Scarlett Johansson in 'Ghost in the Shell': Japanese Industry, Fans Surprised by "Whitewashing" Outrage

Ghost in the Shell — H 2016
Jasin Boland

While some fans are disappointed that a Japanese actress wasn't cast as the lead, many expected it in a Hollywood production, and others say it fits the themes of the original manga.

The casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi in the Paramount/DreamWorks adaptation of Japanese anime hit Ghost in the Shell has drawn accusations of "whitewashing" and sparked fierce debate on social media across the Western world. But in the home of the manga and anime cult classic, the reaction to the media firestorm was mostly surprise, as many Japanese had already assumed that the lead role in a Hollywood version of the story would go to a white actress.

While there has been criticism and some resigned disappointment expressed by online commenters at the fact that a non-Japanese actress was chosen for the role, even there the reaction has been somewhat muted and distinctly lacking in the vitriol spewing forth elsewhere.

The original manga, written by Masamune Shirow, was published in 1989 by Kodansha, which licensed it for Mamoru Oshii's seminal 1995 anime feature, a number of Japanese spinoff films and anime series, and most recently for the Hollywood live-action version.

"Looking at her career so far, I think Scarlett Johansson is well cast," Sam Yoshiba, director of the international business division at Kodansha's Tokyo headquarters, tells The Hollywood Reporter. "She has the cyberpunk feel. And we never imagined it would be a Japanese actress in the first place."

He added: "This is a chance for a Japanese property to be seen around the world." Yoshiba recently returned from a visit to the New Zealand set of the movie, where he says he was impressed by the respect being shown for the source material.

Many ordinary Japanese manga fans are also nonplussed by the outrage over the casting. "If you want a Japanese cast, then a Japanese company should make the film in Japan," said longtime manga fan Tetsuya Kataoka.

Interestingly, the casting of an Asian-looking actress may have avoided the "whitewashing" accusations and likely placated some fans in Europe and America but provoked a worse reaction in Japan.

"It's a shame they didn't choose a Japanese person to tell such an interesting story. But at least they didn't cast a Chinese actress, like they did in Memoirs of a Geisha," said Ai Ries Collazo, another manga fan. "[Zhang Ziyi] actually did an amazing job, but it was like, really? Again, can't they find a Japanese actress? Though casting an Asian actress would probably have gone down better in America."

Japanese manga and anime fans pointed out that similar "racebending" casting takes place in reverse for domestic productions. Two live-action movies based on the Attack on Titan manga, also originally published by Kodansha, were released last year. The characters in the manga by Hajime Isayama were Western, but the cast for the movies was all Japanese.

Meanwhile, some Japanese commentators on Twitter suggested that not too much attention should be paid to the physical appearance of the actress, because the dominant themes in Ghost in the Shell are the nature of identity and cyborgs used to host cyber-brains.

"It's a Hollywood movie, it can't be helped that there's going to be a white lead actress. Well, best to think of it as an artificial body situation," tweeted @Imperia_r.

"There's been a lot of criticism from foreign fans about the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi in the movie adaptation of Ghost in the Shell," wrote @janyojanyo. "It's about artificial bodies, so you may as well think of it as her using a white cyborg. The manga and anime have differences anyway. It's still better than them casting Rinko Kikuchi just because she can speak English."

And some said the casting could draw people to cinemas. "So it's Beat Takeshi [Kitano] and Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell," tweeted ‏@Rotten_Stupa. "I don't really know much about the plot, but that's a combination probably worth seeing,"