The Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) is condemning the “whitewashed” casting of Scarlett Johansson in the Dreamworks/Paramount Pictures adaptation of the popular Japanese franchise “Ghost in the Shell.”
Though defenders of the casting claimed that both the original 1989 manga and 1995 animated Japanese film were vague about Major Motoko Kusanagi’s original ethnic identity before her brain was placed into the body of a cyborg, this film verifies she was Japanese; her real name, in fact, was Motoko Kusanagi (her cyborg identity, implanted with false memories, was Major Mira Killian).
So when the actress recently told “Good Morning America” that ”I would never attempt to play a person of a different race, obviously,” she was lying, MANAA says.
Furthermore, the villain, Kuze, is revealed to have originally been named Hideo, meaning he too was Japanese, but he’s played by another white actor, Michael Pitt.
“Apparently, in Hollywood, Japanese people can’t play Japanese people anymore,” quips MANAA President Robert Chan. “There’s no reason why either Motoko or Hideo could not have been portrayed by Japanese or Asian actors instead of Scarlett Johansson and Michael Pitt. We don’t even get to see what they looked like in their original human identities — a further whitewash.
“Though the Japanese versions of ‘Ghost’ took place in Japan, and the latest film version does not specify a location, it was partially shot in Hong Kong and is clearly an Asian city. There are many Japanese/Asian/Asian American actresses who could’ve handled the role of the Major, including Rinko Kikuchi, Karen Fukuhara, Kiki Sukezane, Chloe Bennet, Maggie Q, Doona Bae, Li Bingbing, and Gemma Chan.”
“Unbelievably, Mamoru Oshii, director of the 1995 Japanese animated film, said he couldn’t think of a better choice than Johansson for this new live-action version,” said MANAA Founding President Guy Aoki. “Many in Japan have been so brainwashed by Western culture that they’ve developed an inferiority complex about their own. They assume that in order for an American film to be successful, it has to star a white actor. Tell that to Zhang Yimou, who spent $150 million directing ‘The Great Wall’ starring Matt Damon, only to see it flop worldwide and receive terrible reviews. He’s not going to make his money back.”
After Johansson’s casting was announced in January 2015, an online petition by Julie Rodriguez asking the filmmakers to cast an Asian woman instead was signed by over 100,000 people (www.thepetitionsite.com/683/366/733/dreamworks-dont-whitewash-japanese-films/?z00m=22503826). Celebrities, including Ming-Na (“Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD”) and Constance Wu (“Fresh Off the Boat”), spoke out against Dreamworks’ choice as well.
A recent Paramount social media marketing campaign to generate memes with the phrase “I Am…” backfired when users completed the sentence with sentiments like “…Not Japanese” (with a picture of Johansson) and “…Not watching this. Don’t Carradine me, Bro” (with a picture of David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine of TV’s “Kung Fu”).
It wasn’t until March 2016 — more than a year after Johansson’s casting — that the producers hired the first Japanese actor for the film (“Beat” Takeshi Kitano) to play Daisuke Aramaki, the leader of the Section 9 task force the Major works for, protecting the world from dangerous technological threats. He’s also the only Japanese actor to get a significant role in the movie.
MANAA Vice President Miriam Nakamura-Quan points out: “While CNN called Chin Han (like Kitano) one of ‘Asia’s 25 Greatest Actors of All Time,’ he was relegated to little screen time as one of the agents. ‘Ghost in the Shell’ has diversity. But only for the minor and background characters. The main characters are still white.”
“Hollywood continues to make the same excuses, that there aren’t big enough Asian/Asian American names to open a blockbuster film,” says Aoki. “Yet it has not developed a farm system where such actors get even third billing in most pictures. Without a conscientious effort, how will anyone ever break through and become familiar enough with audiences so producers will confidently allow them to topline a film? When will we ever break that glass ceiling?
“Remember that hiring white actors to star in live-action movies based on anime/manga source material has always backfired: ‘Dragonball Evolution’ and ‘Speed Racer’ were flops and now, we have ‘Ghost in the Shell,’ which, this weekend, is predicted to gross only $25 million (against a $120 million budget) behind ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Boss Baby.’”
“Ghost” follows in a long line of recent projects that feature white actors playing Asian/Pacific Islander characters like “Aloha,” “The Martian,” “Kubo and the Two Strings,” “Dr. Strange,” and Netflix’s upcoming “Death Note.” There are also lost opportunities for Asians to headline projects steeped in Asian culture like Netflix’s “Iron Fist” starring Finn Jones.
MANAA, the only organization solely dedicated to advocating balanced, sensitive, and positive depiction and coverage of Asian Americans, was founded in 1992 Since 1999, as part of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, MANAA has met annually with the top four television networks pushing for more inclusion of Asian Americans. In 2015, it also promoted that vision with talent agencies ICM Partners, WME, Paradigm, and CAA.