Some Thoughts on Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell

by Jon Tsuei

[Ed. note: This essay first appeared as a series of tweets on Jon’s twitter account and is being re-presented with his permission.]

I’ve been seeing a lot of defenses for the ScarJo casting that seem to lack a nuanced understanding of a Ghost In The Shell as a story.

The manga came out in 1989, the first film in 1995. An era when Japan was considered the world leader in technology. Everything hot in that era came out of Japan. Cars, video games, Walkmans, all of that. Japan was setting a standard.

This is a country that went from being poised to conquer the Pacific to being forcibly disarmed after World War II. They poured their resources into their economy. And as a country that was unable to defend themselves, but was a world leader in tech, it created a relationship to technology that is unique. Ghost in the Shell plays off all of these themes. It is inherently a Japanese story, not a universal one.

This casting is not only the erasure of Asian faces but a removal of the story from its core themes. You can “Westernize” the story if you want, but at that point it is no longer Ghost in the Shell because the story is simply not Western. Understand that media from Asia holds a dear place in the hearts of many Asians in the west, simply because western media doesn’t show us.

Ghost in the Shell, while just one film, is a pillar in Asian media. It’s not simply a sci-fi thriller. Not to me, not to many others.

Respect the work for what it is and don’t bastardize it into what you want it to be.

Jon Tsuei is a writer of comic books, a photographer, and a geek based out of California. He is the co-creator, along with Eric Canete of RUNLOVEKILL published by Image Comics. Follow him on twitter and Instagram.

26 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell

  1. Really, I love ScarJo, and will watch her in almost anything, but I really don’t want to see her in every damn thing. I love Rinko Kikuchi and don’t see nearly enough of her. She would’ve been awesome as Kusanagi.

    Really it’s like taking Gone with the Wind (a movie revered by white people) and casting a bag of ferrets as the lead characters. It makes about as much sense.

    I would love it if the casting directors had to give sit down and write out a full and honest justification for every role they cast. What were thinking. Why this person was chosen, etc. Make them explain themselves. Make us understand why.

    1. I would probably rather see Gone with the Wind with an all-ferret cast than Scarjo starring in Ghost in the Shell. I don’t want to see her in every damn thing either.

      If they wrong down their justification I’m sure it would amount nothing more than, “Money, my dear.” Really though, can’t we get some studio to make the bold choice of casting a Japanese woman in this Japanese work? The money justification is such bullshit anyway. I mean Gods of Egypt flopped despite the mostly lily-white cast.

      1. *if they wrote down their justification I’m sure it would amount to nothing more than

        blarg, proofreading fail.

  2. I agree that there are many flaws in casting actors and actresses in films while maintaining the integrity and diversity of the film. I like Ikeke35’s suggestion of having casting directors issue justifications behind casting decisions. I believe this would hold them more accountable for their decisions and would promote more diverse casting.

  3. wow jon is CUTE. great post brother. and i LOVE the REAL picture at the bottom. rinko kikuchi is ten times more interesting then the scarlet johansson one. she is actually who i was thinking they should have gotten but ce la vie. i wont be watching it, not that im a fan of ghost in the shell anyways (not into mecha, give me magic!)

  4. Jon Tsuei’s argument is one against westernizing the story, not specifically against casting Scarlett Johanssen.

    Similar arguments have been made about the Seven Samurai – that the strong class divide between samurai and farmers in Edo-period society is essential to the plot, and that this is lost in the Western remake; this didn’t stop the Magnificent Seven from being a popular and successful film.

    In its original form, Ghost in the Shell is open to both interpretations: a universalist interpretation where the Japanese setting is incidental, and a “nativist” reading like the one that Jon Tsuei sketches, where it is seen as a specifically Japanese story. The Hollywood filmmakers are faced with the decision of having to pick one interpretation: westernizing the story corresponds to a universalist reading and retaining the Japanese setting corresponds to a foreignizing, nativist reading.

    Ultimately, any kind of adaptation is a form of interpretation, as you have to decide which elements of the original work are essential and have to be retained, and which are incidental and can/should be changed. Depending on which decisions you make, you lose certain possible meanings of the original and retain (and emphasize) others. Also, the work might gain new meanings (intentionally and unintentionally) through adaptation.

    Some other aspects: Given that Kitano Takeshi has been cast, they evidently haven’t completely erased all reference to Japan. Also, if you view the story as essentially Japanese, you could argue that the dialog should be in Japanese; replacing Japanese with American English can also be seen as a form of cultural erasure. Lastly, criticisms of Johanssen’s casting have focused on her whiteness; there are other possible points of view, e.g. you could interpret her casting as some kind of intertextual reference to her previous roles (Lost in Translation, the Avengers movies).

    It makes me a little uncomfortable that we’re having these arguments long before the films come out. Casting decisions certainly contribute to the meaning of a film, but they have to be seen in the context of the film as a whole. If you have already decried a film as racist based on press releases about the casting, can you really claim to approach the finished work with an open mind?

  5. Jon acts like GITS was stolen from Shirow in the middle of the night.

    The Japan in GITS, like the pseduo-Japans Shirow created in APPLESEED, DOMINION and ORION are all multi-ethnic,multi-racial societies.

    Shirow does not exhibit the racial hang-ups that Jon does. If you are going to respect the work, respect the author who constantly created diverse worlds and was and is open to his work being adapted and distributed worldwide.

  6. I would NOT like to see ScarJo as Motoko. I liked Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin. She’s ok in Captain America and Avengers movies. She was ok in Lucy. She is over-exposed and I’m about as tired of her as I am her ex-, Ryan Reynolds. I agree Rinko Kikuchi would be a good choice but how about consideration for Tao Okamato (B v. S and The Wolverine) or Rila Fukushima, Yukio from 2013’s The Wolverine? Or even Devon Aoki?

    1. I love Devon Aoki. She was awesome in Sin City. And Rilo is an excellent choice for Motoko, too. Rinko is simply the most obvious choice, I think.

      1. Plenty of Japanese and Japanese American actors to choose from but Hollywood always wants and “ABOVE THE LINE MOVIE STAR” that’s how Christian Bale got cast as Moses in Exodus: Gods & Kings and Emma Stone in “Aloha.”

      2. The sad part is that I have zero f***s to give about Emma Stone and mostly Christian Bale, (he aiight, but not somebody whose movies I jump to watch.)

        I think Hollywood still thinks just because someone is in a hit movie that the audience will want to see them in everything else. They think it’s just the actors, when really it’s a combination of that, and how well made the movie.

      3. Re: Christian Bale. He made a way better Batman than Ben Affleck in my opinion but he doesn’t save every movie. I notice if he’s in a movie but it’s never an instant draw. And, frankly I am in REBEL MODE vs. Hollywood. I refuse to see every damn movie Hollywood tries to shove down out throats (i.e. Tom Cruise, although I did like the last Mission Impossible movie). This is the Age of Choice. Consumers of entertainment have way too many options and I exercise them. If I feel aggrieved or offended that a Tilda Swinton is cast as a Tibetan Monk or ScarJo gets cast to “westernize” ‘Ghost in the Shell,’ I won’t spend my entertainment dollars there, but elsewhere. Ditto for Iron Fist.

  7. I tire pretty quickly of the remakes, or adaptions or reimaginings whatever label producers slap on something to make it marketable. They could have made it more Western by simply putting it in the same world except in America.

    1. I am not going to see it despite all the hype. If different casting had occurred I would give it a shot.

      1. If you’re going to take all the Asians out, then set it in the West and change the name, the way they did to Edge of Tomorrow. (Of course we already saw Ghost in the Shell in the West when it was called Bladerunner.)
        I hope they’ve learned their lesson by the time they film Battle Angel Alita. (They haven’t learned this with Deathnote however.)

    2. > They could have made it more Western by simply putting it in the same world except in America.
      How can we be sure that isn’t exactly what they’re doing?
      If it’s set in America, what’s wrong with making some of the cast members Caucasian? Do you think it should be set in some kind of phantasy America where everyone is Asian?!
      I fail to see why GITS is coming in for *more* criticism than Edge of Tomorrow.

  8. I will wait for the Bladerunner remake, thank you and pass on Ghost in the Shell.

  9. The argument that Jon Tsuei makes for GITS to be “inherently” Japanese seems pretty weak to me. He says that Japan has a “unique relationship to technology” and it was a world leader in tech when GITS came out, but beyond the timing he doesn’t make any arguments that are actually specific to GITS, the same thing could be claimed about any SF coming out of Japan in that period.

    Macbeth is based on actual Scottish history, that didn’t stop Kurosawa casting Mifune Toshiro in the lead in Throne of Blood and making the plot work in a Japanese context.

    The problem I have with people demanding that if the source material is Japanese, then the actors have to be Japanese/Asian-American, is that it’s basically saying that Japanese authors can’t write works that are universal, everything is seen as being “inherently Japanese”, and has to be marked as such through casting.

    I’m not convinced that it’s in Asian-American actors’ best interest either. The should be valued and cast for their own individual qualities, not typecast because they can pass for Japanese.

  10. If the main character in Ghost in the Shell is not Japanese, or Asian at least. The movie will be trash. Every Americanized Anime movie has been trash. Ummmmm Dragon ball Z comes to mind. YUCK!!!!!!!!! So please America. LEAVE ANIME ALONE!!!!!!! Your version is elephant dong on a summers day.

  11. If GITS is “inherently a Japanese story, not a universal one”, as Jon Tsuei claims, why did Mamoru Oshii base the city in the 1995 anime version on HONG KONG?!

    His argument doesn’t hold water.

  12. “Understand that media from Asia holds a dear place in the hearts of many Asians in the west”

    I’m as standard issue North American White guy as you can get… and I adore Ghost in the Shell, specifically because it isn’t western. But I fear you’re right, they will completely Holywoodize this and it will no longer be Ghost in the Shell as we know/love it. I’m reminded of a line out of Solaris (ironically the Hollywood version), “We don’t know what to do with other worlds. We don’t need other worlds. We need a mirror.” This is how, I suspect, Hollywood Movie Exec’s think.

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