A Rational Look At Ghost in the Shell’s “Whitewash” Casting

The first images of Scarlett Johansson as the cybernetic squad leader of Ghost in the Shell’s iconic Section 9 has been released to the public. Of course, a lot of controversy has popped up over Dreamworks Pictures choice due to Scarlett Johansson’s overall look. A lot of people are criticizing the casting of a Caucasian woman for the role of the obviously Asian Makoto Kusanagi. A lot of fans have took to social media to express their outrage over Hollywood “whitewashing” the cast.

If you’re unfamiliar with the idea of “whitewash” casting, it is the practice of casting Caucasian actors and actresses instead of minorities when appropriate. For example, in the incredibly huge box office flop Gods of Egypt, none of the main characters were actually Egyptian. Instead, the main cast was filled with “white” actors like Gerald Butler. In another memorable flop, The Lone Ranger, Hollywood whitewashed the Native American Tonto by deciding to get Johnny Depp for the role.

And to make him more white, they painted his face!

And to make him more white, they painted his face the color!

Now, I totally understand the rage people are feeling now. After all, we are living in a world where people are supposed to be so accepting and inclusive, right? And there are definitely a diverse number of actors and actresses who belong to different races and ethnic backgrounds now so it should be pretty easy for Hollywood to cast the proper race for the proper role, right?

While the answer should be “yes” for both questions, this is a very simplified view of the world. And this is definitely not the way Hollywood views the world. Hollywood isn’t concerned about being politically correct or being socially responsible. That’s because the business of making movies is still a business. It’s about making as money as possible with as little risk as possible. And “whitewashing” the roles is simply minimizing the risks involved.

Actually, it's "Hollywoodland" but nobody remembers that time anymore.

Actually, it’s “Hollywoodland” but nobody remembers that time anymore.

Let’s take a close look at Ghost in the Shell. I am a huge fan of the anime series, specifically, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. But I know it’s more than just that anime. It is one of the most popular mangas and anime series in the world. It does have a solid fanbase due to its very compelling characters, incredibly complex stories and how it even questions conventional thinking. It’s also filled with great action as well as stunning visuals and great concepts about technology of the future.

Despite it being incredibly popular, Ghost in the Shell is definitely not as well-known as Scarlett Johansson. Scarlett Johansson has proven herself to be a versatile actress, able to play different roles, from comedy to action to drama. She’s become a household name, one of modern day’s sex symbols and has proven to have enough star power to draw audiences in.

Now, it would be totally possible for Dreamworks Pictures to cast an Asian actress for the role of Makoto Kusanagi. But, like I mentioned before, Hollywood’s goal when making a blockbuster is to maximize profits while minimizing risks. Unfortunately, casting a relatively unknown but race appropriate actress for the role of Makoto Kusanagi would be incredibly risky, especially for a non-mainstream property like Ghost in the Shell.

It would be fantastic if there was an Asian actress that would be at least popular enough that could fill in cybernetic boots of a live-action Makoto Kusanagi but, no disrespect intended, I couldn’t think of anyone that would be a suitable replacement for Scarlett Johansson. The most popular female Asian actress I could think of would be Maggie Q but I would second guess that choice. Personally, I would’ve wanted to see Rinko Kikuchi, who played Mako Mori in Pacific Rim, as Makoto Kusanagi but she just isn’t well known enough! Oh, she’d be a total kickass Makoto Kusanagi but she’s definitely not popular enough to draw in the crowds that don’t have an idea with Ghost in the Shell is.

The studios could take more risks with a more well established franchise, which is what Marvel and DC have done in the past. While Robert Downey Jr. may have been a big name actor at the time, he wasn’t exactly a major superstar when he filled in the metallic shoes of Iron Man. Chris Hemsworth was contemplating of moving back to Australia until he was given the task to wield the mighty Mjolnir in Thor. Christian Bale wasn’t exactly a household name when he donned the cape and cowl in Batman Begins and I don’t know who actually knew who Henry Cavill was until he became The Man of Steel.

Casting relative unknowns for those films wouldn’t jeopardize the movie studios that much. It’s easy for DC to cast a relative nobody like Henry Cavill because they’re casting him as Superman! Everyone knows who Superman is! As long as he looks the part and has got the build for it, then they can go for it. But getting someone to play Makoto Kusanagi, someone not many people are familiar with, getting an unfamiliar Asian actor could put their investment in danger.

...no matter how uncanny she make look like the character.

…no matter how uncanny Rinko Kikuchi may look like the character.

In retrospect, should we really get mad at the movie studios for this decision? If Scarlett Johansson manages to really portray the steely eyed and calculating Makoto Kusanagi, will movie goers really care that she’s not actually Asian? I remember the furor that errupted when they cast Idris Elba as Heimdall, the all seeing guardian of the Bifrost. And he’s black. Comic book fans were in an uproar because the color of the character’s skin wasn’t true to the one in the comics. And yet, despite hating acting as the character, he pulled off the role well!

Heck, there are some people today clamoring for totally changing the race of a character that would be untrue to the source material! Recently, Marvel announced Game of Thrones actor Finn Jones has been cast as the mystical martial artist Iron Fist for their upcoming Netflix series based on the comic character. The casting of another white actor in the role of Iron Fist got a lot of people upset as well… even though Iron Fist, AKA Danny Rand, is and has always been, white!

Okay, the character was created during a time when it was okay to have an American Ninja and such. It does seem rather cringeworthy by today’s time to have one of Marvel’s greatest martial artists who has been trained in the ancient ways of Chinese fighting as a white guy from New York. So people are saying the television series was an opportunity for Marvel to correct their mistake. Yet, that would come at a cost of what makes the character rather unique. These may be just non-Iron Fist fans complaining since I know fans of the Marvel character wouldn’t want Danny Rand to all of a sudden be someone they don’t recognize.

I am kind of upset that Dreamworks didn’t cast an Asian woman (ie. Rinko Kikuchi) as Makoto Kusanagi. But I think the alternative of not actually getting a big-budgeted Ghost in the Shell live-action movie with the full backing of a major movie studio would be worse. I’m taking what I can get here.

What’s your opinion on the “whitewashing” Hollywood has been doing? Let me know in the comments section below!

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6 thoughts on “A Rational Look At Ghost in the Shell’s “Whitewash” Casting

  1. Quick note: Plenty of Marvel fans – including plenty of Iron Fist fans – wanted Netflix to cast an Asian-American (preferably Chinese-American) as Iron Fist. Because cultural appropriation is almost as bad as whitewashing, and probably more common. So I think characterizing the people who wanted an Asian-American Iron Fist as not fans of the character is wrong.

    But in terms of the bulk of your post: I gotta say, I’m not convinced that Johansson was needed for the movie. I think the days of superstar actors getting people to a movie is pretty much over. If Ghost In the Shell ends up being a boring movie, will Johansson’s star power mean anything? Of course not. And if it’s a great, entertaining movie, then odds are good people would’ve gone regardless of who they cast.

    That’s the thing: Hollywood still thinks it’s stars who determine if a movie’s successful. But it’s not. How goddamn many flops does Johnny Depp need to make before producers figure out that Depp doesn’t sell tickets? What sells tickets is how entertaining a movie is. (Not how good it is, but how entertaining it is. Everyone knows the Transformers movies are bad movies, but they’re entertaining ones, so they make lots of money.)

    If Ghost In the Shell is an entertaining movie, people would have gone to see it, even with an Asian or Asian-American lead. If it’s not an entertaining movie, then they won’t see it, even with Johansson in the lead.

    • Well, in my opinion, it’s not whether or not Scarlett Johansson will make the movie good or not. Rather, the question is if the movie would even be made if she wasn’t involved with the project. The movie could be good or bad, with or without her. Hollywood wants to limit the risks when making a movie and adding someone with Johannson’s star power mitigates the financial risk.

      Regarding Iron Fist, I totally cool with making him Asian. But, at the same time, I want him to be as true to the comics as possible. This would, after all, be a lot of people’s introduction to the character. Also, I think there actually might be an outcry if the first “un-whitewashed” character would just so happen to be the guy who knows martial arts, which is also a Hollywood stereotype (all Asians know martial arts). Honestly, the first minority I would like to see get his own series would be Miles Morales and that would totally be fantastic to see a Netflix series of the character.

      • Right, but my point is that I don’t think Johansson does limit the risk that much. If the movie’s entertaining, people will go to it, no matter who’s in the lead role. If the movie’s not entertaining, people won’t go to it. Hollywood thinks star power drives movie attendance. It doesn’t. Huge stars do movies that bomb, and people no one’s heard of lead major successes. It’s all about how enjoyable a movie is.

        Luke Cage is going to be the first minority character to get his own MCU live-action property, later this year. The martial arts stereotype argument for Iron Fist would be a lot more compelling if that show wasn’t going to be filled with other Asians who happen to be martial artists. And if Daredevil Season 2 wasn’t filled with Asians whose sole trait was literally martial arts. And I’m guessing Wong, in Dr. Strange, will probably be a martial artist. The MCU has already decreed that Asians are martial artists, Helen Cho notwithstanding.

    • if you actually think big budjet actors don’t sell movies tell that to the chinese. Many hollywood films that flopped in the US were big hits in china simply based on the person they cast. And yes 9 out of 10 that person was a white actor.

  2. Pingback: The Biggest Possible Problem of the Live Action Ghost in the Shell Film | 3rd World Geeks

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