Scarlett Johansson is the Wrong Choice for "Ghost in the Shell"

motoko kusanagi

Whitewashing, the practice of casting white actors to play characters that should have been people of color, has been a Hollywood staple since the very beginning of the film industry. Director D.W. Griffith, one of the founding fathers of film, was known as both “the Shakespeare of the screen” and a virulent racist; naturally, his seminal work The Birth of a Nation featured a slew of black characters played by white actors in blackface. Celebrated classics are guilty of whitewashing as well, with Elizabeth Taylor in the role of Cleopatra, Natalie Wood as Maria in West Side Story, and Mickey Rooney playing the raging stereotype I.Y. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

I would like to believe that racism in Hollywood has diminished over the past few decades, but it is wishful thinking to expect modern-day mainstream movies to be inclusive. After all, The Hunger Games sought only Caucasian actresses for the role of "olive-skinned" Katniss. And now, only five days into 2015, Scarlett Johansson has signed on to play Motoko Kusanagi in the live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell.

For the uninitiated, Ghost in the Shell is a Japanese franchise based on Masamune Shirow’s manga of the same name. With multiple anime and video game adaptations inspired by the manga, Ghost in the Shell is a modern classic. The series takes place in a future Japan where humans have become “cyberized,” integrating technology with their bodies. Major Motoko Kusanagi, the cyborg protagonist, is the head of a Japanese counterterrorism taskforce that deals with cyber crime.  

the main character of ghost in the shell

Re-read that previous paragraph. Note that the franchise is Japanese, the series takes place in Japan, and the protagonist is the head of a Japanese task force. “Motoko Kusanagi” is a Japanese name for a Japanese character. Yet somehow, a white woman has been chosen to play her. Media coverage on the subject has been disturbingly positive, mostly cheering the choice for ScarJo playing an action hero. Vanity Fair makes only passing mention of the fact that Motoko is Japanese, while Esquire claims that “no Hollywood actress is as prepared as Scarlett Johansson” to play the role.

On the contrary, there are plenty of actresses that could play the role just as well as ScarJo, and who also happen to Japanese. The first who comes to mind is Rinko Kikuchi, the first Japanese woman to get an Oscar nomination in 57 years. She proved her ability to act in action films in her role as the kickass Jaeger pilot Mako Mori in Pacific Rim, directed by Gulliermo del ToroAnother suitable choice would be Chiaki Kuriyama, whose extensive filmography includes titles like Battle Royale and both volumes of Kill Bill, in which she fought alongside Lucy Liu as the terrifying schoolgirl Gogo Yubari.

rinko kikuchi

Rinko Kikuchi in Pacific Rim, which Esquire has apparently never heard of. 

This hearkens back to the fiasco that was the movie adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender. In the infamous butchering of the acclaimed Nickelodeon series, director M. Night Shyamalan crushed the dreams of brown kids around the world with a cast of lily white actors in the roles of characters from East Asian and Inuit-inspired cultures.

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When I say that the movie was dream-crushing, I speak from experience: I grew up watching Avatar, with Aang and co. as my first confirmation that you don’t have to be white to be a hero. In addition to being saddening and infuriating, the choice of white actors is also totally absurd. Think about it: Aang is his universe’s equivalent of a Tibetan monk. The protagonist of the Shyamalan adaptation, then, was a white Tibetan monk. Likewise, Katara and Sokka were essentially white Inuits.

Similarly, the choice of ScarJo as Motoko Kusanagi is not just racist, it’s utterly nonsensical. What white woman is named Motoko? The other characters pose a problem, too: will ScarJo be a beacon of whiteness in the midst of a group of Japanese sidekicks, or will other characters be whitewashed as well?

The anime series also critiqued the United States—which, in the series, had become the American Empire. When agents from the American Empire pay a visit to Section 9, the Major’s agency, they are portrayed as obnoxious, immoral characters who are totally nonplussed by a past massacre carried out by the American army. I wonder whether this critique will be part of a film that’s made for American audiences.

Just to clarify, racebending—changing a character’s race—isn’t always bad. Quvenzhané Wallis, for example, made a wonderful Annie. Casting a black actress like Wallis as Annie, a traditionally white character, gives black girls some much-needed media representation. The impact of inclusive representation cannot be minimized; when white images of beauty and power are the only ones present in media, it creates the impression that the rest of us can’t be beautiful and powerful, too. As I mentioned before, the multiethnic cast of Avatar: The Last Airbender empowered elementary/middle school me in a way few other shows have.

Furthermore, it is incredibly difficult for women of color to get lead roles in Hollywood movies. The “universal” heroine, according to the American movie industry, is white; meanwhile, people of color are stuck with small roles or none at all. The fact that women of color are left out of lead roles in most movies is bad enough, but to add insult to injury, even roles originally written for women of color go to white stars—like Scarlett Johansson—far too often.

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by Bayan Atari
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Bayan Atari is a journalism student who likes to criticize everything. She can be found on twitter [email protected]

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38 Comments Have Been Posted



In the first place, what

In the first place, what reason is there for an American remake? What is there, exactly, to be 'remade'?

<li>If it's shot-for-shot or anything close to faithful (such as a whitewashing by cast and subject matter), it's an insult to the original creators and actors, their critical messages (the series is about a group of <em>secret police</em>), and the ability of Americans to read subtitles. (Or listen to dubs. Or any of a number of ways for people to get close to the original material.)</li>

<li>If it's a reimagining with new context, there are all kinds of series and movies that represent 'American' takes on the material.</li>

<li>If it's anything like the 'Dragonball Z' movie, the less said the better.</li></ul>

Which one should we hope for? I just don't see any reason why anyone's career should be driven by something so unoriginal and potentially toxic. I can only hope it bombs or is aborted in production.

Review the source material next time...

Ghost in the Shell:

Motoko Kusinagi is an entity occupying a cybernetic body more than a woman.

There was in fact an episode where her giant white second in command asked her why she chose a female exterior and further if she was a female. Its never even made clear if Motoko is actually a man even. What is clear is that unlike your shitty article... Ghost in the Shell looked beyond a persons exterior as all cybernetic bodies are modifiable... Like say... Motoko could look like Scarlett Johansson even... Doesn't change how strong she is or her experience and combat abilities.

Maybe you should bitch about there being no black elves in lord of the rings instead since that's just obvious and known to all... Or preferably stop bitching about what you clearly haven't looked into. Or alternatively shut the fuck up all together.

"Could be" ... Really now?

It's cute how you try to bring up a counter argument like there is one to be had. Trying to play on one of the themes that is brought up in the series while ignoring that at no point there was ever any mention of the main characters of the film or series were ever Caucasian is silly. Please stop trying to stand up for something so ignorant and understand the social issue at hand.

Though, if you have the need to stand by your argument, I offer you this: What if Motoko Kusinagi always chose prosthetic/cybernetic bodies that all looked Japanese?

There's no mention of their

There's no mention of their ethnicity at all guy, the only thing that is covered beyond a shadow of a doubt is their nationality. True story a black man in Chicago doesn't have to be from Uganda... In fact he could be from Canada. You're thinking is racist by stereotype

You fucking fools are not promoting what you think you are. Motoko should be played by an overweight Mongolian man with a missing limb and excessive body hair by the vagueness of the lore.

In Japan Race is Ethnicity

While it is true a black guy can be from Canada that is not the case in Japan. In Japan race is tied to citizenship. A person will not be recognized as a Japanese citizen,if they don't have Japanese ancestry. Japan also does not naturalize foreigners. A European cannot become Japanese for example .

This is ridiculous

If by "giant white second in command" you mean Baato, he hates Americans. That was pretty clear from his treatment of the American agents. He was in the JAPANESE army and has a JAPANESE name. Jeez.
Why do you think that Motoko would wear a white-looking prosthetic body, anyway? Do you expect that in a cyberpunk future, the Japanese would be so desperate to fit Eurocentric beauty standards that they'd transfer their cyberbrains to white-looking bodies? That's sick, man.

Batou is French... It means

Batou is French... It means boat. It is a French name.

"Batou" is only a

"Batou" is only a transliteration of his name; "Baato" is another. So I don't think the French definition of "Batou" really applies here.

hmm not really...?

I am French, and "batou" doesn't exist in french. A boat is "un bateau"...pretty close, but not quite right.

I think that if the story is set in Japan, and no details are given regarding the characters' ethnicity, we can assume that the characters are Japanese.

People of color are considered a minority in Western countries; this movie could have been a good opportunity to put forward non white actors...It really is a shame!

Being a person of color myself, I really enjoy when non white characters are represented, whether they are part of my ethnic group or not, because it really expresses that people like me, people who are a "minority", matter.

"Do you expect that in a

"Do you expect that in a cyberpunk future, the Japanese would be so desperate to fit Eurocentric beauty standards that they'd transfer their cyberbrains to white-looking bodies? That's sick, man."

I don't know what kind of anime you've been watching but... the overwhelming majority of anime out there takes Eurocentric beauty standards and cranks them up to 11, including Ghost in the Shell. It's acceptable for the Japanese to avoid drawing even remotely Asian-looking characters, but it's wrong when Western studios go along with it?


Wow, really? The whole cast of ghost in the shell are Japanese. In the series they look White, just like the Americans do in that show. How do they distinguish who's White and who's Japanese in the show? It's obviously not done with color in that sense and if you look at a Japanese people they tend to have lighter skin tones. They can pass for "White" in the show but they aren't. Motoko is Japanese and it's disgusting that they dodnt find someone else. I wouldn't even have picked Scarlett for it. They seriously couldn't find someone else? More like they didn't bother to look -_-

Yes they're Japanese citizens

Yes they're Japanese citizens who inhabit heavily modifiable bodies through super science. Focus on the fantasy and not your misplaced social movement. Anyone can play any of the characters! Remove yourself from outward appearance perceptions and focus on the quality of a character.

Being Japanese is not just ethnic, being born in Japan is meaning that one can state they are Japanese in a sense. The boundaries of the shows lore and storytwlling allow for heavy creative freedom.

Can't please everyone when it comes to a purple haired cyborg.

A soldier with a flag on his

A soldier with a flag on his arm needs no race, he is a symbol of a nation the members of section 9 are all Military but one man who was a detective.

Ethnicity does not define your lot in life, it does not define your station. If a man of Japanese descent lives and dies in Germany is he not fit to be German? If a bikini clad cyborg with purple hair and a biker jacket needs to be your catalyst for social inequality you're to privillaged to understand inequality.

I haven't seen Ghost in the

I haven't seen Ghost in the Shell, but, in my experience, white anime characters look like stereotypical movie stars-- yellow blonde hair, blue eyes, big faces (don't know a better way to describe it). They're usually tall with a large frame.


Lord of the Rings was written fifty years ago, for one thing. Based on the book, and extraordinarily adapted.

For another; Motoko Kusanagi is very much a Japanese name, being a cyborg, in Japan, for Japan, made my Japan, the most logical assumption for her ethnic group would be Japanese, yes?

The error in choosing a white, American female, is not too loosely based on race (a popular example is The Last Airbender live action movie). For all extreme fans of this anime or manga, authenticity would be demanded, and to most this matters quite a lot.

Of course that's all a matter of opinion, and people should be able to bitch about their fandoms as they please.

"For all extreme fans of this

"For all extreme fans of this anime or manga, authenticity would be demanded, and to most this matters quite a lot."

The two latest Star Trek movies are proof that studios can take a LOT of creative liberties with original works, ignore all the petty demands from long-time fans, and produce something that everybody enjoys even if they know almost nothing about the original. Movies like these aren't made to please the handful of people who remember the original, they're made to [try to] please everybody.

And if you want to appeal to a wide audience, you can't have someone hu takku raiku disu foru za horu firumu. Thems the breaks, kid. That's why all the actresses suggested by this article and all the cretins in the comments are complete and utter shit. Me so solly that affirmative action doesn't necessarily apply to sub-par actresses in the American film industry.

If you think everyone enjoyed

If you think everyone enjoyed NuTrek, then you haven't spoken to a large number of Star Trek fans... the consensus in the community is that there is very little Star Trek in the new movies.

Way to spoil a (halfway) good point...

Can we stop with the racist stereotyping of Japanese accents? That really wasn't necessary for you to make your point, Anonymous2.

The producers for this film could have found capable Asian-American/Canadian actors to play Motoko, but they went for a bankable name that would 'put asses in seats' for greater return on their investment. Hollywood is nothing if not risk-averse.

Regardless of your flimsy

Regardless of your flimsy argument, it is still racist. What would inspire Major Kusanagi, Japanese born, to choose a Caucasian body. This reinforces the racial gap even more. You can't be a person of power unless you are white and possibly not even a woman originally. I guess you are okay with a police captain that had gender identity issues as long as they don't appear colored.


"Just to clarify, racebending—changing a character’s race—isn’t always bad. Quvenzhané Wallis, for example, made a wonderful Annie. Casting a black actress like Wallis as Annie, a traditionally white character"

So racebending is ok when whites are the racebendee and not the racebender?

That seems kind of strange...if only there was a word for singling out a single race for shabbier treatment.

Blackface is stupid, and casting ScarJo for this role is equally stupid. I'm all for racial equality, but it seems that Bayan Atari thinks that some races are just more equal than others.

When there is a history of

When there is a history of casting actors of color in small bit roles, that are based largely on stereotypes, not complex and rich characters, while white actors have a much easier time getting roles period, then yes, it is acceptable, reasonable and beneficial to cast actors of color in "traditionally" white roles. Take a look at Annie, what about that character means she *has* to be played by a white actor? Because she was written that way years ago? She is an American orphan, that doesn't scream: has to be white, in fact, as the US population continues to be more and more and more ethnically diverse, it makes more and more and more sense that Annie could be played by a diverse group of actors. And should be.

To recap: yes, "racebending" SHOULD happen in favor of casting actors of color who are underrepresented in cinema. And no, characters of color should not be played by white actors, there has been quite enough of that, white actors don't need increased visibility and more diversity of roles, historically they have gotten the vast majority of the roles.

Having characters like Annie - or James Bond, as rumors circulate that Idris Elba could be the next James Bond - isn't treating one race more shabbily than another. Plenty of white folks have played both of these roles, why not give actors of color a crack at it? Meanwhile, plenty of complex, rich characters who could easily and sometimes should have been played by actors of color where played by white actors because it was deemed more appropriate/lucrative/superior.

If only there were a word for excluding a group of people from doing something based on their color because another group was thought to be inherently better at it based on their color. Oh wait, there is a word, it is called racism. Now if only there were a word that meant arguing that restoring actual balance to an unbalanced system - correcting the wrongs of racism: letting actors of color play characters of color at the very least, plus just maybe giving them a shot at characters who don't have to be white, like american orphans or british spies - were somehow equally racist. Oh, actually there are a few words: I'll go with complicit.

Aladdin in the original

Aladdin in the original folklore was Chinese. Did Disney brown-wash him?

actually, considering that

actually, considering that the character was drawn with tom cruise as the model, i would call that white washing. and i would call your response to a well thought out comment missing the point at the very best. asinine might be a more apt description though. you keep holding desperately to the threads of your racism bud, it seems to be serving you well.

Major Motoko Kusanagi, the

<blockquote>Major Motoko Kusanagi, the cyborg protagonist, is the head of a Japanese counterterrorism taskforce that deals with cyber crime.</blockquote>

Isn't Aramaki the head of Section 9?

More importantly, these comments are awful. Bleh.

For a major Hollywood film

For a major Hollywood film with lots of production value, made for American audiences... I'm sorry but Japanese are terrible actors/actresses. Rinko Kikuchi's Engrish was so cringeworthy in Pacific Rim, she would completely ruin a movie as the lead actress. Using Battle Royale as an example of stellar Japanese acting just shows how completely delusional this writer is to begin with. The acting in Battle Royale, like in most Japanese films, was awkwardly overzealous. And there lies the dilemma of live action adaptations of anime/manga - you can either recruit good actors and hope the audience can get over any race discrepancies, or go for the authenticity and hope the audience will tolerate acting that amplifies every emotion way beyond the threshold of convincing. Honestly, either one tends to spell box office failure (see: Dragon Ball Z, Fist of the North Star, probably Akira if it every comes to fruition). My issue with Scarlett Johansson is her face is way too adorable for the character she's trying to play. Money rules Hollywood action movies, not social justice. That said, I'd probably rather see Scarlett Johansson nail a role with a name like Motoko than watch another ham-fisted performance from a Japanese actress and think "Well, at least the character is compatible with the actress's ethnicity in accordance with progressive liberal standards!"

two ways to tell if what you

two ways to tell if what you are saying is racist:

1) you say it in a way that doesn't acknowledge you are talking about human beings. Like saying Japanese instead of Japanese people, or calling black folks, "the blacks."

2) you make sweeping generalizes about the abilities of a group of people based on them being in that group of people. Oh, you are from Japan? Clearly you are a terrible actor and probably some sort of ninja or submissive school girl.

So, to clear this up for you, you're a racist. Please stop being racist, it makes the world a shitty place.

Two ways to tell you're a

Two ways to tell you're a butthurt weenie with nothing to contribute:

1. You address the way I phrase part of my argument rather than the argument itself.
2. You derail the conversation by dropping the racism card.

Oh and to address the bit

Oh and to address the bit about how Ghost in the Shell originally included criticism of Americans...
1) It wouldn't be the first American film to include criticism of America.
2) Even if they cut that bit out, it wouldn't be the first film to alter a story to make it a more palatable cash cow. Godzilla was originally propaganda warning people about the dangers of nukes, and coming out in 1954, I wonder who that was trying to shame. But today, Americans can't get enough of Godzilla tearing shit up and fighting other bigass monsters. And whiny purists who want every Godzilla remake to be a carbon copy of the original can fuck themselves. Battle Royale as a book was political satire. Battle Royale as a movie was black comedy. Battle Royale as a manga was a gritty action-adventure survival story. Get over it.

Just a little note about the author... and the fact he's a perv.

More representation is good for sure, but more importantly is: will this be a good adaptation, will this do justice to the source material and more to the point, isn't casting someone in line with the intended audiences euro-centric beauty standards actually in line with Shirow Masamunes character design philosophy: I.e. he likes to draw "hot babes" for his own and his audiences fapping potential... or are we ignoring this facet of the creators work?

And surely that's the discussion we should be having? Or are we ignoring this because it get's in the way of our indignant outrage?

Scarlet is one of the best

Scarlet is one of the best actress to suit for this film. Why the world you don't see her ability! from her last movie Lucy, that give him one of her most outstanding performance of her career. Try to read this article and maybe you believe that she is the one suit for this role!

Are they seriously keeping

Are they seriously keeping the Japanese setting and Japanese names despite casting the movie with white actors? That's appalling. I could understand using a white cast if you were creating a wholly american-setting version of it - like how <em>Magnificent Seven</em> used cowboys/gunfighters in an American version of <em>Seven Samurai</em>. But having Scarlett Johansson play "Major Kusanagi" . . . ugh.

It's especially annoying because you just know they'll come up with a half-assed rationale, like "she's half-Japanese" or "she's Japanese, but her mostly artificial body is American".

To put this in context

The story of Ghost in the Shell is heavily intertwined with Japanese culture. While the character of the Major certainly transcends gender and ethnicity (which is emphasized even more in the second part) it is obvious that she is of Japanese origin.

It is fair to call out the producers on their choice of Scarlett Johansson as the main character. This breaks the setting which is embedded in a future Japan quite strongly. The choice on the other hand is not due to racial discrimination. It is an unfortunate but simple economic decision: In the recent Avenger franchise and the movie Lucy Scarlett Johannsson was successful at portraying a secret-agent character and is therefore a safe and conservative choice for a somewhat similar role of a cybernetic Major in the Japanese police force.

A sad choice nonetheless.

Ah hollywood, where the oscar

Ah hollywood, where the oscar goes to (insert-white-guilt-film) but continually casts white actors in roles simply and clearly more suited to asian actors, how you confuse me...

American live action anime adaptation? What could possibly go wrong?

For those who say that Matoko

For those who say that Matoko could look like anybody, no, she couldn't. She is Japanese and always will be, just like Clark Kent can't be played by black or asian actor Matoko can't be played by white actress. I am not agains Scarlet, she is very talented actress, I just can't see her being called Matoko. There are plenty of other underrated actors who are suit more for this role.

Ok with whitewashing Motoko, but not ok with ScarJo

Personally I don't care too much about ethnicity in this case. The original story of GIS does happen in Japan, but Motoko really isn't displaying too many ethnic traits herself, at least not as many as Aang does.
Avatar plays heavily on Aang's background. His ideology is kind of unique to the air nomad ethnic group, and that is essential to the entire plot. While in Motoko's case you won't see too much being lost if you whitewash her.

The main problem I have with SarJo is that she isn't tall enough for the part.
Motoko strikes me as a tall woman/cyborg in all the manga's and anime's she's in. And she is. GIS wiki says she's 5'6'', while Scarlett is 5'3''.

Ok with whitewashing Motoko, but not ok with ScarJo

Personally I don't care too much about ethnicity in this case. The original story of GIS does happen in Japan, but Motoko really isn't displaying too many ethnic traits herself, at least not as many as Aang does.
Avatar plays heavily on Aang's background. His ideology is kind of unique to the air nomad ethnic group, and that is essential to the entire plot. While in Motoko's case you won't see too much being lost if you whitewash her.

The main problem I have with SarJo is that she isn't tall enough for the part.
Motoko strikes me as a tall woman/cyborg in all the manga's and anime's she's in. And she is. GIS wiki says she's 5'6'', while Scarlett is 5'3''.

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