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:
I've been seeing a lot of defenses for the ScarJo casting that seem to lack a nuanced understanding of a Ghost In The Shell as a story.— Jon Tsuei (@jontsuei) April 15, 2016
The manga came out in 1989, the first film 1995. An era whenJapan was considered the world leader in technology.— Jon Tsuei (@jontsuei) April 15, 2016
Everything hot in that era came out of Japan. Cars, video games, walkmans, all of that. Japan was setting a standard.— Jon Tsuei (@jontsuei) April 15, 2016
This is a country that went from poised to conquer to the Pacific to forcibly disarmed. They poured their resources into their economy.— Jon Tsuei (@jontsuei) April 15, 2016
And as a country that was unable to defend themselves, but was a world leader in tech, it created a relationship to tech that is unique.— Jon Tsuei (@jontsuei) April 15, 2016
Ghost In The Shell plays off all of these themes. It is inherently a Japanese story, not a universal one.— Jon Tsuei (@jontsuei) April 15, 2016
Ghost in the Shell will be released on March 31, 2017.