Ghost in the Shell and Scarlett Johansson

I feel like I am going to be courting some controversy with the post. I’ll admit that part of my writing about this is to try and clarify my own thoughts about this issue. I can easily say that when I first heard this casting choice I thought it made perfect sense. The other day the first image came out about this movie and so did several think-pieces shared through Facebook. I can certainly understand why some people are upset with this casting, but at the same time I am not sure I agree with the conclusion.


Ghost in the Shell started in 1989 as a Japanese manga written and illustrated by Masamune Shirow. It was a near-future sic-fi action story  set in Japan. One of the things that sets GitS apart is that it also features a fairly heavy philosophical edge to it. If I were to compare it to a western sci-fi movie in terms of tone I would probably go for Blade Runner crossed with Terminator. It has had numerous sequels and/or retellings in animation. The main character of Ghost in the Shell is Major Motoko Kusanagi, a female cyborg.

It is also being made in to a Hollywood movie. This movie will feature Scarlett Johansson. To some this is another clear example of a role that should have gone to an Asian actress. That it didn’t makes this movie another clear example of whitewashing. This whitewashing understandably produces anger.

What is undeniable is that whitewashing exists. If you are unclear, whitewashing is the taking of a non-white/person-of-color character and replacing them on the screen with a white person. White-washing can come in many forms (and I hope I get these terms right, as finding consensus on the internet is tough.) There is yellow face where, a white person in made to look Asian (ex. Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s). There is race bending, where an Asian role is just changed to be white (ex. the main cast of The Last Airbender for which this is named.) I’m not sure where Emma Stone in Aloha would be classed. In the movie she was said to be half-Asian, but there wasn’t any actual yellow face… Any way, it would be an example of white-washing.

There many, many examples of whitewashing. It is a thing. And it does need to go away. We should be celebrating diversity and inclusivity, not limiting featured roles that people of color are eligible for. To put it mildly, representation is important. I’m white and I’m male and I’m straight. Representation is not something I had to grow up thinking about. But I have lived in Japan for a while now and have a baby boy who is equal parts me and his mother. Both of those factors has really made me consider how important representation is and given me something new to watch for when I revisit shows and movies and comics of my childhood. A lot of them don’t stack up that well.

With all that, you might think that I am now firmly against Johansson’s casting and am clearly for an Asian actress getting the role. But I’m not. I am still fine with Johansson. Even if part of me wishes I weren’t.

Here is my reasoning.

This is an adaptation for a (largely) American audience. At this time the full details of this adaptation of still being kept rather secret. We know the cast, we know it is being filmed in New Zealand and we know it is based on Ghost in the Shell. Outside of that everything, including character names, seem to be assumptions. With that the power of the word “adaptation” keeps coming to mind.

I am assuming that this movie will be set either in the USA or the UK. I’m assuming that it will be in English. With those changes to the source material in mind, is it still necessary to cast an Asian woman? This is where I lean towards no. I can’t deny that this was a good opportunity to cast an Asian actress, but then again isn’t every movie a good opportunity to cast an Asian actress or an Asian actor? Or a black actor or actress? I just can’t see what it is about this future spy/cyborg movie that would necessitate one race over the other.

But maybe I am thinking more in terms of the in-world story rather than the real-world politics. Because, sure, storywise there might not be a reason to cast an Asian actress. But in the real world, it seems that Asian men and women (as well as other races) are blocked out of films to the point where we have Egyptian Gods being portrayed by Scots. And with that being the case maybe there is a more of a need to stick to the source material.

And if the source material was of America and featured a diverse cast then it would be a simple call. Cast it like the source material. But it is a Japanese comic where all the main parts are intended to be Japanese. And adapting and localizing that pure Japanese cast into and American cast means the races are going to change to allow more diversity. And diversity is something I think we can all agree is a good thing if the movie is going to be set in America. And the imdb page for this movie does look pretty diverse. And now I’m back to thinking about how as an adaptation it shouldn’t have to tie itself to the homogeneity of the source cast and that there is no specific story need to cast the Major as an Asian. (Although I do respect that the role needs to remain female.

But just so it can be said, this isn’t the changing of source material to allow for more diversity. When we are talking about characters from the 60’s and earlier (off the top of my head I’m thinking Jimmy Olsen, Iris West and Johnny Storm) if we don’t make those changes we will end up with an entirely white cast, and we do need more diversity than that because America is diverse. The world is diverse. Now, I still might not be convinced that Johansson’s casting was a bad thing, but I can still see the difference between changing a race from white to a PoC than the other way around. Let’s not pretend those of equal.

There are questions I wish I could ask. One if them is that if rather than Scarlett Johansson, Zoe Saldana or Lupita Nyong’o had been cast, would the change from an Asian lead still be viewed the same? Is this more about taking roles from Asians or is it more about giving roles to whites? I promise I’m not going for any trickery with this question, and I know that one person cannot speak for all, but I am curious.

This has gone on fairly long, but I do have two more point I want to add. The first is that while I have talked about the power of the adaptation, if this movie ends up being set in Japan, or if they use the name Mokoto Kusanagi, then yes, they should have just gone with an Asian actress.

The last part is coming a bit from left field. As I mentioned I’ve read a dew thinkpieces on this issue. And understandable some people are quit passionate. But one thing I do not understand is the amount of bile and anger aimed at Johansson. Agree or disagree with her casting, I think we should all be able to agree that there is no need to personally attack her. And to the authors of such pieces who do resort to attacking actresses, demeaning women is not going to be an effective way to convince me your way of thinking is proper. IT tends to do just the opposite.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s