Questionable casting causes controversy

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Photo courtesy of

Ghost in the Shell is an acclaimed Japanese media franchise that was initially published as a seinen manga written and illustrated by Masamune Shirow. The manga was first serialized in 1989, telling the story of Motoko Kusanagi, a member of counter-cyberterrorist organization Public Security Section 9 in mid-21st century Japan. It was then released as an anime film in 1995 and an anime series in 2002, telling alternative stories within the same universe.

On March 31, the highly contentious but anticipated live-action film was released. Hearing any description of the series, one would assume that the film would cast an Asian-American or Asian person as the part of Kusanagi, also known as “The Major.” But alas, the part was given to the definitely-not-Asian Scarlett Johansson. 

It is without a doubt that cultural traditions and elements bleed into others, but there is still no excuse to deny one culture in favor of another. Many people have made the argument—even Johansson herself—that The Major is pure consciousness within a machine, so she technically does not have any racial identity. Another observation made is the perception that in most Japanese animes the animated characters don’t look Asian.

As genuine as these claims may be, there is absolutely nothing in the original Ghost in the Shell series that suggests any connection between the characters and American culture. All of the characters have Japanese names, follow Japanese customs, and live in a futuristic version of Japan—every last detail represents Japanese culture.

Ghost in the Shell director Rupert Sanders addressed this controversy at an interview at an event in Tokyo where the trailer made its first debut.

“To me, you know, I cast very much from the gut,” Sanders said. “[Johansson] comes from such edgy films from Lost in Translation to Under the Skin—she’s got an incredible body of work and the attitude and toughness of her really is to me The Major.”

Perhaps the most problematic element about this film is that it looks entertaining and very well executed, so there is no doubt it will draw in a large audience even if they are not fans of the anime or manga. The issue is that Hollywood is bountiful with Asian-American and Asian actresses that could (and should) play the role of The Major and finally gain the exposure that is too commonly denied to actors of color. In fact, there are only four recognizably Asian actors on that first page of the films IMDB cast list.

Rinko Kikuchi is a Japanese actress who was nominated for an Oscar for her role in the 2006 film Babel and is more than qualified for the demands of The Major’s character. Kikuchi also played the protagonist in the eccentric but stunning film Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter and in the adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s novel Norwegian Wood. Many people would also have loved to see Chiaki Kuriyama as The Major, the actress who played the utterly insane but beloved Gogo Yubari in Kill Bill: Volume 1. There is a never ending list of Japanese and Japanese American actresses that would be perfect for the role of the protagonist in Ghost in the Shell.

Netflix recently revealed they will soon be releasing an English live-action film of another popular anime and manga Death Note with an all-white cast and set in America while portraying the original Japanese characters. Asian actor, Edward Zo,  confronted Hollywood after being denied the part of the Death Note’s protagonist Light Yagami because, “they were not looking for Asian actors” to play the role, as Zo states in a YouTube video he made.

No one is denying that Johansson and any other white actor casted for these films are not talented—in truth, Johansson nails the stoic alien character as in Under the Skin—but the casting decisions of the film sends the message that whitewashing is acceptable, as seen in Death Note. “Lead roles are usually written so that the audience will root for that character,” Zo said. “These are the roles that showcase someone as a multifaceted human being, not just a one-trick pony best friend role that often perpetuates an existing stereotype about an already marginalized group of people.”

As Zo states in his video addressing his casting experience, the excitement of elements of popular Asian culture coming to America is not only due to being a fan of the series, but also the prospect of the visibility of minorities in major roles and not the embodiment of already perpetuated racial stereotypes.

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