“In January of 2015, it was announced that Scarlett Johansson would star as Major Motoko Kusanagi in Paramount’s live-action adaptation of the beloved anime and manga franchise Ghost in the Shell. The reaction at the time was mild to positive — mostly because it seemed to make a lot of sense if we’re just talking about Johansson’s career.
The actress starred in a slew of sci-fi roles that allowed her to delve deep into the relationship between a woman and her body and her consciousness: she was an AI turned omnipotent being in Her, a lonely alien turned carnivorous sexpot in Under The Skin, and a drug mule turned omnipotent being in Lucy. Her career was an IRL thinkpiece, and assuming the role of a cyborg supercop seemed like the next logical step.
As usual, it took a picture for the outcry to start. This month, over a year after the casting announcement, Paramount Pictures released a still of Johansson in costume as Kusanagi, and the internet did not take it well. The image of a famous white actress in Kusanagi’s signature black bob seemed like another depressing example of Asian actors being removed from Asian narratives — the insult of M. Night Shyamalan’s Avatar adaptation and Emma Stone playing a half-Chinese character in Aloha were still fresh in our collective memory. (Both films were bombs; so much for the “white actors are more bankable” argument.)
Add the more recent controversy of Tilda Swinton’s casting as a Tibetan character in Marvel’s Dr. Strange and there was enough fuel for a fresh round of writers, filmmakers, and actors taking Hollywood to task for its refusal to cast Asian actors.
Whitewashing is very real, and the deficit of starring roles for Asians is one lane in the representation race that is stubbornly slow to advance. But in the case of Kusanagi, an anime character, it’s not as simple as Japanese or white…”