A live-action film version of the anime/manga cyberpunk franchise Ghost in the Shell has been a long time in coming, but the one now in production at Paramount Pictures has thus far been garnering press for a reason the studio would no doubt wish was entirely different. Rather than celebrating a new incarnation of the popular series, fans have reacted poorly to the first image of Scarlet Johansson in the lead role as cyborg policewoman “The Major” – a role which is traditionally depicted as a woman of Japanese descent.
The casting has been confirmed for awhile, but the debut still (depicting Johansson with short-styled black hair) touched off a new firestorm over the ongoing issue of “whitewashing” in Hollywood movies. Now, the discussion has been joined by a representative of the original manga (Japanese comic book) publisher, who has weighed in favor of Johansson’s casting.
While Ghost in the Shell‘s creator, Masamune Shirow, has yet to be heard from on the matter, the rights to the series and its characters are controlled by their publisher, Kodansha. Speaking to THR concerning the matter, Sam Yoshiba, Kodansha’s Director of International Business, outlined the corporation’s position thusly:
“Looking at her career so far, I think Scarlett Johansson is well cast. 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.”
Kodansha did not offer any comment on the troubling report that landed in the wake of the initial Ghost in the Shell image release, claiming that the studio had conducted advanced special-FX tests intended to transform the features of the film’s white supporting actors to make them appear Japanese (using state-of-the-art computer graphics). While the studio maintains that the technology is not being used in the actual movie and was only intended to be used on background characters (not Johansson), the report cited unnamed sources claiming that the studio’s ultimate aim was, in fact, to turn Johansson into a Japanese-looking woman in post-production – and that the tests were conducted without the actress’ knowledge.
The ongoing controversy comes at a point where the difficulties of translating culturally-specific works like Ghost In The Shell for international audiences continues to cause problems for multiple franchises. The original THR story points out that some Japanese fans feel that the matter is not dissimilar from recasting anime characters written as Westerners with Japanese actors (a routine occurrence in still largely mono-cultural Japan), while the issue of “whitewashing” in Western media in particular remains highly topical. Only days earlier, a similar controversy had arisen over British actress Tilda Swinton portraying Marvel Comics character “The Ancient One” – traditionally an elderly Asian man – in Doctor Strange; though it’s worth noting that in that instance it’s been heavily suggested that the decision was made to avoid enaging in dated cultural stereotypes about Asian mysticism.
This isn’t the first time that an adaptation of anime – a medium which adds an extra layer of difficulty to the debate by utilizing character designs that many fans outside of Japan originally mistook for Western – has garnered controversy. The 2009 live-action feature Dragonball Evolution stirred angry debate among fans by casting white actor Justin Chatwin as Goku, traditionally depicted as Japanese (or, rather, a Japanese-looking space alien) in the original manga and anime series. That film, a low-budget offering from Fox with substantially less studio pedigree and marketing muscle behind it than what’s planned for Ghost In The Shell, was ultimately a major box-office failure.
Ghost in the Shell will open in U.S. theaters on March 31st, 2017.