Lost in Translation: Scarlett Johansson and ‘Ghost in the Shell’

As our friend Angry Asian Man pointed out earlier this week, Scarlett Johansson has been offered the role of Major Motoko Kusanagi in Dreamworks’ live-action remake of Mamoru Oshii’s ground-breaking anime Ghost in the Shell. And well, she’s white. Which to many of us here certainly feels like more Hollywood whitewashing at first glance. Particularly to anyone following the on-again off-again plans for a live-action remake of Akira with an all white cast or M. Night Shymayalan’s tragic The Last Airbender.

Ghost in the Shell is a seminal film in Japanese cinema for its part in a wave of anime releases in the early-to-mid 90s that set a new bar for the form in Japan, and solidified its legitimacy abroad. I watched GITS along with Katsushiro Otomo’s Akira and Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s Ninja Scroll over the course of one night in 1996, and I was converted irretrievably to the understanding that Japanese anime was the default in animation.

But as much as Ghost in the Shell is essential viewing for anyone interested in entering this very Japanese world of anime — a rabbit hole through which careful consideration is required — the film’s premonitory vision of the future is not uniquely Japanese. There are certainly cultural nuances that drive the film, and its rendering of future Japan is one of its most enjoyable aspects, but that is why we adapt films, to make them uniquely ours.

Implying that Dreamworks has an obligation to cast Japanese actors for this film is like saying Japanese movie studios should have to cast white actors for a remake of The Matrix or Dark City. Not only is it unnecessary, it is an exercise in futility. Even if Dreamworks were to set the film in Japan — and even if they cast an ethnically Asian actress as Kusanagi — the film would still be in English and told from an American perspective. It would still essentially be “whitewashed.”

Dreamworks should make it American, but they should stay away from keeping Japanese names (if they don’t cast Japanese actors) for the sake of making it exotic, as in Akira. And, god forbid they keep any deeply cultural Japanese elements or characters and force white actors to try and play those parts. That’s how you get the obliviously absurd Airbender.

All this is to say that I’m not disappointed that Johansson is being offered the part because she is white, I’m disappointed because it is Scarlett Johansson. Or rather, I’ll be disappointed if she takes the part. It is understandable from Dreamworks’ perspective, they want a bankable star to carry a still fairly unknown story, and Johansson is the biggest female action star in Hollywood right now. If she accepts the role, it would be considered a big win.

Johansson certainly looks the part as Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s Black Widow, but one viewing of her 2014 follow-up Lucy should hint to any discerning fan of GITS, that she is no Major Kusanagi, a calculative, sometimes cold, virtuoso. That is something Johannson has never played convincingly, especially not in Lucy. Kusanagi is like a young god seeking a greater truth to her existence, not unlike say Dr. Manhattan in The Watchmen, or even the OS “Samantha” in Spike Jonze’s Her which was played by a body-less Johansson.  But no one would ever mistake “Samantha” for Motoko Kusanagi. She is a very different kind of god.

Kusanagi is a “female” cyborg almost by default, she is at once overtly feminine, masculine, and asexual. In the original film, she questions her corporeal existence, unsure of her humanity because of her fully synthetic body. Her femininity is arbitrary, she isn’t even sure if her “ghost” which seems to identify as a woman is real. Johansson exudes femininity, there is nothing ambiguous in how she plays her characters. She is best when playing coy. In Her, despite having no physical being, “Samantha” identifies as a woman, and its perhaps Johannson’s best performance as an actress. As Black Widow, she effectively plays Natalia Romanova as strong, sexually manipulative, yet vulnerable, but all feminine.

Lying beneath its themes exploring existence in a modern, tech-controlled world, Ghost in the Shell also explores the increasingly blurring lines of gender and sexuality. But, Johansson’s line of feminine identity seems very clear, which may be as much Hollywood’s fault as anything else.

But beyond the hesitation of whether or not Johansson can convincingly play Kusanagi, it’s the idea that with her cast in a presumably “star-driven” movie, she will be called upon less to inhabit Kusanagi than to recreate the character to be Scarlett Johansson. Dreamworks could certainly rewrite the character to better suit her strengths, but that just isn’t a version of Ghost in the Shell that I want to see.

As an addendum, here is a short list of actresses that I would much rather see in the role. Since I have absolutely no say in the matter.


EMILY BLUNT: Never would have pictured her in an action movie before Edge of Tomorrow, but I probably thought the same before seeing Johannson as Black Widow.  Blunt was a head-to-toe bad ass in Edge, and showed she is capable of carrying a movie. She is a more versatile actress and a better fit to play a philosophical robot.


RINKO KIKUCHI: Even if you don’t have to cast a Japanese actress, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Kikuchi has a distinct edge to her with action movie chops, and she is the most marketable Japanese actress in the U.S. right now. I wonder, though, if she would even be considered for the role in Japan if they did a GITS live-action remake.


LENA HEADEY: Cersei may be a reach at this point in her career, but she did play Sarah Connor in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and the eminently watchable “Mama” in the Judge Dredd reboot. I would watch the shit out of this version of GITS.

Honorable mentions:


Having also starred in The Sarah Connor Chronicles, it would be a seamless transition from cyborg to cyborg for SUMMER GLAU.

Lauren Cohan

After all of the zombie kills she’s racked up on The Walking Dead at this point, LAUREN COHAN should be surgical with all manner of weaponry.

31 thoughts on “Lost in Translation: Scarlett Johansson and ‘Ghost in the Shell’

  1. Exasperated sigh; why can’t they just hire a Japanese actress….there are so many good ones. This is really starting to irritate me.

    1. First off there are Japanese women that DO look like the protagonist in Ghost In A Shell; secondly one can make an adaptation with a mostly White cast. That is fine, but following it close to the original set in Tokyo with a mostly Asian cast absent the lead road is indeed stupid and insulting.

      1. You really don’t know anything about the history of Japan and diverse phenotype within an assumed homo-genetic population. Some Asian women bleaching their skin and widening the eye lids doesn’t negate the fact that some naturally look like Ghost In A Shell main protagonist. Especially the style. In addition the majority of the human population isn’t one thing. There are light skinned Black people who are 50/50 and light skinned Black people who are 90% Saharan African/10% other. Take a class in genetics and human migration throughout our history.

      2. Did you even read my last comment; study genetic diversity and get back to me. You being “Bi-racial” doesn’t make you qualified for this discussion. You are going off of emotion and not Science. Yes the Japanese people also have Aniu people in their background (some do), just like South Asia has a lot of African roots in theirs. Again the migration of peoples, and genetic diversity within a perceived homo-genetic population.

      3. You must not comprehend that race is a social structure and it is indeed real because the dominate society has made it that way. If you aren’t smart enough to get that, then this conversation needs to end now. The points I made before remains factual about Hollywood.

      4. Genetic differences within perceived homogeneous societies have just as much genetic differences/variations as those who are consider different races.

  2. I think it’s interesting what you say about English adaptations of foreign films. I’ve never seen it argued that horror remakes like The Ring should have been done with an English-speaking Japanese cast, so I wonder why it is that sci-fi movies more often bring on the jeers… Of course, I kind of oppose any kind of culture-to-culture adaptation just because of the story-decay that takes place; as you said, there’s a lot of cultural nuance that creates the atmosphere of the movie/show/whatnot, that really can’t be reconstructed properly from another cultural perspective. Makes me wonder why we can’t just construct our own properties instead of bastardizing others’.

    1. ” I’ve never seen it argued that horror remakes like The Ring should have been done with an English-speaking Japanese cast”

      But that movie already had a Japanese version to it, before the American version came out. In addition, when it comes to changing the ethnicity, why are they White actors/actresses 99% of the time?

      It’s like Raid 1/2; I enjoyed both films, but now there are talks of a American version with a mostly White cast, as if American automatically means White. We are a diverse country, and culture with great actors/actresses in every ethnic group. I don’t understand why it is so difficult to translate that into film.

      “Of course, I kind of oppose any kind of culture-to-culture adaptation just because of the story-decay that takes place; as you said, there’s a lot of cultural nuance that creates the atmosphere of the movie/show/whatnot, that really can’t be reconstructed properly from another cultural perspective.”

      I agree; when the ethnicity isn’t essential to the character then I don’t care if they change their ethnicity/race.


      Angelina Jolie playing Fox was cool to me; Fox in Wanted graphic novels was a Black woman, but is wasn’t essential to the character’s makeup or story-line. Now imagine if Jolie played Storm from X-men; that I would have a problem with since Storm is based off of Yoruba mythology.

      Michael B. Jordan is playing Johnny in Fantastic 4; I don’t have a problem with that, because Johnny’s ethnic background wasn’t essential to the character. Now imagine if Michael played Thor, who is based off of Nordic mythology? That wouldn’t work.

      That is why I have a problem with this and Exodus. Hollywood hasn’t change. There is enough imagination, story telling, culture, etc for everyone to be represented without white-washing everything 99% of the time. Ghost In A Shell takes places in Japan, with a Japanese name, and they are going to do the same thing to Akira. I just wish White Americans would understand why some minorities get upset over this. Seeing proper/diverse images of oneself is important. I part-take in other people’s cultures all the time, respect them, try to learn and I know for certain people would become upset if Denzel Washington played Socrates or Zeus; no matter how great of an actor he is.

      1. I agree that diversity within America’s own movies is extremely important, and often stupidly/negligently overlooked. Regarding my comment on horror movies, I was just musing whether there is a greater fandom onus set on sci-fi remakes than on horror ones.

        But then, in thinking about some of the horror remakes I’ve seen (The Grudge, that one with the camera that I suddenly can’t remember the name of), I remembered that those remakes were still set in their originating countries with a sizable Asian supporting cast, even while the protagonists were switched to Generic White People. I’m not sure if that’s better or worse or just differently bad, but at least the American-remake-of-Asian-horror industry isn’t afraid to acknowledge its roots.

        (That doesn’t mean they should be let off the hook.)

        Personally, I have no interest in seeing an Americanized Akira. I finished reading the full manga only recently (after having owned the movie for decades) and I think it would be interesting if there was a mini-series collaboration between a Japanese and an American studio because parts of the story revolve around American attempted intervention into the situation…but removing it from that context and trying to drop it entirely into an American scenario? No way. And, alas, I can’t imagine any American studio agreeing to let their cast play second fiddle to the Japanese cast.

      2. I think some horror fan websites have argued against Hollywood remakes of Japanese horror films, back when there was an explosion of it. Their complaints probably drew less attention because of the small minority of fans it has.

        Storm was based off of Yoruban religion but she’s half Kenyan? Good grief. The mess never ends.

      3. I’m mixed and I hate that Michael b Jordan is being cast as Johnny Storm! It’s not convincing and Johnny wasn’t adopted. He has no biracial features it’s like when the cast Kelly as Dr. Malcoms daughter in Jurassic Park. I was really confused and I’m sure others were to. Yes movies are white washed but being a huge anime fan I must ask the question don’t a lot of them look white? Hair color…. features? Don’t a lot of Asians change their hair color eye color. The Attack on Titan film that’s coming out has an all Japanese cast and that story all but one person are white! The problem isn’t really with Hollywood but the world! Most of our movies are made with the larger ethnic group because they are the majority. These actors and actresses have more roles available therefore reach fame easier. There really isn’t that many asian actresses that even fit Motokos height or body type. Those reasons are also why I hate that Scarlet is in this role. That and her inability to be a real badass. I do think Moon Bloodgood would have been a good choice. If the character had to be white they should have went with Charlize or Kate Beckinsale. Those to have already pulled of the cold calculating nature and are way better actors.

      4. Attack on The Titans isn’t an Asian lore, but was created by Asians mostly. As for the appearance of the characters, wider eyes represents innocence of some sort and more slanted eyes represent a person that has lost their innocence. It is a cultural thing; some appear to be White, but the majority of them don’t and that isn’t a good reason to not have Americans of Asian descent actually get cast in a film.

        As for Jordan, there are people with mixed backgrounds who look like him and others that appear to be whatever stereotypical look people assume mixed people to look like. I too am having a change of heart about him playing that character simply, because it gives others excuses for White Washing in Hollywood.

        The point is; you wouldn’t have to change a few White fictional characters to White if Hollywood would stop blatantly White washing minority franchises that could also make them a household name.

        Think about it; can you name a Native American, Asian, Hispanic, etc actor/actresses easily? This also isn’t new and people are getting tired of it. If they wanted to do an American version or inspired Ghost In A Shell with Scarlett, fine but even that notion has problems. It means American is simplified as White.

        I can relate to Bruce Lee, even though I am a Black women. Hollywood excuses is that no one would/can relate to most minority leads, hence the lack of them. In addition to them not being able to sale. Blatantly Hollywood is calling you and I shallow, racist, stupid, etc and we are suppose to be cool with that?

        It has gotten so bad that even non-fictional characters who are minorities are sometimes played by White people, although that isn’t new.

      5. Again; White actors and actresses are the default choice from most popular/unpopular franchises. Be it minority made or not, so stop acting dense. There aren’t any mainstream American actor/actress from Asian descent because of this. Lol but keep being willfully ignorant.

  3. DreamWorks is truly hard up for fresh ideas. I can even give Michael Bay some credit for his film “The Island”, as derivative as it is. We’ve got foreign directors coming up with “District 9” and “Automata”, but Hollywood is still doing re-makes.

  4. My live action GITS bad dream just got worse. I hope Scarlett remembers the sting of Lucy bombing and passes on this one. I’m shocked that the studio would even make such an offer when factoring that failure in.

  5. People need to realize that the only thing that speaks in and to Hollywood is money. Stop paying to see and thereby supporting the movies if you are against the decisions they make in their adaptations. The fact is that most of the people who disagree with their choices will still go to see the movie anyway. That’s the only thing that matters to anyone profiting from these movies. Petitions and online opinions don’t mean a thing. Sad, but it’s the truth. I can’t stand the whitewashing that genuinely goes on in Hollywood, but if the offended still go to see the movies anyway, then why would anything change?

    1. Also quite right. I (snobbishly) refuse to watch any Americanized remake of a foreign film that I’ve already seen in its original form. Whether The Eye, Ju-On the Grudge, Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Let the Right One In, I can’t see myself re-watching something that I already enjoyed in its original form — and partially because the film wasn’t an American film and, thus, also offered me various cultural nuances that enhanced the overall film watching experience. Having said that, on that technical ground I shouldn’t have much to say about a GITS remake. But I’ve been such a diehard fan of this property since it first hit American shores nearly twenty years ago that my attachment to GITS in all its subsequent anime and manga forms makes me very terriorial. Truth be told, I don’t want a live action remake of GITS anymore than I want an AKIRA remake. I love anime, and, if I’m honest, some of my chagrin comes from the fact that I kinda resent live-action remakes that will cater to the masses. But, as someone already stated, money talks. Well, it dictates really.

  6. Another aspect to be lost in translation is the socio-political concepts that Ghost in the Shell addresses. Hollywood’s own sci-fi films rarely delve into the ideas that Ghost in the Shell cover. They’re still stuck with the modern themes by Philip K. Dick and Heinlein. when Ghost in the Shell has already moved on to ideas by Donna Haraway, Paul Virilio, and Jean Baudrillard. Pray DreamWorks doesn’t mix them up.

  7. “but would you watch a show that has been reimagined in Japan which has happened and in india too…”

    That, for me, would be just as stupid. I’ve already seen the story take place in Hong Kong in the original Japanese anime. But, again, I love the anime format and have an admitted bias against English and live-action remakes.

    “Blacks claiming to have more NATIVE Blood then white…”

    I get the point you’re trying to make here, but you’re missing the big picture. I think that African-Americans realize/know significant amounts of European blood runs in our veins as a people, but it cause psychological pain to admit this as this genetic admixture wasput there by ENSLAVERS and RAPISTS. Who in their right mind would embrace such a thing?

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