A Comprehensive Guide to the Ghost in the Shell Controversy

8 minute read

The first live-action, English-language adaptation of the popular Japanese manga series Ghost in the Shell hits theaters this week. But even before the previews roll, feelings are mixed. Some fans’ anxiety stems from Hollywood’s splotchy track record with manga adaptations (see: Speed Racer, Dragonball Evolution). But more notably, the movie has ignited the discussion about Hollywood’s continued whitewashing of Asian roles. In this case, fans have protested Scarlett Johansson’s casting as the character known in Masamune Shirow’s original manga series as Motoko Kusanagi.

Here’s a primer on the the franchise, the controversy surrounding its release and how it fits into larger conversations about cultural representation in Hollywood.

What is Ghost in the Shell and why are they remaking it?

Ghost in the Shell originated as a Japanese manga series written and illustrated by Masamune Shirow beginning in 1989. It takes place in a fictional city in mid-21st century Japan and tells the story of a group of special operatives, Public Security Section 9, who fight terrorism, corruption and cybercrime. In this futuristic world, some people have cyberbrains, others have prosthetic bodies, and still others—like Motoko Kusanagi—have both. Having a cyberbrain has advantages (like connecting to various networks) and disadvantages (like the ability to be hacked). The “ghost” in the title refers to human consciousness, and the “shell” is the cybernetic body.

As for a modern retelling, the themes of the story—questions about what defines humanity as artificial intelligence grows increasingly prominent—continue to fascinate moviegoers (see: Ex Machina, Westworld, Black Mirror, Blade Runner 2049). The original movie adaptation, a Japanese animated film released in 1995, has a big following, including directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski, who the New York Times reports brought a copy along when they pitched The Matrix. And while the manga has spawned a second animated film, TV series and a handful of video games, it’s never been rendered as a live-action film.

When did the controversy begin?

Soon after Johansson’s casting was confirmed in January 2015, fans launched a petition for the role to be recast: “The original film is set in Japan, and the major cast members are Japanese. So why would the American remake star a white actress?” In April 2016, the first photo of Johansson in the movie (in which she is called simply “Major”) reignited anger about her casting.

The day after the photo was released, Screencrush published a report that Paramount and Dreamworks had tested out post-production visual effects that would have made Johansson appear more Asian in the film. Critics, led by celebrities like Constance Wu, pointed out not only did not correct, but arguably exacerbated, the central problem. Paramount responded to the report, saying that “A test was done related to a specific scene for a background actor which was ultimately discarded. Absolutely no visual effects tests were conducted on Scarlett’s character and we have no future plans to do so.”

How does the uproar fit into the broader conversation about whitewashing in Hollywood?

Though the issue has had increasing visibility in recent years thanks in part to outspoken celebrities and viral Twitter campaigns, the whitewashing of Asian roles has a very long history. In the 1930s, the Swedish-American actor Warner Oland played a Chinese detective named Charlie Chan in 16 films. In 1944, the shape of Katharine Hepburn’s eyes was altered with makeup when she played a Chinese character named Jade in Dragon Seed. In the 1950s, John Wayne played Genghis Khan and Marlon Brando played a Japanese interpreter. These are just a handful of entries on a long list.

The practice has continued, which brings us to more recent examples: Emma Stone as a half-Asian character in Cameron Crowe’s Aloha in 2015. Tilda Swinton’s role last year in Doctor Strange as the Ancient One, a character generally depicted in the comics as an Asian man. In some instances, it is not a case of an Asian role going to a white actor, but a bankable white movie star headlining a story that originates or takes place in Asia, like Matt Damon’s The Great Wall or Finn Jones in Marvel’s Iron Fist on Netflix. Though the representation of characters of Asian descent onscreen is minimized in different ways, each instance contributes, unwittingly or not, to a landscape in which the proportion of Asian characters in top-grossing films hovers at around 5%.

Has Ghost in the Shell made headlines since the initial backlash?

In May 2016, the website Nerds of Color launched a campaign called #WhiteWashedOut on social media. Many weighed in on the stereotypes perpetuated by Hollywood’s limited portrayals of characters of Asian descent and the importance of seeing people who look like yourself onscreen. This month, critics of the movie commandeered a meme generator released as part of its marketing campaign to make memes with statements like “I am part of the whitewashing pantheon” over photos of white actors who have played non-white characters.

How have people involved with the movie responded?

Last June, Ghost in the Shell producer Steven Paul defended the movie in an interview with Buzzfeed. “I think everybody is going to end up being really happy with it,” he said. “There [are] all sorts of people and nationalities in the world in Ghost in the Shell,” he said of the movie’s otherwise diverse cast. “I don’t think it was just a Japanese story. Ghost in the Shell was a very international story, and it wasn’t just focused on Japanese; it was supposed to be an entire world.”

Director Rupert Sanders recently told CNET that he stands by his casting of Johansson, who he calls “the best actress of my generation and her generation, and the person I felt most embodied the physicality and the ability to inhabit that role.” The director of the first Ghost in the Shell movie, Mamoru Oshii, agreed but for different reasons, telling IGN: “The Major is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one. The name ‘Motoko Kusanagi’ and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray her.”

Johansson has also responded to questions about the controversy in recent interviews. In February, she told Marie Claire, “I certainly would never presume to play another race of a person. Diversity is important in Hollywood, and I would never want to feel like I was playing a character that was offensive.” This week, she appeared on Good Morning America and explained, “I think this character is living a very unique experience in that she has a human brain in an entirely machinate body. I would never attempt to play a person of a different race, obviously.”

How has Johansson’s casting been received in Japan?

The movie’s casting seems to have been less controversial there than it has in the U.S. Last April, The Hollywood Reporter interviewed members of the Japanese movie industry and Japanese fans of the original manga and animated adaptation. Many applauded Johansson as the right choice for the role based on her suitability for the movie’s cyberpunk vibe. Others expressed resignation that a white movie star seems to be a prerequisite for getting a Japanese property successfully distributed to an international audience. Some were disappointed, but not as much as with past instances of substituting one ethnic identity for another, as with the casting of Zhang Ziyi, a Chinese actress, as a Japanese character in the 2005 drama Memoirs of a Geisha.

What does all of this ultimately mean for both the movie and the future of whitewashing in Hollywood?

The controversy over Ghost in the Shell has dominated the conversation around the film for two years now and may figure into its critical reception. Negative reviews (as of two days before release, they are just on the positive side of mixed), have more potential to damage the film’s box office haul than protests. The whitewashing conversation hasn’t penetrated the mainstream enough to keep otherwise interested moviegoers at home, and in part because the studio can count on a strong international audience even if they do stay at home. (The last time Johansson fronted a major non-superhero action movie, in 2014’s Lucy, the film took in $126 million in the U.S. and $336 million abroad.)

As for its potential impact on the erasure of Asian roles in major Hollywood films, it’s unlikely that anything will change overnight. But the pressure to course-correct will continue—in fact, it already has. Netflix’s forthcoming manga adaptation Death Note has come under fire for casting a white actor, Nat Wolff, instead of sticking to the original story’s Japanese lead character. An online petition has more than 13,000 signatures. We haven’t seen the last of whitewashing in the movies, but—if nothing else—at least there’s a conversation.

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Write to Eliza Berman at eliza.berman@time.com