“Ghost in the Shell” White-Washing Controversy: In the Race for Profit, Hollywood Sacrifices Ethnic Authenticity

By Erin Caine
Elm Staff Writer

The first “Ghost in the Shell” film, based off of a Japanese manga series written by Masamune Shirow, was released in 1995. Since then, the franchise has grown to include a second theatrical anime film, two anime television series, an original video animation series, several video games, and now even an American live-action movie set for release in March of next year. There is no denying that the franchise is highly influential; for example, award-winning American filmmakers Lana and Lilly Wachowski who created “The Matrix” and its sequels, were greatly inspired by “Ghost in the Shell.” Given its popularity among both Eastern and Western audiences, it’s no surprise that a live-action Hollywood adaptation is well underway. Some fans of the original series, however, have voiced their disapproval of Scarlett Johansson, a white actress, being given the lead role of Major Motoko Kusanagi instead of an Asian actress.
This casting decision, of course, is by no means unusual for Hollywood. The live-action American adaptations of the popular “Dragon Ball” and “Avatar: The Last Airbender” series, for instance, cast white actors in lead roles that were characterized as Asian and Native American in source texts. (Both movies, incidentally, are considered to be two of the worst movies ever made.) Recently, prominent Asian-American actors such as Constance Wu, Margaret Cho, Aziz Ansari, and George Takei have spoken up about the damaging stereotypes inherent in Hollywood representation of racial minorities. Wu, in an article for the New York Times, spoke about the difficulty she and other Asian actors face in being chosen for roles in Western media.
“An Asian person who is competing against white people for an audience of white people has to train for that opportunity like it’s the Olympics. An incredibly talented Asian actor might be considered for a leading role maybe once or twice in a lifetime.”

Scarlett Johansson
Scarlett Johansson plays the lead role of the Major.

The first full-length trailer for the new live-action film was released Nov. 13 and garnered a mixed reaction. While some praised it for staying visually and conceptually faithful in several ways to the 1995 anime film (such as including the Major’s trademark “thermo-optical camouflage” suit), others remained disappointed in the white-washed casting and in the decision to even change the lead character’s name from the obviously Japanese “Motoko Kusanagi” to simply “the Major.” On the subject, Marc Bernardin of the Los Angeles Times asked a critical question in his article, “…Ultimately which is worse: Hollywood not casting Asians to play Asians or Hollywood pretending that Asians don’t exist in the first place?” Many fans, like Bernardin, consider the move to be a blatant act of racial erasure.
Many have speculated that white-washing is primarily an issue of marketability. That is, Hollywood doesn’t think that Asian actors are as marketable as white actors, and American filmmakers (who are predominantly white men) can’t imagine Asian actors in the roles of protagonists and heroes. Asian actors are mostly considered for the parts of supporting characters, stereotyped extras, and foreign villains; this can be seen in the casting for 2010’s live-action “The Last Airbender,” which cast white actors as the main heroes and Indian and Asian actors (such as “Slumdog Millionaire” lead Dev Patel) as the villains and minor characters. Actors, critics, and movie-goers alike can agree that representation in American cinema still has a long way to go, especially where it concerns racial diversity. In a nation so ethnically and culturally rich—and where 44 percent of movie goers are racial minorities—it seems unreasonable that Hollywood continues to drag its feet in creating films with diverse and accurate casts.

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