'Ghost in the Shell': 4 Japanese Actresses Dissect the Movie and Its Whitewashing Twist

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Ghost in the Shell.]

Ghost in the Shell has been embroiled in a whitewashing controversy for the past two years, ever since Scarlett Johansson was announced as the lead in January 2015. The Paramount and DreamWorks project is based on the classic Japanese manga about a cyborg cop who leads an antiterrorism task force in futuristic Japan. In both the original comic and its anime adaptations, the protagonist is named Major Motoko Kusanagi, but producers explained that Johansson's character would simply be known as "Major," and the star told Good Morning America last week that her character was "essentially identity-less," and that she would never attempt to play a person of another race. "Any question of my casting will hopefully be answered when they see the film," she said.

The movie opened Friday, and The Hollywood Reporter invited four actresses of Japanese descent to watch Ghost in the Shell on opening weekend and participate in a candid discussion about the film, its whitewashing charges and working conditions for actresses of color in Hollywood. The participants were Keiko Agena (Gilmore Girls), stage actor/writer Traci Kato-Kiriyama (PULLproject Ensemble), Atsuko Okatsuka (co-founder of the all-Asian, mostly female Dis/orient/ed Comedy tour) and Ai Yoshihara (The Sea of Trees).

What they discovered in watching the Hollywood adaptation was a surprising twist: Johansson's Major, told that she is a refugee named Mira Killian whose brain was rescued from a terrorist attack and put into a cybernetic body, is actually a Japanese runaway named Motoko Kusanagi who was kidnapped by Hanka Robotics as part of its ongoing experiment to create the ultimate cyborg weapon. Major reunites with her Japanese mother toward the end of the film, as well as with the terrorist Kuze (Michael Pitt), whom her squad has been chasing, who is actually Hideo, an old friend who was earlier abducted by Hanka and became a failed prototype.

The following conversation, conducted Saturday, has been edited for length and clarity.

How did the movie compare with your expectations?

Traci Kato-Kiriyama: It was stunning visually, but emotionally it didn't draw me in.

Keiko Agena: It was harder to watch than I thought it was gonna be. To get emotionally invested, you have to really care that she needs to find out who she is. But when she finally meets her mom, my gut felt so weird in that moment.

Kato-Kiriyama: That scene was devastating on all levels. It got me because of the emotion of the mother [veteran Japanese actress Kaori Momoi]. She's really wonderful. That scene should have been beautiful, but Major had nothing in her eyes. Acting-wise, what a missed moment.

Atsuko Okatsuka: I wasn't aware they were gonna explain the whitewashing. I thought it was just going to be an action film, no explanation, just go with the fact that it's a future Japan with this robot cop. And then to be like, "Oh shit, I used to be a Japanese woman!" (Laughter.) That was against my expectations.

How did you feel when that twist was revealed?

Agena: That was hard, y'all. Hard and awkward.

Ai Yoshihara: Major's backstory is white people trying to justify the casting.

Okatsuka: And they f—ed up in the process because now it looks even worse. The text at the beginning of the movie explained that Hanka Robotics is making a being that's the best of human and the best of robotics. For some reason, the best stuff they make happens to be white. Michael Pitt used to be Hideo.

Agena: That was the other cringe-worthy moment, when they called each other by their Japanese names. We're looking at these beautiful white bodies saying these Japanese names, and it hurt my heart a little bit.

Kato-Kiriyama: It was supposed to be so touching and intimate, and it felt gross. And kind of laugh-worthy at the same time.

Okatsuka: I would have preferred them just using American names. "You used to be Bob."

Kato-Kiriyama: Didn't you wonder if it was a struggle for Scarlett Johansson to make sense of her character? "I am not what I see in the mirror." We never see that in the performance.

Agena: Imagine that you were cast as an African-American character. There's going to be a moment in this fictional film where you realize who you are. How f—ing hard, as an acting exercise, would that be to realistically play, and how much backlash would there be?

Okatsuka: If Major started bowing all of a sudden … (Laughter.)

Agena: How could it not be comical?

Okatsuka: That's why she chose the robotic route.

Agena: As an acting challenge, I don't think there was anywhere for her to go, realistically. How do you really root down in the fact that you grew up Japanese and, when that moment hits you, not go funny or over the top?

Kato-Kiriyama: Probably ScarJo as a person didn't know that nuance. I'm not saying she had to have had this effusive, emotional physical outburst, but after you realize there's a Japanese brain in there somewhere, I didn't see any sort of reaction different from the rest of the movie.

Okatsuka: They didn't think about the depth that she'd have to go to understand that.

Kato-Kiriyama: It'd be such a great moment for the actor. But instead, it was just clueless.

Okatsuka: Was this directed by a Japanese director?

No. The director, Rupert Sanders, is white and from England.

Okatsuka: Because I'm curious about the directing of certain moments. A Japanese mom, she wouldn't just let a stranger barge in.

Yoshihara: And the last scene where the mom hugs her daughter at the grave, that was weird to me. Because Japanese people, we don't hug, especially mom's generation. Maybe an intense look instead.

Kato-Kiriyama: They'd be crying. And they wouldn't be looking at each other, they'd be looking down.

Yoshihara: I was like, "No no no no no. We don't do that."

Perhaps Sanders and the screenwriters, Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger, don't believe that race is relevant?

Okatsuka: And that experience is more generic because of it. You're supposed to connect with the fact that she hasn't seen her mom in a while. If she was a girl who grew up in Japan and ran away, first, she would feel shame, because she's Japanese. (Laughter.)

Agena: Where was the shame in this movie?! There should have been a lot more shame.

Kato-Kiriyama: No eye contact! You're just staring at your mom's toes the whole time!

Yoshihara: The actress who played the mom played a madam in Memoirs of a Geisha, and when I saw that movie I knew she was directed by white directors because she was totally playing an American bitch. In Japan, we don't act like that. The demeanor and body language was mimicking an American person. Any time a white director directs a Japanese movie, they're always trying to get us to act American.

Kato-Kiriyama: Meanwhile, Asian-Americans are asked to be super Oriental. (Laughter.)

Okatsuka: ScarJo was probably lost. "OK, hold on. So I'm a Japanese woman. I used to be? Wait, I am. I talk to my boss [Beat Takeshi] in English even though he speaks to me in Japanese?"

Agena: That was so weird. Everybody in this world understands Japanese. Only one person speaks it!

Kato-Kiriyama: I think we're supposed to assume they have all these cool enhancements and you can understand any language.

Agena: So many assumptions being made! As an audience member, I am working too hard!

Yoshihara: Maybe his English was so bad that people didn't understand him.

Kato-Kiriyama: He's Beat Motherf—in' Takeshi. Let him speak Japanese. I'm so glad he didn't die in that car.

Agena: That was pretty badass. I did like that part.

Yoshihara: What bothered me most was the geisha thing. In Japan we don't present geisha that often.

Kato-Kiriyama: We're really convenient scenery. We're just the framing, the casing, and it's just so in-your-face. "And there's another koi fish, there's another geisha."

As a performer of Japanese descent, where are you putting yourself in the movie? Where do you see yourself reflected? The opening sequence where Major comes in and beats up the geisha robots, are you seeing yourself through the hero's eyes?

Okatsuka: It's not even about seeing me on the screen as a performer. It's a bigger concern. It's 2017 and I don't know why these representation issues are still happening. It's overwhelming. This means so much to our community but is so on the side, still, for a lot of people.

Kato-Kiriyama: It's dispensable. We still feel dispensable.

After the first image of Scarlett Johansson in character sparked whitewashing backlash last spring, Paramount quickly announced the casting of Rila Fukushima. I saw her name in the opening credits, but I didn't see her.

Kato-Kiriyama: She was in this movie?

Agena: Is she possibly — there's the original Motoko that gets dragged out. It's all blurry, but she passes by Scarlett Johansson...

Yoshihara: Holy shit …

There were only two young Japanese women who weren't robots in the movie. One was human Motoko, and the other was when Batou gets his X-ray eyes and he briefly X-rays in on the Japanese secretary. Maybe that was her? [Editor's note: According to this behind-the-scenes video at special effects studio Weta Workshop, Fukushima was the face model for the geisha robots.]

Agena: Oh my God. This is terrible! This was newsworthy? They announced this and we could not find her?

Kato-Kiriyama: That deserves major critique. If they're gonna bring that up …

Yoshihara: "Hey look, we casted a Japanese actress."

Kato-Kiriyama: Who by the way is fantastic, and I can totally see her as Major. I kept placing other people in that role throughout the movie. "That could be Maggie Q." I'm curious, what is it going to tell the producers, if it doesn't do as well on opening weekend, what are the risks that can maybe be taken in the future?

[Editor's note: Ghost in the Shell came in third place and made $19 million in its opening weekend in the U.S.]

Okatsuka: These films keep tanking.

Kato-Kiriyama: If it was just about economics, they would cast Michelle Yeoh or Zhang Ziyi and just try to sell it to China. So I don't ever buy it when people say it's just money or economics. It's more than that. You're matching a certain desire as a white producer and director to this desire to please your shareholders and your investors.

As actors of color, you're used to knowing what you're eligible for and what you're not. So when you find out that a studio is making a project based on Japanese source material and actually retaining the setting, how does that missed opportunity feel?

Agena: As an actor, I probably fall into more of the sidekick/best friend/doctor/lawyer category. I'm not usually going out for a leading role, so I don't have that personal resentment. But as a fan, as a human Asian-American, I want to see that star being born. That was the part that hurt. This is such a star-making vehicle. And they can find people. They found that wonderful girl [Auli'i Cravalho] that played Moana. They found the guy that's gonna star in Crazy Rich Asians [Henry Golding]. Yeah, it's hard. But they can be found, and this could have made a young, kick-ass Asian actress out there a Hollywood name and star.

Kato-Kiriyama: And they know it, too. They know that they had that kind of power to change someone's life.

Okatsuka: It's not a lifelong mission. Just have one audition. ScarJo's busy. The theater showed the trailer for her next movie [bachelorette comedy Rough Night] before we watched Ghost in the Shell. I was like, "Damn, that girl busy."

Do you think any Asian-American actresses were considered for the Rough Night ensemble?

Okatsuka: Sometimes Asian-American girls get married, too. We have bachelorette parties. (Laughter.)

Kato-Kiriyama: We accidentally sit on the stripper.

When THR interviewed Japanese fans about the whitewashing claims, they weren't bothered by it, and neither was Mamoru Oshii, who directed the 1995 anime version. How do you feel about their response?

Yoshihara: People in Japan worship white people.

Kato-Kiriyama: Even in the story, there are Japanese people involved in creating these beings and they also may very well see the ideal human being as a white woman. So you're sort of messed up all the way around.

Agena: Yes! I felt more messed up watching this movie. It reinforced my own personal messed-up standards of physical beauty.

Okatsuka: This is an important conversation to have.

Yoshihara: Even my ex-boyfriend, who is Asian-American, said, "What Asian lady has a body like Scarlett Johansson?"

Agena: There are certain priorities there.

Okatsuka: It's this weird thing where Asian-Americans or Asian nationals living here like me, working in film, are fighting both our motherland and white producers here. We're walking this in-between where I scream at Hollywood but I'm also like, "Why'd you do that, Japan?!" Et tu, Brute, on both sides.

Yoshihara: Japanese people are self-loathing.

Okatsuka: Is it crazy that suicide rates are so high in Japan?

Yoshihara: Even my sister committed suicide. That's how many people commit suicide in Japan. That's how messed up it is.

Hollywood prides itself on being very progressive, very pro-diversity. One common defense of this movie is that it's incredibly diverse.

Yoshihara: Yeah, a bunch of the Asian people got killed. All the minor roles are Asians who didn't have lines. But all the core characters except Beat Takeshi and the mother were mainly white.

Kato-Kiriyama: The question itself has to be challenged. Why are you trying to drum up examples of people of color or specifically Japanese who are OK with it? Is it so you feel justified in maintaining your norm? Don't you want to know why people are hurt? Aren't you curious, as an artist? Isn't there anywhere in your progressive, liberal mind that's curious about the people that are feeling hurt?

Okatsuka: I don't think people are curious about the hurt. That's why organizations have had to start presenting hard numbers. "You want money? Here are numbers. The more people of color you put in something, the more people watch it."

Johansson has noted that Ghost in the Shell represented a rare opportunity for a woman to star in a studio-backed action film. Tilda Swinton and her Doctor Strange filmmakers also have noted that gender-bending The Ancient One was a positive step for female representation. What do you make of their points?

Kato-Kiriyama: It's trying to get the conversation away from race yet again. Sure, it's a great role for women. I don't know if kick-ass white woman action stars is such a void, but even that aside, it's trying to step over the dead body. That's fine when there are empowered characters who are women, but that's not what we're talking about. We're actually talking about race. Can we just stay here for a little bit?

Okatsuka: When white feminists don't know what to say about race, they go for the feminist thing. That's what happened with the Women's March. When women of color were like, "Will you be there, though, for the next march, when the next black kid gets shot? Will you be there when women of color need you?" they were like, "Wasn't it great for women all around?"

Kato-Kiriyama: To the argument they were making through Doctor Strange about not wanting to create the Fu Manchu character, it's like, well, then don't.

Okatsuka: Give them words to speak that aren't stereotypical.

Kato-Kiriyama: "If I stick an Asian there, they're gonna be too Oriental." That's how you see us. If you can't see an Asian actor as a fully dimensional human being …

Agena: Oh damn, oh shoot! Drop the mic! This is deep, y'all! My heart hurts.

Okatsuka: What time's happy hour?

Agena: I need a drink.

Kato-Kiriyama: They don't realize how deep that comment is.

Yoshihara: One of my improv teammates [Kelly Marie Tran] got cast in Star Wars because they had confidence that they could make an unknown actor shine. Because they had confidence in what they're doing, they don't need to cast a famous actor to play one of their main roles.

Agena: In this show I'm working on right now, 13 Reasons Why, the girl that's playing the lead is a newcomer [Katherine Langford], and it's a star-making role for her. If you find the right person and you have confidence in your project, you can make it great. Also, 13 Reasons Why has so much diverse casting in it that's not necessarily specified in the book. That makes me hopeful for the future. Just trust the story a little bit! See how people will respond and get on board with you. Everybody, not just one type of audience, was excited about Get Out and were telling their friends. The audience will show up if you have authenticity. Like Moonlight, there was stuff in there that is so specific to that community where the filmmakers grew up. Even if I don't understand everything they're talking about, I will love it if I feel that it's real. And you also feel when it's not, and that was what we just spent two hours doing.

Okatsuka: That's why we used to go to the movies. To see a specific story that we might not know.

Kato-Kiriyama: A good story, you're not crossing over. You're just telling a good story. We never talk about white folks crossing over into other communities.

In your encounters with the Hollywood system, what are the things you've been asked to do, and the opportunities you've had?

Yoshihara: I was always told to get rid of my accent, so I was spending time and money trying to get rid of it. Then my English got better, and when I got on set, I was always told, "Can you dial up your accent?" (Laughter.)

Okatsuka: Can you give me my money back?

Agena: I feel very fortunate getting to work at all, so I'm coming in with a big sense of gratitude. Now more than ever, a lot of the things I go out for are open ethnicity. And when I see the breakdown, it's not just my character, it's every single character on the call sheet. I will admit that 80 percent of the time, the leads are still white. But at least they're putting it out there that you can submit any ethnicity, even when characters are related. This most recent thing I did for NCIS: Los Angeles, I was the only Asian person at the callback. Everyone else was white. So when I got cast and they had to cast my sister, they had to go Asian.

If you had the opportunity to sit a Hollywood executive down, what would you say?

Kato-Kiriyama: Anyone who's making a movie now is aware of these representation issues because of people talking about it and putting it in the public realm. So at a certain point, it goes from ignorance to laziness. And even then, I still say, "You want to do it this way? It's your right." We have to look ahead and be in the camp of folks who are pushing for more writers, directors and producers of color and of otherness: queer folks, women, women of color. It's gonna be a really long game. But hopefully we're at least advancing internally as a community from where we were in the '80s when we were wanting to blame Gedde Watanabe for all the ills of our identity.

Agena: There is that piranha-like self-blame where we eat our own. We hurt each other.

Kato-Kiriyama: And even the whole campaign against Tilda and Scarlett is not the battle. Sure, it's funny to pick on them, but at a certain point it's a waste of time in terms of the larger discussion.

Agena: That's what's so exciting about this time. There is a Master of None, there is a Fresh Off the Boat, there is a Get Out. I love being alive at this point, and that's why I'm just waiting for the thing that's not this movie. The thing where we can go out not as five women sitting there chewing our teeth through this movie, but five women going, "Yeah! Let's go see this movie because we're celebrating it!" I want that experience.

Kato-Kiriyama: When that happens, we need to go do that. We'll be 80.

Agena: I want this to be next year!

Kato-Kiriyama: It'll be a whole party.

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