Ghost in the shell 2017 controversy: a comprehensive guide


From Scarlett Johansson’s heroine in the remake of the anime classic lớn Tildomain authority Swinton as a Himalayan high priest in Doctor Strange, the film industry stands accused of whitewashing Asian characters and culture. Does it have a defence?


Whitewash? Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell (right) và her character in the original anime movie. Composite: PR
Whitewash? Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell (right) and her character in the original anime movie. Composite: PR

As social-truyền thông media sale strategies go, Ghost in the Shell’s promotional site was a bit of an own goal. Visitors were invited lớn create their own personalised tweet of empowerment by uploading an image & writing a biểu ngữ starting with the words “I Am …” Suggestions included “Strong”, “A Fighter”, and “Whoever I Want To Be”.

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The fans had other ideas. Ghost in the Shell is a live-action Hollywood remake of one of the most successful Japanese anime movies ever. The decision to lớn cast Scarlett Johansson as its cyborg heroine, originally named Motoko Kusanagi, has not gone down well. This was “whitewashing”, the fans complained. The role should have sầu gone to a Japanese actor. To date, more than 100,000 of them have signed a petition saying so. They also made a mockery of the Ghost in the Shell promo site. Examples include an image of Johansson with the khẩu hiệu “I Am Totally a Japanese, Yeah”, Japanese actor Rinko Kikuđưa ra with “I Am The Woman That Should Have Been Cast” and, over an image of kids painting a picket fence white: “I Am Hollywood Making Any Movie Ever.”

Hollywood has only just finished congratulating itself on its progress over African-American diversity, after Moonlight’s Oscar win put all that #OscarSoWhite unpleasantness in the past. Does the industry still have sầu an Asian problem? Ghost In The Shell is just the latest iteration of a story that has been replaying with increasing regularity & visibility recently.

Offending the Arab world in the past few years, we have had ancient Egypt-themed epics Exodus: Of Gods & Kings and Gods of Egypt, neither of which contained Egyptians. Before that, there was Jake Gyllenhaal’s blue-eyed, Swedish-surnamed Prince of Persia, Rooney Mara’s non-Native American Tiger Lily in the reimagined Pan, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Star Trek’s “Indian” adversary, Khan.

But east Asians have sầu particular reason to feel aggrieved, having seen their culture regularly plundered, appropriated, stereotyped and ethnically cleansed. Ghost in the Shell comes in the wake of Emma Stone playing Chinese-Hawaiian “Allison Ng” in Cameron Crowe’s Aloha, Matt Damon at the heart of Chinese epic The Great Wall, và white-dominated Hollywood versions of Asian stories such as The Last Airbender và Dragon Ball Evolution.

Ghost in the Shell arrives into lớn a pop-culture conversation still ringing with previous whitewashing outcry: Marvel’s Doctor Strange. This time, the problem was The Ancient One, the superhero’s mystical mentor. In the original comics, the Ancient One was a Himalayan high priest, with long, Trắng facial hair, a bald head và a penchant for Buddhist aphorisms. In the movie, the role went khổng lồ Tildomain authority Swinton, who, for all her versatility, is possibly the whichạy thử actor out there.


Swinton replied that Dr Strange’s writers were seeking khổng lồ avoid the tired Orientadanh sách stereotype of the “wise old Eastern geezer” or “Fu Manchu type”. “Wanting to switch up the gender (another diversity department) & not wanting khổng lồ engage with the old Dragon Lady trope, they chose to write the character as being of (ancient) Celtic origin & offered that role to me,” she wrote, adding that Chiwetel Ejiofor & Benedict Wong were also in the movie. In other words, it was whitewashing in the name of diversity.

“Erasure is not the answer khổng lồ stereotypes,” says Keith Chow, editor of The Nerds of Màu sắc blog, which views pop culture through a non-White lens. “When the excuse is, ‘We were trying lớn not offend you’, well, denying my existence I find more offensive! It’s basically saying we can’t exist as anything other than stereotypes.”

Chow makes the point that the Ancient One turned out khổng lồ be pretty much the most interesting character in Doctor Strange – likely as a result of Swinton’s casting. “If Tildomain authority Swinton had read the part & it was lượt thích in the comics, she would not have taken the role. So what they did, by changing the character to fit Swinton, they made that character more complex.” Had the character been played by an Asian actor, it would have been just as complex, Chow suggests.

Part of the problem with comic-book characters in particular is that they were created decades ago, at a time when their American creators had little awareness of the stereotypes they were peddling. Just as Doctor Strange found enlightenment in the Himalayas, so Tony Stark became Iron Man in Vietnam giới in the original comics (transposed khổng lồ the Middle East for the movie). During the 1980s, comics writer & recovering Orientadanh mục Frank Miller sent Batman, Wolverine & Daredevil to lớn nhật bản for various forms of ninja/samurai/martial arts training as he refashioned their backstories.

Those stereotypes have sầu needed some retooling for the modern movie era. Marvel’s movie midas Kevin Feige admitted there were “things to lớn cringe at” in the old comics but claimed: “For us, it’s important that we don’t feel lượt thích a completely white-European cast.” It’s also important that they don’t annoy the lucrative sầu Chinese market, which means it’s often the Asian characters who thất bại out. Just as the Ancient One became the Celtic One, so Iron Man’s adversary The Mandarin – another Fu Manchu stereotype – was recast as Ben Kingsley, from Croydon, and Batman’s quasi-Arabian adversary Ra’s al Ghul became Liam Neeson.

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There has been some reverse-whitewashing, too, lớn be fair: Samuel L Jackson as Niông xã Fury in The Avengers movies và Will Smith as Deadshot in Suicide Squad, for example. Chinese-American actors Chloe Bennet (nee Chloe Wang) appeared in the TV series Agents of SHIELD, và French-Cambodian Elodie Yung played Elektra (who was originally Greek) in Daredevil. All of these characters were originally written as Trắng.


Like a barefoot gap-year student … Finn Jones as Danny Rvà in Iron Fist. Photograph: Cara Howe/Netflix/NetflixJust when they were doing so well, though, Marvel went & spoilt it all, with their new Netflix series Iron Fist, which debuted earlier this month. This was another one of those 1970s comic-book titles riddled with Asian cliches, many of which have been left in place. Its nhân vật is Danny Rvà, a trắng American kid whose plane crashed in the Himalayas, killing his billionaire parents and leaving him lớn be raised by a bunch of mystical “wise old geezers”. In the new series, the grownup Rand returns to lớn Thủ đô New York to reclayên his birthright, looking lượt thích a barefoot gap-year student but possessing awesome kung-fu powers.

The series has received mixed Review, partly for its slow-moving story and lacklustre martial arts, partly because it centres on an entitled rich, White kid, và partly for rehashing some familiar tropes. One that Asian-Americans are particularly weary of is the “trắng guy who’s better at being Asian than actual Asians”. They’ve put up with it since the Kung Fu TV series in the 1970s (which Bruce Lee developed for himself, only to see David Carradine cast in the role), through the likes of Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai and Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. Now they have Danny R&, played by British actor Finn Jones, speaking fluent Mandarin và throwing his Japanese-American sparring partner to lớn the mat and telling her things such as: “Your đưa ra can be focused & brought inkhổng lồ the fight lớn overcome any obstacle.” Jones’s attempts to lớn defover the show on Twitter only deepened the row, khổng lồ the extent he had to delete his tài khoản.

Many critics suggested it would have sầu been better lớn cast an Asian-American actor as Danny Rvà. One of the character’s core tenets is that he felt lượt thích an outsider in Asia and he feels like one in New York, too. “You don’t have to lớn be white lớn feel that way,” says Chow. A lot of non-white Americans know exactly how that feels, especially in light of the Trump administration’s Muslim-targeted travel ban & xenophobic sentiments. It wasn’t all that long ago that Japanese people were being put in American internment camps on the basis of their appearance, Chow points out. Pop culture, perhaps unwittingly, transmits và reinforces these prejudices. “I’d challenge the notion that Americanness equals whiteness. As someone who was born & raised in America, who has roots in America for generations, this idea that I’m not as American as someone else, not as American as a British actor, even – it’s an interesting dynamic, right?”


Keanu Reeves and Hugo Weaving in The Matrix Reloaded. Photograph: Warner BrosOne person who didn’t have a problem with Ghost in the Shell’s casting, ironically, was Mamoru Oshii, director of the original anime. In fact, he thought Johansson was perfect casting. He pointed out that the character was a cyborg, after all: “Her physical khung is an entirely assumed one. The name Motoko Kusanagi và her current toàn thân are not her original name and toàn thân, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actor must portray her.” From a Japanese perspective, in a culture abundant in its own stories & characters, Ghost in the Shell is a flattering novelty.

In the source material, Ghost in the Shell’s heroine is not particularly Japanese-looking, it must be said. Her hair is black or purple, her eyes are round & their colour ranges from blue khổng lồ orange. Japanese anime has never cared much for racial specifics. Characters can easily have sầu blond hair & xanh eyes, but that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily “white” or non-Japanese. Furthermore, the location of Oshii’s anime is actually a future version of Hong Kong, not nhật bản – reportedly influenced by Blade Runner. The new film honours that. The web1_setting is identifiably Asian, though Johansson is surrounded by a multicultural cast that includes few Asian faces, apart from Singaporean actor Chin Han & Japanese legkết thúc Takeshi Kitano – who, bizarrely, speaks his dialogue in Japanese while nobody toàn thân else does. Equally bizarrely, Johansson’s character turns out lớn be Japanese after all – even though she can’t speak the language.

In a way, the new Ghost in the Shell comes a little late into this conversation, seeing as it was already remade, and “whitewashed”, by Hollywood nearly 20 years ago. They cast Keanu Reeves in it và called it The Matrix. When the Wachowskis were originally pitching their movie around Hollywood, they played producers the Ghost in the Shell anime and told them: “We wanna vày that for real.” They pretty much did. The Matrix borrowed a great khuyễn mãi giảm giá from Oshii’s anime – its gr&, human-machine themes, its action sequences, even little details such as sockets in the backs of people’s necks. The difference is, The Matrix combined these elements with many others: Hong Kong wire-fu techniques, then-novel “bullet time” special effects, a wardrobe department of wipe-clean fetish gear, & a grand mythology that owed little lớn Asia specifically. It’s the difference between Hollywood remaking Seven Samurai as a western and remaking it with a bunch of Trắng guys pretending to be samurai.

It’s fitting that Ghost in the Shell is a story about attachment khổng lồ identity. In Oshii’s original, the cyborg heroine lets go of her human identity altogether and embraces a post-human future. The Hollywood version isn’t prepared to go that far; it’s more interested in its heroine’s original humanity. Perhaps that’s our dilemma here too: whether lớn honour the origins of stories or cut them loose & do what we wish with them?

Hollywood & east Asia have at least been finding common ground, often with sci-fi. Look at movies such as Pacific Ryên ổn, with a multinational team including Idris Elba, Charlie Hunphái mạnh và Rinko Kikubỏ ra (the fans’ choice for Ghost in the Shell) saving Earth from monsters they Gọi “kaiju” – the Japanese word. The forthcoming sequel also brings on Chinese star Jing Tian. Admittedly, Pacific Ryên borrows heavily from Japanese sources, Neon Genesis Evangelion in particular, but it’s not a straight rip-off. Meanwhile, the original kaiju, Godzilla, has been crossing the Pacific between Hollywood và Japanese cinema for 70 years. Another clash with King Kong is on the cards for 2018. Disney’s Big Hero 6 successfully fused cultures with its trans-Pacific web1_setting of “San Fransokyo” and its east-west animation style. Its heroes even had Japanese names. And all eyes are on Netflix’s Okja, directed by Korea’s Bong Joon-ho, and starring Steven Yeun, Jake Gyllenhaal và the Ancient One herself, Tilda Swinton.

Whether or not integration và inclusiveness will prevail over simple appropriation, protests against movies such as Ghost in the Shell are making film-makers & performers think twice about what they bởi vì, and whether they want to lớn spkết thúc every interview tackling questions about whitewashing, appropriation & stereotyping, as actors such as Johansson, Swinton & Finn Jones have. It doesn’t look as if it will stop any time soon, though. Last week, Netflix aired its first trailer for Death chú ý, another popular Japanese manga that has been entirely transposed lớn the US. Its nhân vật is played by the American actor Nat Wolff. At the time of writing, the online “Boycott Netflix’s Death Note for Whitewashing!” petition is up to 14,000 signatures.

This story was amended on 31 March 2017 to lớn correct the spelling of actor Jing Tian’s name.