Why the ‘Ghost in the Shell’ controversy is about so much more than racism


With the #GhostInTheSell hashtag going live on Friday and reports of CGI tests having been undertaken to make white actors look more Asian for the upcoming Ghost in the Shell live action movie, one shouldn’t forget that the controversy surrounding the film isn’t just about racism and whitewashing.

People in India are no stranger to the practice of whitewashing, not only because of the countless Hollywood movies casting white actors in roles of colour, but also with our very own South Asian superstar Priyanka Chopra being cast as Mary Kom, an Asian boxer in the 2014 biopic. Although, this would technically be ‘brown-washing’ the idea is the same; to sacrifice the integrity of the character for the sake of commercial success and pander to the racial majority.

When Scarlett Johansson initially got cast in the Ghost in the Shell movie as Major Motoko Kusanagi, there was immediate outrage amongst Anime and Sci-Fi fans alike. The solution, of course, instead of recasting and getting a Japanese actress to play a Japanese character, was to try and use CGI to make the Caucasian actors look more Asian. While Paramount pictures has denied attempting such a feat and stated that Lola VFX was hired to test special effects for a scene that had nothing to do with the film’s leading lady, fact remains that without proper depictions of the characters and themes of the franchise, they are depriving the story of its very basis.

[Also read: Star Wars: The Oriental Connection]

‘Ghost in the Shell’ draws from sociological themes relevant to Japan in the 80’s and 90’s, when the original manga (Japanese comic book) was released. The very basis of the series was drawn from Japan’s unique relationship to technology, as a world leader in technology and a country that over the previous few decades, had metamorphosed completely in terms of not only its economy but its culture and social structure.

The outrage over the casting is not just about racism and erasure of Asian faces from Hollywood, but it’s also about the removal of the story from its core themes as comic book artist, Jon Tsuei, puts it in this series of Tweets.

As one of the Tweets mentions, a lot existing fans of Ghost in the Shell don’t see the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major Kusanagi to be a bad thing. They are looking forward to judging the movie overall based on all factors of filmmaking, and ScarJo’s role as Kusanagi on the basis of her portrayal of the character, rather than condemning it just because it’s a western adaptation of a Japanese classic. A poll on animennewsnetwork.com even showed that 52.4% of fans were going to decide whether to watch the movie “based on the movie’s merits and not external factors”, with 18.4% supporting the film because a “a successful Hollywood adaptation of an anime/manga franchise would be a good thing!” and only 18.5% planning to “Boycott it because of white-washing the cast”.

Considering how closed-minded sci-fi and sometimes even Anime fandoms have been known to be in the past, the support for this film and for ScarJo is a sign of the growing maturity of the community. But the part of the community that is calling for a boycott, have justified reasons too. It’s not just about an inacurate adaptation or even the persistent problem of whitewashing in Hollywood. It’s about a landmark franchise in Japanese media being reshaped and deprived all meaning just to favour dangerous racial biases and frivolous corporate decisions.

(This piece was originally published on NewsX.com)