think that a white person is immune to racism or bigotry. I consider myself a liberal, but that's just extreme left BS.

  12. No thank you says:

    Since she is Jewish, isn't she technically Asian?

  13. BOB says:

    I absolutely agree,there should be an Asian lead,in this movie,I have watched all of the"GHOST IN THE SHELL" anime series and movies,it is only right that a Japanese person should play the lead,after all,IT IS BASED ON JAPANESE CULTURE AND CUSTOMS! HELLO!!

  14. meme says:

    Grow up people…. Johansson got the part because she is a skilled actress with big time name recognition. The only Asian actress I can think of with bigger star appeal is Lucy Lui… and she is busy with a role that was written for a white guy.

    BTW … where was the public outcry over that? About the only thing anyone really complained about was that she wasn't a BRITISH Asian chick.

    • Jay says:

      Johansson skilled? She can’t act her way out of a paper bag.

      Seriously, why are people justifying this when they have a meltdown over the casting in Exodus: Gods and Kings? It’s hypocritical.

    • Truth says:

      I highly doubt that Lucy Liu is the ONLY Asian American actress in the United States. Have you seen the theater schools in California and New York? You think the majority of those Asian-American girls are taking on thousands of dollars of debt just for fun? Or if that's too much of a risk for those big-shot Hollywood movie directors, how about going on Youtube and looking at the numerous Asian-American female celebrities with hundreds of thousands to millions of subscribers and fans? What about Olivia Thai? Arden Cho? These girls have proved their acting/singing chops in multiple works that are all available for the public to see.

      At some point, one can't deny that it's not the source material or human capital that is the problem–it's the people at Hollywood who would rather stick with casting a well-known white American actress instead of an Asian American actress, even though there are many talented actresses with a decent fan following to ensure a healthy revenue stream. You might have made a fair argument if we were in 1954. But it's 2014, bud. Lighten up.

      • R124C41+ says:

        I would also throw in Rinko Kikuchi (Pacific Rim) and Rila Fukushima (The Wolverine, Arrow) and Devon Aoki (Sin City), or go out on a limb and cast an unknown

      • Dusty says:

        The movie's set in the USA, not Japan, so they're going to be casting somebody American to play the role. Granted, they should have used a woman of color, but it's going to be an American-born one if at all.

        Really, everybody, the die is cast, the roles casted-it's kind of late for everybody to be whining about this unless they're involved in the film industry, or are executives at DreamWorks. Maybe instead of constantly protesting, the protesters should be working at getting into the industry and changing it from within.

  15. Jim says:

    Stories get adapted for new audiences. Be happy it was picked up despite your issues with the performer's race not being the one you want in he role. Annie is black this year.

    • Luis says:

      The 'new' audience can handle a Japanese actress in the role. White people, like the article states, have plenty of white leading actors in film, and a film shouldn't be white-washed to be 'adapted for a new audience', because that means there would be something inherently wrong for an audience to see a Japanese actress over a white one. This is a Japanese franchise, and that shouldn't be compromised.

  16. Mark says:

    Well, she is half Ashkenazi Jewish, so I wouldn't call her white really. More people crying about something that really does not affect them. Pretty sure there are more important "causes" out there to support.

    • Dusty says:

      There are a lot of the,, but people continue to waste time being perpetually poutraged at what goes on in a movie.

    • Joe says:

      @Mark, so minorities should be discriminated and not allowed to be told their own stories and that the result is Hollywood is benefiting by discrimination/racism? That's crying about nothing…really??

  17. JoPoL says:

    Just hope the movie is as good as the original, who ever it is a the lead. Why and who cares what color the skin, just do justice to the script.

  18. Diana says:

    Surprise, Surprise… what else is new?

  19. mike s. says:

    If Scarlett's acting in Ghost in the Shell will be anything like Under The Skin, I'll skip it. That's like the top 5 worst movie I've ever partially seen because I couldn't even make through 30 minutes of it. Very few people liked it because it was a deep thinker's movie, but there's nothing deep about it and she should bury that movie deep inside the closet. 10 years down the road, if she's asked what's the worst movie she's ever done, Under The Skin would probably be it.

    • @Neville6000 says:

      You're in the minority on that one; most critics though that the movie and ScarJo was the best of 2014. Have you got anybody that's better? And you better hope that they're bankable, and good at acting.

    • Mike Vee says:

      Under the Skin was one of the least enjoyable movies I have ever seen. Only 5 minutes of it was interesting. I would prefer an Asian actor for the Ghost in the Shell role.

  20. Brandon W. says:

    My complaint is that there are better actresses in Hollywood who could fill the role of the Major (this is coming from a guy who's watch the original movie, the Stand Alone Complex series, and the more recent Arise prequels). One who could fill this role perfectly is Ming-Na Wen. If you've seen her in Agents of Shield, she's doing almost the exact same thing as what would be required for the role of Motoko Kusanagi.__Kusanagi's character requires a certain kind of stoicism that is more masculine, but still convincing

  21. nobahdee says:

    Scarlett is jewish , not white.

  22. anon says:

    What should matter is if the story is well written, if the actor play their roles well and are believable to the audience. I believe Johansson was cast for the lead because she plays the action heroine quite well and is rather popular. So they're probably hoping she draws in fans.

  23. IHateRacists says:

    Its not even a real person, its a fictional cybernetic organism. It can be whatever ethnicity they want it to be. Deal with it.

  24. Guest says:

    If James Bond can be black, why can't an anime character be white? Folks are a little too hung up on skin color, I think. Good luck for both Idris and Scarlett.

    • Kristen says:

      Tell me why you believe a black british man doesnt exist? You do know that the man they were looking at for James bond IS BRITISH right?

  25. Milquetoast says:

    As much as I love Scarlett, this decision must be reversed.
    There are quite a few Asian actresses who can pull off this
    part and Hollywood knows this. They're just too lazy.
    Interest in anime projects is encouraging, until every single
    lead part goes to a "bankable" white person. Then the pain
    sets in and Asians will get the picture.
    Stop being stupid and gutless, Hollywood. Grow up.

    • @Neville6000 says:

      The decision's' not going to be reversed; I think that YOU should grow up. This is a movie, and you're throwing a childish temper tantrum over who's going to be cast in it? This is one of the reasons why people are dismissive of millenials.

  26. StopWithWhiteGuilt says:

    Well if this movie is being 'whitewashed' then the new Star Wars is being 'blackwashed'.

    Seriously, I called that Lupita Nyongo would be in the new Star Wars film the SECOND I learned JJ Abrams was doing the film. Not only was I spot on, but the lead character is also a black man.

    Lead anime characters almost always look white/European anyways, and Kusanagi is no exception.

    Tired of constantly having to shove as many non whites into Hollywood movies to appease anti-white racists.

  27. Erik says:

    Bad choice in casting. Certain scenes in this movie will require a woman more in shape, borderline ripped. The alternative neo-punk aspect of the original anime also is not captured in this casting. They need to reconsider casting Scarlett in this role.

  28. Jay says:

    I hate Scarlett Johansson. She’s overrated, boring and lazy as an actress.

    But my dislike of her isn’t the reason I find this choice awful. Not only is it showing blatant disregard for race, and the original content itself, but it’s declining the opportunity for an up and comer to prove themselves in Hollywood. Casting Johansson in an action movie is starting to grow cliche. Hell, there are established Asian actresses currently in the system. Rinko Kikuchi, Jamie Chung. They could easily play this part.

    But no, once again the studio screws it up. We have Johansson preparing to ruin another movie for me. And she’s bringing Rupert Sanders and Avi Arad along for the ride. I’m sticking to the original anime.

  29. TheDarkOne says:

    Looking at all of these excuses people come up with to justify Hollywood white washing over Asians is just hilarious. Whenever they decide to make James Bond and Captain America black, I am gonna think back to articles like this and laugh my ass off twice as hard as I am now. Just saying.

  30. Ron says:

    %4.4 of top grossing films? I wonder, what kind of numbers do films with Asian leads pull? Are they top grossers?

  31. John says:

    Has anyone considered how many American films, featuring caucasian characters, have been remade in foreign countries and feature actors of that country's nationality? I recently watched a modern South Korean movie that was a direct rip-off (er, I mean remake) of The Towering Inferno, and, shockingly, there wasn't a single white person in the entire movie. Where's all the indignation over that? It's unfortunate how America has always been the patsy for the entire world's woes.

  32. guest says:

    if we are going to go with a non-asian chick I vote for Kate Beckinsale

  33. DannySteen says:

    I like Johansson but I am tired of the same people getting the same roles. I would like to see someone new and not another award show favorite either. There has to be some good talent out there somewhere. The reason Hollywierd goes with big names is because they cannot write a good story anymore. Heavy CGI and lots of flash bang and who cares about story. I am afraid as a Ghost in the Shell fan the story will be worse than bad.

  34. zarachiron says:

    This really sucks! And is so typical, but –

    Asia only has itself to blame, as do Africans and black people in similar situations.

    If we the MARKET feel a certain kind a way about how these films are produced then we should NOT support them when they are released.

    And eventually, hollywood, and other racist influencers from magazines to tv stations will wisen up.

    It is like black hair products. Big hair brands have started to produce things for natural hair when they saw that many black women were starting to move away from their hair straightening nonsense and even create their own products at home.

    It is money that talks where basic human decency fails.
    And we the market have the power to influence the market.

    If Asians are outraged then they need to better support their own productions and not sell the production rights to their artistic property to racist hollywood.

    I never saw avatar the airbender and I absolutely adored that cartoon.
    But I just could not take the blatant racism in the casting. I just couldn't.
    Although, I am sure over half of everyone who criticised it still went to see it.

    I also think that is it hypocritical that there are indeed many Caucasian looking characters in Japanese anime – even wit Western names (and yes I'm talking about the original Japanese versions not the dubs).

    I do not buy that quotation about being "disney inspired" – what does that even really mean?
    That is not the message that the world reads. I have hear so many caucasian people arrogantly talk about how Japanese anime resembles them more than it resembles the Japanese themselves – and this always made me uncomfortable.

    However, on another note, I myself am glad that I have slowly started seeing more cool black drawn characters as in Japanese anime (like bleach and naruto). As a fan, that makes me smile :)

    If this world is going to evolve people need to stop complaining about injustice without letting their actions back them up.

    PS: I won't be seeing this movie either d'ailleurs.

  35. bred and butter says:

    I see George Clooney being cast to play Marin Luther King in his movie. Tropic Thunder wasn't lying.

  36. Hitomi Oguchi says:

    we dont want a brainless Ghost in the Shell action movie.Casting Scarlett Johansson as major Motoko Kusanagi is WRONG!(>_<)

  37. Seriously people? Colour her hair black, and you're done, no?

  38. Mira says:

    I am laughing my ass off reading the excuse some people use to justified the casting of Scarlett.As, someone write, she should not watch it. I am not going to watch ghost in shell and I didn’t watch exodus.

    By the way you should on YouTube the reaction of people because Japan made “” Attack on Titan” and only cast Japanese for the movie. The same kind of people who don’t see how wrong it is for Scarlett to be cast are now crying because Japan only cast Japanese.

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