Ghost in the Shell is at the centre of the latest Hollywood ‘whitewashing’ row but is the criticism fair?

Ghost in the Shell underperformed at the North American box-office when it was released last month – and the casting of Scarlett Johansson in the lead role and the controversy it generated – was highlighted as one of the reasons for its failure.

Scarlett Johansson in Hollywood movie Ghost in the Shell. Courtesy Paramount Pictures
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The casting of Scarlett Johansson as cyber super-cop Major Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell, the big-budget Hollywood movie adaptation of the classic manga (Japanese comic book) series, created an online furore.

When the first image of the American actress sporting the character’s traditional black, bob haircut first appeared on the internet, the choice was seen as yet another example of Hollywood whitewashing Asian characters out of movies.

It echoed the anger aroused when Tilda Swinton was cast as the Ancient One in last year's Doctor Strange, while Cameron Crowe's Hawaii-set comedy Aloha flopped following criticism of the decision to cast Emma Stone as Alison Ng, a character of Chinese and native Hawaiian descent.

Hollywood history is littered with other examples of controversial cross-racial casting benefiting white actors: Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow, Jim Sturgess in 21, Burt Lancaster in Apache, Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's, Peter Sellars in The Party and Liam Neeson as Ra's al Ghul in Batman Begins, a character who in the comics is of Arab descent.

Ghost in the Shell underperformed at the North American box-office when it was released last month – and the casting of Johansson in the lead role and the controversy it generated – was highlighted as one of the reasons for its failure.

Whitewashing is a real problem in Hollywood, but a deeper look at the history of Ghost in the Shell – and manga and anime in general – show that in this instance the argument is not quite so clear-cut.

Ghost in the Shell first appeared as a manga in April 1989. Written and illustrated by Masamune Shirow, it is set in the mid-21st century and is about a counter-cyber terrorist organisation led by Major Motoko Kusanagi.

In 1995, director Mamoru Oshii's animated movie version (anime) of Ghost in the Shell became an international hit. His 2004 sequel, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, was the first manga-inspired animation to screen in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. The franchise has also inspired animated TV series, novels and games. Only Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira, and its 1988 animated movie, can rival it in terms of worldwide name recognition of an anime film.

Ghost in the Shell's influence in Hollywood can be seen in films such as Minority Report, The Matrix and Avatar. In all these movies, the boundaries between reality and cyberspace become blurred and human consciousness is able to operate outside the physical body.

The use of such avatars and automation in Ghost in the Shell creates a grey area over the casting of Johansson, according to anime director Oshii.

“What issue could there possible be with casting her?” he told IGN. “The Major is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one. The name ‘Motoko Kusanagi’ and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray her.”

There are other more complex reasons why the casting is arguably not as controversial as it first appears. The history of Japanese anime has its own troubled history with representation.

After the Second World War, Japan was decimated and its sense of national identity was eroded. The emperor lost sovereign power and became a figurehead. The country – devastated by the war effort, two nuclear bombs and forced demilitarisation – needed to rebuild its economy.

With scant resources, entrepreneurs began recycling discarded food tins, remodelling them into cheap toy replicas of American jeeps. They became immensely popular both with the Japanese populace and occupying allied troops, and Japanese manufacturers realised that their products needed to appeal to the children of American soldiers to be profitable.

Toymakers, seeing the popularity of Disney cartoons, began creating their own animated characters, giving them a mix of American and Japanese characteristics: bigger heads, massive doe-eyes and softer faces.

In their pursuit of profits, Japanese toymakers had essentially erased Japanese features.

This might help to explain why the casting of Johansson did not seem to be such a controversial issue in Japan.

That the film did not succeed there either, despite this, suggests the film’s mediocre American box-office has as much to do with a lack of familiarity with the franchise and a poor adaptation as with casting.

Also, the Japanese are used to seeing people who look like themselves represented in local media. So the casting debate seems to be a peculiarly American problem, in a country and industry where whitewashing is prevalent and persistent.

The picture that emerges is that it is not the casting of Johansson, in and of itself, that is the problem here, given the roots of manga and anime.

But put into the context of a long history of Hollywood whitewashing, the casting choice does seem somewhat unwise.

Ghost in the Shell is in cinemas from April 20

artslife@thenational.ae