Another Side to the GHOST IN THE SHELL 'Whitewashing' Casting Controversy

Still from "Ghost In The Shell"
Credit: Paramount Pictures / DreamWorks Pictures
'Ghost in the Shell' Anime poster.
'Ghost in the Shell' Anime poster.

There has been online controversy among some American fans about the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the lead character in Paramount's live action Ghost In The Shell film, which is based on the manga and anime of the same name, as Ghost In The Shell was originally set in Japan and featured characters originally intended to be Japanese.

Some fans say the casting constitutes "whitewashing," casting a white actor in the role of an originally non-white character. While those fans have been up in arms, the reaction among some Japanese fans has been markedly different. The Hollywood Reporter reports that, though many Japanese fans would prefer a Japanese actress in the role, their attitude is better characterized as resignation and expectation, and even surprise at the controversy. 

"Looking at her career so far, I think Scarlett Johansson is well cast," Sam Yoshiba, director of the international business division at Kodansha, the Japanese publisher that licensed Ghost In The Shell to Paramount, told THR. "She has the cyberpunk feel. And we never imagined it would be a Japanese actress in the first place. This is a chance for a Japanese property to be seen around the world."

This sentiment is echoed on Twitter, where Japanese fans have focused on the casting as reinterpretation rather than "whitewashing," with many citing the nature of the character as a cyborg with an artificial body to explain the difference. 

"It's a Hollywood movie, it can't be helped that there's going to be a white lead actress. Well, best to think of it as an artificial body situation," tweeted one fan. "There's been a lot of criticism from foreign fans about the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi in the movie adaptation of Ghost in the Shell," wrote another. "It's about artificial bodies, so you may as well think of it as her using a white cyborg. The manga and anime have differences anyway. It's still better than them casting Rinko Kikuchi just because she can speak English."

The topic of race is always a sensitive one and can sometimes be a minefield of good intentions gone wrong. In another Hollywood Reporter article last week by Rebecca Sun and sometimes-Newsarama contributor Graeme McMillan critical of the Johansson casting, Sun writes about actors of Asian descent not having the same opportunities as a white actor like Johansson, arguing that making her Ghost in the Shell character Asian-ish but not actually Asian is "salt on the wound." But not so fast.

Sun cites "many online commenters" who have trumpeted Japanese actor and Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi "as the ideal live-action Kusanagi," along with "many other actresses of Asian descent" that have been mentioned by fans, and argues correctly "the harsh truth is that their combined star wattage doesn't even come close to touching Johansson's."

The sticky part of Sun's argument is some Japanese fans would apparently be no more placated by an actor of any Asian descent and might have had an even worse reaction, sensitive to the idea actors of any Asian rather than national-cultural descent are interchangeable. Monday's THR story reports that despite what may be good intentions by the suggestions, "the casting of an Asian-looking actress may have avoided the 'whitewashing' accusations and likely placated some fans in Europe and America but provoked a worse reaction in Japan."

"It's a shame they didn't choose a Japanese person to tell such an interesting story. But at least they didn't cast a Chinese actress, like they did in Memoirs of a Geisha," THR quotes manga fan Ai Ries Collazo. "[Zhang Ziyi] actually did an amazing job, but it was like: really? Again, can't they find a Japanese actress? Though casting an Asian actress would probably have gone down better in America."

This apparent attitude from some Japanese fans might seem surprising, but as THR notes, a recent live-action movie adaptation of the anime/manga Attack On Titan used an entirely Japanese cast to portray characters that were depicted as Western in the source material. That film was one of Japan's highest-grossing movies of 2015.

Ghost In The Shell is due out in theaters April 14, 2017.

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