Does Ghost in the Shell Require an Asian Lead? A Roundtable Discussion

ghost in the shell movie poster in cartoon style
via http://ghostintheshell.tumblr.com/

If you haven’t heard, Ghost in the Shell–a classic anime–is now in theaters in a re-imagined American adaptation. The movie had a disappointing opening weekend with a take of only $19 million, behind Beauty and the Beast and Boss Baby. Not the best news for a movie with a $110 million budget. One possible reason is the controversy of omitting an Asian actress for the lead character, Motoko Kusanagi, instead being played by decidedly not-Asian actress Scarlett Johansson.

Alright, with a name like Motoko Kusanagi, the expectation for an Asian actress is pretty understandable, though there are some arguable points about the tenuous necessity of Asian actor for an adaptation made, produced, and targeted towards American audiences that we’ll get to later in the article. In addition, the original director of Ghost in the Shell, Mamoru Oshii, gave his own opinion in an IGN interview that the controversy is much ado about nothing:

“What issue could there possibly be with casting her?” Oshii told IGN by e-mail. “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. Even if her original body (presuming such a thing existed) were a Japanese one, that would still apply.”

The director went on to point out how a number of actors in the past have played characters of different ethnic groups without issue. “In the movies, John Wayne can play Genghis Khan, and Omar Sharif, an Arab, can play Doctor Zhivago, a Slav. It’s all just cinematic conventions,” he explained. “If that’s not allowed, then Darth Vader probably shouldn’t speak English, either. I believe having Scarlett play Motoko was the best possible casting for this movie. I can only sense a political motive from the people opposing it, and I believe artistic expression must be free from politics.”

On Paramount’s part, they did acknowledge a possible conflict with the casting choice. Kyle Davies, domestic distribution chief for Paramount, in an interview with CBC revealed his thoughts on the matter:

“We had hopes for better results domestically. I think the conversation regarding casting impacted the reviews,”

Scarlett Johansson, in an interview with Marie Claire, defended her role in the movie and voiced her support for diversity in film:

“I certainly would never presume to play another race of a person. Diversity is important in Hollywood, and I would never want to feel like I was playing a character that was offensive. Also, having a franchise with a female protagonist driving it is such a rare opportunity. Certainly, I feel the enormous pressure of that—the weight of such a big property on my shoulders.”

Money Talks

My personal belief is that there isn’t any ulterior “racist” motive here–just money at play.

Scarlett Johansson is a name that sells and in Hollywood, Money is King (TM). She was likely cast to give the Japanese source material, though widely respected and popular in its own right, more palatability to a broad American audience. She sells seats and that’s definitely big. Studios need to make money–no charities here. The biggest reason for her casting, in my opinion, is economic suitability.

Any Numbers on Asians in Film?

First, let’s look at the overall makeup of the US population by race. According to US Census data as of 2010, Asian Americans constituted 4.8% of the population. Thus, I based just on those number I would expect roughly 4.8% representation in film as a naive estimate. Of course, that number doesn’t adjust for anything that could possibly confound such a basic calculation–perhaps Asian interest in the film industry is different from other groups. I haven’t done the research, so I can’t really say what the confounders are.

If we look at Asian demographics in Los Angeles County, where Hollywood is located, those percentages jump to 13.7%, according to the US Census data for 2010. We should keep in mind that 5 out of the  “big 6” major studios, which together represent 80-85% of US/Canadian box office revenue and have operations centered around Los Angeles County area, actually report to headquarters in New York, Philadelphia, and Tokyo. Thus, there might be some caveats using LA population demographics as an estimate for the expected Asian representation in film. Another caveat is California ranked 4th as a film production location behind Lousiana, the Canada, and the UK. If we wanted to make any actual rigorous academic researchers/statisticians cry, we could average the 2 numbers together (that would be 9.25%) to get a kind of back of the envelope estimate for expected Asian representation in the US, taking into account the much higher Asian demographics in LA county.

Thus you might reasonably conclude somewhere between 1 out of 20 to 1 out of every 10 actors to be Asian with our quick and dirty methods.

UCLA releases an annual Hollywood Diversity Report examining minority representation and trends in film for that year. In the 2016 report [pdf warning], there weren’t any numbers broken down by race for actors in movies. They did have some data on Asian representation in cable, broadcast, and digital shows for the 2013-2014 season. For broadcast shows that number was 4%, for cable 2%, digital 5%, which together look reasonably close to our low-end estimate of Asian representation.

graphs from 2016 ucla hollywood diversity report

Other research conducted by USC Annenberg’s Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative looking specifically at minority representation in the 100 top films of 2014 found 5.3% Asian representation in the characters. Though this is fairly in line with our low-end expected Asian estimate, we should also note that more than 40 of those films had no speaking Asian characters. Only 17 of the films had lead actors from an underrepresented race/ethnicity, though no data on specifically Asian lead actors was reported so it’s hard to tell whether the top 100 films had proportionate numbers of Asian lead actors that would be in line with Census numbers. If we just think about that number as a percentage–17/100 films–thats 17%. If at least 5 of those movies had lead or co-lead Asian actors, then that would be in line with our estimates. Unfortunately, we don’t have the data to check.

graphs from usc annenberg report on minority representation in top 100 fil

“Whitewashing”

It might be useful to explain what the issue of Whitewashing is. The New York Times has a good working definition and article on the matter:

The issue has crystallized in a word — “whitewashing” — that calls out Hollywood for taking Asian roles and stories and filling them with white actors.

A Discussion Roundtable

Of course, Johansson’s casting has created much controversy in the general viewing public and media. Within my own social circle, there was a good roundtable discussion of the issues relating to the movie, notable for points supporting opposing viewpoints on the casting choice of Johansson in the lead role. Surprisingly, there was civil discussion and learning going around (rare in most Internet forums), which is part of the reason I feel it is worth sharing.

As some background, here’s my short bios on the notables involved:

  • Alejandro Urena: One of the fellow writers on this blog and very passionate about comics and popular art media. A good friend who let me crash at his place while visiting Portland.
  • Kristine Alyssa Gerolaga: An Asian-American actress and director involved in the independent film community. I met her in person at San Diego Comic Con where her film, A Period Drama, was playing, though we spoke online before that–she happens to be connected to some people I know.
  • Michael Alexander Greenhut: Another friend I’ve known for a good while. He’s also a filmmaker, editor, and we actually went to the same university–San Francisco State–though he studied film studies while I went into Marketing/English Lit.
  • Brian Urena: Dear brother of Alejandro Urena and all around decent dude who got me a homebrew beer kit for secret santa–never forget.
  • Tyler Pinomaki: A fully bearded mountain man I’ve invited to be a writer on this blog. Fun fact: we went to New York Comic Con together, along with another fellow writer on the blog, Andrew Wong.
  • Alex Taniguchi: A half japanese guy that I don’t really know personally, though he gave me permission to quote him here.

Here’s the statement that started the discussion, along with some of the initial replies. Note that I’ve edited slightly for clarity/making people look more awesome/lack of journalistic integrity:

Alejandro Urena: You know who has no issue with the casting of Ghost in the Shell? Actual Japanese people.

And the initial responses made some good counterpoints along with Alex (Alejandro) elaborating on his position:

Kristine Alyssa Gerolaga: People can hold whatever opinions they want but to completely dismiss an issue just because you’re not directly affected by it (debatable, because if you’re a person of color, you are) is bullshit, and damn, it must nice looking through those pretty rose-colored glasses all day. Also, not surprised that there are Japanese people who don’t care about the casting choices. They live in Japan where they turn on the TV and most people if not all are Japanese. They don’t have to worry about Asian representation in Japan. Of course they’re not concerned about the casting and many of them aren’t looking to educate themselves on the representation problem here.

Michael Alexander Greenhut: I was just going to say I know a lot of Asian, and minority actors who do care.

Kristine Alyssa Gerolaga: I appreciate that! This issue is constantly getting downplayed as annoying and insignificant.

Alejandro Urena: Sorry, I didn’t realize I’d come off as for white-washing . I’m all about representation trust me, I just think that this particular source material is a terrible example to demonstrate that though. Just because the animation is Japanese, doesn’t necessarily means that the characters are Asian. Like, if a live action Sailor Moon were to be announced by an American studio, I’d totally expect the main character to be white.

Michael Alexander Greenhut: You obviously have not watched any of Ghost in the Shell.

Kristine Alyssa Gerolaga: The expectation that American = White immediately for you is kinda the problem though. The lack of opportunity comes from that default way of thinking.

Michael Alexander Greenhut: Exactly.

Alejandro Urena: You got me there. I’m conditioned :/

Kristine Alyssa Gerolaga: It’s tough dude. I’ve had to unlearn a ton of shit I’ve been conditioned to think is okay. But thanks for listening.

Alejandro Urena: Thank you. I know I can be wrong and I can admit to it. Like I said though, it’s kind of a grey area in a lot of examples I feel like. Like the Ancient One in Dr. Strange. Marvel is still doing right though by making Black Panther a predominantly black production.

At this point, Brian pops in with his own opinion focusing on the slightly different situation of fan complaints on Netflix’s American movie adaptation of Death Note. Note that his argument pertains to the Death Note controversy since he hadn’t seen Ghost in the Shell and didn’t want to comment about something he hadn’t watched yet. Still, there were good points made about the ‘whitewashing’ issue in film:
Brian Urena: Don’t know anything about Ghost in the Shell specifically, but I’ve been seeing people saying similar things about the Netflix version of Death Note regarding representation. It’s kinda dumb that people are complaining about the casting because there really isn’t any obligation to cast a certain type of actor for an American adaptation.

Tyler Pinomaki: Why is it dumb?

Brian Urena: There’s no reason the characters have to be Asian in an American adaptation.

Tyler Pinomaki: Why not have an Asian American actor?

Kristine Alyssa Gerolaga: Not dumb at all. People of color, especially Asian-Americans, have been severely underrepresented (or erased) in American mainstream media for a long long time. White actors have way more opportunities than actors of color to be on screen. It only perpetuates a systemic racism that people seem to think doesn’t exist. I’m an Asian-American actress and I’m experiencing this first hand so it’s “kinda dumb” to see comments like this from people who aren’t completely informed on the issue.

Brian Urena: I’m not saying don’t have an Asian american actor for it, I’m saying its fine to have any actor in an american adaptation of death note.

Kristine Alyssa Gerolaga: In an ideal world, that would be great. But we’re not there yet.

Tyler Pinomaki: But Brian, can you understand why that would be frustrating for Asian actors or actresses?

Brian Urena: I’m saying in this specific movie casting scenario, I don’t see the obligation to do it. How would this be different from any other movie? or are you applying this train of thought to any movie that gets made in the US?

Tyler Pinomaki: Brian Urena You didn’t answer my question

Brian Urena: Not sure which movie you’re talking about

Tyler Pinomaki: I’m not talking about any specific movie, just asking if you can see the issue from another point of view. I’m not trying to sway your opinion or anything. I just think it’s pretty dismissive to say it’s dumb for people to complain or be frustrated about this.

Brian Urena: My answer would change depending on the source material and movie.

Tyler Pinomaki: What I am hearing is that you only think your interpretation on the media is valid. Am I wrong?

Brian Urena: It’s just having an opinion

Tyler Pinomaki: Okay glad to clear that up. Well it is my opinion that it is more productive to talk to other people about their viewpoints than to call them dumb and dismiss them from the get-go.

Brian Urena: I only call them dumb after I read their full arguments and it’s still irrational. Btw, I was talking about Death Note, so not commenting on Ghost in the Shell

Paulo Canuel: I think it really just depends. The new Death Note is a re-imagining of the anime, this time it’s set in America. Ghost in the Shell is STILL set in Japan and the character should still be Japanese, if I’m not mistaken (haven’t watched it).

Tyler Pinomaki: I still think this type of casting diminishes opportunities for minority actresses and actors.

Back to the topic at hand, Michael Greenhut went a bit more in-depth about the specific details that would show an Asian actor making sense in the role, perhaps even to maintain the story’s consistency/suspension of disbelief :

Michael Alexander Greenhut: This Ghost in the Shell is not an American adaptation. It’s a live action adaptation. The Office was an American adaption. It took the idea of a mockumentary that takes place in an average office work place and put it in America with American characters, sense of humor, and setting. Contrast that with Ghost in the Shell where it is still set in Japan with Japanese aesthetics, characters, and culture, where whole scenes are taken directly from the Japanese animated movie. Yet, the Japanese main character is being played by a Caucasian.  And the worst part, in my opinion, is Scarlett Johansson isn’t even a good actress.

You know what Scarlett Johansson’s character’s name is in the live action Ghost in the Shell movie is? Motoko Kusanagi (same as in the anime). They aren’t even trying to hide the fact that she is an Asian character.

Alejandro Urena: But she isn’t really though, she just has a Japanese name because the anime was made in Japan. People in anime are pretty ethnically ambiguous.

Michael Alexander Greenhut: Ghost In the Shell is primarily set in the mid-twenty-first century in the fictional Japanese city of Niihama. The main character of Ghost in the Shell, Major Motoko Kusanagi, is a cyborg, having had a terrible accident befall her as a child that ultimately required her to use a full-body prosthesis to house her cyberbrain.

Matt Mobley: Scarlett Johansson is playing the cyborg body housing the brain of a Japanese girl named Motoko Kusanagi. So they literally put a Japanese girl’s brain in a white girl’s body.

Michael Alexander Greenhut: Here are some of the rest of the cast of characters:

  • Batou (Japanese)) is a main male character in Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell series.
  • Saito (Japanese) Section 9’s resident tactical sniper is an exceptional crack-shot with very few cyberized implants.
  • Togusa (Japanese) is the second most prominently featured male character in Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell
  • They are a part of Section 9 based in Tokyo, Japan.

Alejandro Urena: Well I’m glad I stirred up some good conversation. To clarify, I do believe Hollywood white-washing is an issue, I just don’t believe this example is as cut and dry as others due to it coming from a sci-fi animation. It probably would have been more appropriate to have an Asian character star in a Japanese story though.

Oh look! We actually got an actual (half) Japanese perspective on the issue:

Alex Taniguchi: I’m half Japanese and I have a problem with this adaption.

Alejandro Urena: I meant Japanese living in Japan but I hear that. It was flimsy to say because I don’t expect them to understand our racial politics.

Alex Taniguchi: Not every adaption is bad, for example, 7 Samurai and The Magnificent Seven were good.

Michael Alexander Greenhut: Or Internal Affairs and The Departed. They all take a great story from another culture and reimagine it.

Alex Taniguchi: So the casting in Ghost in the Shell is crap for the most part. From what I’ve seen, they only got two of them correct: Batou and Chief Aramaki. And even then Batou has a scene without his cyber eye implants. Those implants are a part of his backstory of being in the US Rangers and they have a nickname associated with it.

As for the screenwriting, it seems lazy that they take a bunch of key scenes from different episodes in Ghost in the Shell and they tie it all in and don’t really know what’s going on. It’s like they tried to take aspects from Ghost in the Shell: Arise without understanding what the anime was about.

Then we started getting into the issue of whether the size of the Asian talent pool would be a plausible limitation for casting:

Michael Benjamin Sergio Fornillos: I’m gonna be problematic and say that maybe the Asian actors that auditioned for the role just weren’t good enough.

Michael Alexander Greenhut: An actress like Scarlett Johansson doesn’t audition for a film, she gets attached to a film. The studio probably said “we want a star who will sell tickets”. There was likely no audition process for that role.

Alejandro Urena: I wouldn’t put it past studios to just not even consider an Asian actor.

Brian Urena: Aziz Ansari wanted an Asian actor for Master of None and nearly changed the character to someone else because the Asian actor pool is so small, so that should be considered here as well.

“I had to cast an Asian actor for “Master of None,” and it was hard. When you cast a white person, you can get anything you want: “You need a white guy with red hair and one arm? Here’s six of ’em!” But for an Asian character, there were startlingly fewer options, and with each of them, something was off. Some had the right look but didn’t have comedy chops. Others were too young or old. We even debated changing the character to an Asian woman, but a week before shooting began, Kelvin Yu, an actor from Los Angeles, sent in an audition over YouTube and got the part.”

Kristine Alyssa Gerolaga: It’s definitely problematic because there are plenty of capable Asian actors. Never saw a talented Asian actor? That’s because they’re not getting opportunities and/or they’re being offered characters that don’t showcase those talents (i.e. one dimensional or stereotypical Asian characters). It’s not because they’re not good enough, it’s ignorance and not having the balls to take a risk on those actors. Thus they attach a safe, marketable actress instead.

Alex finished it off with a nice bottom line to the discussion:

Alejandro Urena: Asian actors aren’t any less talented than white ones. The misrepresentaion of minority actors you see in big productions isn’t because of lack of talent, but because it’s still rare to see big stories on screen with someone really dark black as a main character, or super gay or even just Latino. The money wants it the traditional way and most of them don’t give a shit about anyone else anyways. You have to believe that representation is important.

How Do Actual Japanese People Feel About This?

A nice way to end this article. If you have additional thoughts to add to the discussion, feel free to share them with me in the comments.
Sunny Mui

Sunny Mui

An SF Bay Area native with a decade of Comic Con experience. Reader of books, comics, and more. He also writes short stories and poetry once in a while, when he's feeling to the task. Designer, developer, and marketer by trade, but professional fun person by night.
Sunny Mui

Post Author: Sunny Mui

An SF Bay Area native with a decade of Comic Con experience. Reader of books, comics, and more. He also writes short stories and poetry once in a while, when he's feeling to the task. Designer, developer, and marketer by trade, but professional fun person by night.