‘Whitewashing’ row over Scarlett Johansson's Ghost in the Shell role reignites

Scarlett Johansson

Scarlett Johansson has been plunged into a fresh Twitter storm over her casting in the Hollywood remake of classic Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell.

The first image of the Hollywood star as cyborg policewoman Major Kusanagi hit the web on Thursday as production began on the live-action reworking, reigniting a “whitewashing” row that has been rumbling ever since her casting was announced.

Last year, campaigners angered at the paucity of roles for east Asian actors in Hollywood launched a petition calling for Johansson to be dismissed from the forthcoming remake. It has thus far been signed by more than 65,000 supporters.

High-profile critics of the first image of Johansson included the actor Ming-Na Wen, who portrays Melinda May in superhero TV show Agents of SHIELD and was the voice of Disney’s Mulan.

“Nothing against Scarlett Johansson. In fact, I’m a big fan. But everything against this whitewashing of Asian role,” she wrote.

California-based comic-book writer Jon Tsuei said Hollywood had failed to comprehend the totemic nature of Ghost in the Shell within Asian culture.

“Ghost in the Shell, while just one film, is a pillar in Asian media,” he wrote. “It’s not simply a sci-fi thriller … This casting is not only the erasure of Asian faces but a removal of the story from its core themes.”

Others noted Johansson’s appearance in the film was almost identical to the original anime’s presentation of Kusanagi, apart for her race. There were also suggestions of east Asian Hollywood actors, including Oscar-nominated Pacific Rim star Rinko Kikuchi, who might have been cast instead.

The original Ghost in the Shell, as well as the comic book on which it based, centres on cyborg detective Major Motoko Kusanagi. It is not clear whether Johansson’s version retains the same given name, with press releases referring to her character merely as “Major”. The US actor, whose star has risen following standout turns in Lucy and Marvel Studios’ Avengers series of superhero films, was reportedly offered $10m (£7m) to take the role for Snow White and the Huntsman director Rupert Sanders.

Hollywood is regularly criticised for casting white actors in east Asian roles, notably in the case of M Night Shyamalan’s misfiring 2010 film The Last Airbender. The dubious tradition runs all the way back to 1956 epic The Conqueror, in which John Wayne starred as a suspiciously midwestern-accented Genghis Khan, and 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, with a bucktoothed Mickey Rooney as the shamefully offensive Japanese caricature IY Yunioshi.

Last year, Ridley Scott was forced to defend his biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings against accusations of whitewashing following the veteran British film-maker’s decision to cast famous European actors such as Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton as characters from the Middle East and north Africa.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Ben Child, for theguardian.com on Friday 15th April 2016 10.26 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010