Captain America: Civil War and Jungle Book star Scarlett Johansson is going to be starring in Ghost in the Shell, a live-action adaptation of a manga series by Masamune Shirow. Variety first reported that DreamWorks had cast Johansson in the lead role, but one glaring issue is the fact that Scarlett Johansson is white, playing a character named Kusanagi. Or, at least that was the name of the main character in the 1995 anime Ghost in the Shell, Motoko Kusanagi, voiced by Atsuko Tanaka. It would be wise for the studio to change the character’s name if they plan on going through with this, although, truth be told, it would have been wise to cast a Japanese actress to play Kusanagi. This is what they refer to as “whitewashing” in the industry.
Warner Bros. received the same kind of backlash this project is getting, when they were trying to put together their live-action remake of the anime classic Akira — with white actors, of course. Recently, Rooney Mara (Carol, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) voiced her regret about her whitewashed role as Tiger Lily in the 2015 movie Pan. Her character, from JM Barrie’s 1911 novel Peter and Wendy, was originally Native American. Mara herself admits that she received hate both when she was cast and when the film opened.
“There were two different periods; right after I was initially cast, and the reaction to that, and then the reaction again when the film came out. I really hate, hate, hate that I am on that side of the whitewashing conversation. I really do. I don’t ever want to be on that side of it again. I can understand why people were upset and frustrated.”
Scarlett Johansson backing out of the project and recognizing her casting as whitewashing sure would be nice, but it’s highly doubtful that will ever happen. Some naysayers who don’t see a problem with her being cast as Kusanagi may insist that “the studio needed a big name for the role, they need the movie to do well.”
This is very problematic, specifically because the reason there aren’t any big name Japanese actresses is that every time a role and an opportunity like this comes along, studios refuse to cast a Japanese actress. How can we ever expect a Japanese actress to be a big box office draw when they are never cast in big box office films? Studios like to point the finger elsewhere and act as if they’re not playing a role in this problem, but they are. They don’t give Asian actors the same opportunities as many white actors (a lot of them being average and mediocre).
One example (not of whitewashing but of opportunity) is Jason Statham. He started out in two Guy Ritchie movies, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Statham got a few more roles in American films after that, but it was The Transporter that really launched his career to the next level. He starred in several action movies after that, to the point where when people see him in a movie trailer, they already know what kind of movie it’s going to be. Statham had basically become his own genre. The point is that he just kept being relentlessly cast in films, particularly those with big box office potential. They drilled him into the minds of audiences until he was a household name.
Asian actors don’t get opportunities like that, and if they do, it’s somebody like Jackie Chan or Jet Li, who originally started acting in China then crossed over and basically did nothing but martial arts films. You’ve got good Asian actors like John Cho (Star Trek, Harold and Kumar) and Sung Kang (Fast and Furious franchise), but they certainly are not getting film roles left and right. They were both in highly successful and critically praised franchises – they should be getting more roles.
More whitewashing-naysayers may say, “Well you just named two Asian actors who were in big movies, isn’t that enough?” No, it isn’t. Because actors of color, in general, have to be counted and quantified in a way white actors are not. There could be a cast full of white actors, with only two black actors, and a response you’ll hear would be, “There’s two. What more do you want?” White actors don’t have to go through this, and casting directors do not stop and say, “Okay, people, we’ve cast a total of five white actors. That’s enough.” But that’ll sure happen when it’s anybody who is anything other than white. There is a notion that giving us just a little bit is supposed to be enough, and we’re supposed to be grateful for it.
Scarlett Johansson is a great actress, and it isn’t as if she hasn’t earned the success that she currently has. But the issue of whitewashing in Hollywood still needs to be addressed, especially after the Oscars this year, which you have April Reign to thank for that. Instead of Johansson, Oscar-nominated actress Rinko Kikuchi could have played the role of Kusanagi — oh, but she isn’t a box office draw, so she’s automatically disqualified. Isn’t that something? You can be a Japanese actress and be nominated for an Academy Award and still not be good enough to play a Japanese character. Anybody saying that “all you have to do is be super talented and the roles will come to you” should stop perpetuating that lie.
Ghost in the Shell, starring Scarlett Johansson, is scheduled for release a U.S. release on March 31, 2017. Snow White and the Huntsman’s Rupert Sanders will be directing, and filming is going to take place in Wellington, New Zealand.
The Jungle Book opens in theaters this Friday, April 15.
[Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images]