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Why it matters that Ghost in the Shell is Japanese and Scarlett Johansson isn’t

Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell.
Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Since the day Scarlett Johansson was cast as Motoko Kusanagi, the cyborg and lead character of Ghost in the Shell, the film has been criticized for its whitewashing and erasure of its Japanese roots. Instead of excitement that Masamune Shirow's iconic manga will be brought to life, the conversation about the project has centered on the decision to use white actors to tell a Japanese story.

On Thursday, the first photo of Johansson as Kusanagi was released — a reminder and confirmation that this project, which was first announced last year and is due for release in 2017, is going forward. And a new round of rage and criticism was set into motion.

Whitewashing — the act of casting white characters to play people of color — is a practice wherein people still don't seem to fully understand the magnitude of the message it sends. A lack of understanding is one of the only ways to explain why it happens so frequently (see: Emma Stone playing a part-Asian woman in Aloha, the multiple characters inThe Last Airbender movie adaptation of Avatar:The Last Airbender, John Wayne playing Genghis Khan in The Conqueror, or even the current criticism about Tilda Swinton's role as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange).

After the promotional photo of Johansson was released, writer Jon Tsuei offered up a thoughtful and fair explanation of why Johansson's casting is being criticized and why it matters. He explains that Shirow's story reflects an experience, culture, and relationship to technology that's uniquely Japanese. Ghost in the Shell is a Japanese story, he argues, and there are consequences in erasing such an integral part of it:

Ghost in the Shell will be released on March 31, 2017.

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