The second release this month that has received a savage backlash from social media based on its casting of a white protagonist, the casting of Scarlett Johansson in Rupert Sanders’ adaptation of Ghost in the Shell has cinema audiences pretty riled up. Marvel and Paramount have been in equally hot water over this issue, as an online push for representation of Asian Americans in Hollywood cinema seems to be picking up. 

Three of our authors, Carmen, Jack, and Andrew, joined to discuss whether or not ScarJo’s casting is the main problem. 

Kambole: Let’s kick things off with the big question: was Scarlett Johansson the right choice for Ghost in the Shell?

Andrew: Would the film have got as much publicity if they cast Fan Bingbing?

Carmen: I think she was the necessary choice to get the film greenlit in the States, but possibly not the best choice for the material considering its cultural context.

Jack: Given that this film will, I think, struggle to find an audience anyway, aggravating its huge initial Asian fanbase was not a good idea.

Carmen: I don’t know anyone who’s actually excited for this release, and I don’t know how much ScarJo’s casting has to do with it, but it isn’t a great sign…

Andrew: Will the film struggle to find an audience though? We’re in a climate where we’re now getting wind of Matrix reboots, and Ghost in the Shell literally just had an anniversary of sold-out screenings across the UK.

Carmen: I guess we’ll see next week!

Scarlett Johannsson

Courtesy of: Paramount Pictures

Andrew: The home audiences they’ve disgruntled with the American casting, if you count those numbers as “lost”, I would bet will be made up and doubled at the box office globally.

Kambole: I think there’s a risk that the film has already threatened to alienate fans of the anime, simply from the streamlining that the studios deem necessary for Hollywood’s take on the film.

Carmen: I did think Mamoru Oshii [the original Ghost‘s director] had a good point about race in films (historically) being flexible with casting – i.e., John Wayne and Omar Sharif. But as this so-called “flexibility” has been getting a lot of backlash lately, it’s strange he wouldn’t agree that it seems a bit tone-deaf to continue.

I’ve read that a lot of Japanese fans aren’t too bothered by the ScarJo casting since they assumed the actress picked would be white, it being an American film and all. I’ve also heard the opinion that, had Hollywood cast an Asian actress who wasn’t Japanese, the backlash overseas would have been worse.

Jack: Also, that it’s following hot on the heels of Iron Fist, which really should have had an Asian-American lead and is pretty much universally hated for its bland white hero, is gonna be a problem to overcome.

Carmen: Very true.

Andrew: I wonder if Paramount are trying to ape what a lot of Chinese production companies are doing nowadays though, just in reverse?

Carmen: Possibly? And remakes are always a “safe” option.

Andrew: This is probably just a case of studios trying to find money in audiences globally, by making the option that’ll appeal to the widest common denominator across various country releases.

Carmen: I can see that.

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Courtesy of: Paramount Pictures

Andrew: Look at the recent The Great Wall. A Chinese production, but with American actors – to get a release outside of the Mainland, and appeal to wider audiences for money’s sake.

Carmen: Does Ghost in the Shell have Japanese funding?

Andrew: No, but it’s got the guy who destroyed Sony’s Spider-Man, Avi Arad, involved in financing…

Jack: I would say that this Ghost in the Shell is less a remake than an adaptation, which is quite different.

Carmen: That’s true, but it’s an existing property with a fanbase, which means you’ve got your audience already. Perhaps it couldn’t win with its casting choice?

Jack: That might be the main thing: is there room at all for this film? A white lead means whitewashing to some, an Asian lead to the studio means limiting audience, as well as accusations of deviating from the source material, where the Major does look very European.

Andrew: Any film that has Takeshi Kitano is getting my money, I’m sorry…

Carmen: I honestly don’t think it could win, and I don’t think it’s wholly due to ScarJo’s casting.

Kambole: What would be the other factors?

Andrew: Released less than a month after Power Rangers, another remake which is bombing?

Carmen: I’d say it’s mainly due to lack of interest and a highly publicised whitewashing controversy. I know fans of the original, but I don’t know anyone who had wanted it replaced with a new version.

Courtesy of: Paramount Pictures

Jack: Anime is a pretty polarising medium, with rabid, purist fans and an en-masse lack of interest elsewhere.

Andrew: I think that Ghost in the Shell is one of several films coming out right now that will force audiences to reassess their choices. Life is getting poor reviews, as is Power Rangers, as is Iron Fist.

Kambole: So you think it’s pushing people to vote with their wallets?

Andrew: Either that, or forcing them to choose smarter – do I want to purchase something online, or with my computer, instead of dealing with what’s on at the local multiplex?

Carmen: That’s a good point. But then we also have Get Out and Elle, which are doing pretty well both critically and financially (especially Get Out) and might send a message to the industry.

Kambole: Speaking of Get Out: articles have come out citing that more African Americans have gone to the cinema in the past year than white audiences – and this is likely because of the notable uptick in popular films that represent their demographic onscreen. Ghost in the Shell kinda feels like a missed opportunity to provide the same for Asian Americans.

Jack: Quite probably. Diversity can be, as well as a positive social step, a huge money-spinner.

Carmen: I think there’s definitely a correlation between diversity onscreen and in audiences.

Jack: Fast and Furious 7 would probably not have made its gobsmacking box office if that team were not so diverse.

Carmen: I hope that Hollywood sees this link between diversity and profitability.

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Courtesy of: Paramount Pictures

Andrew: To play devil’s advocate, could you see some people arguing about Hollywood being “too diverse” to appeal to all audiences for money’s sake, or to please every single ethnicity so nobody feels left out or – praise be it – offended?

Carmen: Not really, to be honest.

Jack: I can see people arguing it, but it’s a damn stupid argument.

Andrew: Magnificent Seven did it best, right? The Wild West was that ethnically diverse.

Carmen: There will always be people who complain (looking mainly at white American men right now… ), but there are enough films to please them too.

Kambole: A lot of the arguments for Johansson’s casting (including what the director of the anime recently said) seem to be around the fact that her character looks European in the anime – is this a good enough excuse?

Carmen: I think in an ideal world, it would be (and the director’s comments about her being a cyborg and therefore having no race would be a good reason too).

Jack: I don’t think it is a good enough excuse in the current climate. If Asian American actors had genuine franchise leading opportunities elsewhere, this wouldn’t matter!

Andrew: I think the film is about self-identity and retaining a brain with AI no matter what “shell” you’re in – it’s not about race or ethnicity, it’s about being human.

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Courtesy of: Paramount Pictures

Carmen: If white people weren’t already over-represented in Hollywood, I’d agree with you.

Andrew: The film is primarily one about identity, and that of AI, which doesn’t have a race. I think people are looking to create a wider debate around Hollywood casting through Ghost in the Shell, using ScarJo’s casting as a launching platform, but I don’t feel there’s much stoke with it in the actual film.

Carmen: I think in the context of the film, Major could be anything. But in the context of today’s society and the original manga, it feels a bit oblivious to cast a white actress.

Jack: But also, the villain and sidekick are also white in this Ghost in the Shell, so all three main characters are not Japanese, which seems like a failure.

Carmen: Yeah, I think the issue is wider than ScarJo. But she and her character are getting the press.

Jack: Though, on the other hand, having a white lead with an Asian baddie or sidekick could look pretty uncomfortable too.

Carmen: Very true.

Jack: I really think they just set themselves up to fail with this adaptation.

Andrew: It’s like Doctor Strange all over again.

Carmen: I’ve read that a lot of Japanese Ghost in the Shell fans are pleased that ScarJo was picked over a non-Japanese Asian American actress.

Kambole: I find it interesting that with things like this and Iron Fist people take issue with the idea of the protagonist being an Asian American, yet have no problems at all when the villains are.

Carmen: Yeah, that does feel a bit stereotypical.

Andrew: It’s not like they’re lacking. Daniel Wu is doing great work in Enter the Badlands. He’d be a great antagonist and should have been Iron Fist…

Although, I feel there’s a massive culture around Bruceploitaiton in the west. It’s ingrained in western culture – we’re used to Channel 5 kung fu movies with a moustache-twirling Fu Manchu-style character as the overall villain, cackling in a pointed hat. This is where all the calamity over whitewashing comes from now, as we need to recognise when we’re making stupid outdated choices.

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Courtesy of: Paramount Pictures

Carmen: I agree with Andrew – the problem didn’t start with Ghost in the Shell.

Andrew: I don’t really care about the issue here because of the source material, like I said before; if it was a 16th century period drama then it’d be different. Ghost in the Shell instead is questioning the very essence of what is humanity and makes us people. But then I also care as outside of the film context, we should be challenging outdated imagery and fighting for equality and representation…

Carmen: I think that there’s also the argument that it’s a futuristic setting where race may not be as big of an issue. And some fans may see this controversy as merely hot air.

Kambole: It’s funny that I’ve never seen ScarJo’s suitability for the role defended based on the fact that she’s great at playing alien or not-quite-human characters; instead they just fall back on the fact that Major is presented as white in previous iterations of the character. Isn’t this in essence the same as the James Bond argument?

Carmen: That’s true!  She’s done Lucy, Under the Skin, and Marvel – she’s a good fit in that way. ScarJo’s a great actress for the role, but only in an ideal world where “whitewashing” is no longer an issue. As it stands now, her casting may not be bad but it smacks of carelessness.

Jack: In a perfect world, Johansson would pretty much be the ideal choice for this role, but to further deny Asian American actors high-end franchise roles that aren’t defined by Asian stereotypes is bad.

Andrew: I’m gonna wait to pick it up from the discount shelf in Tesco, if I watch it at all. I don’t want to taint the anime in my memory.