Geek Ink Thinks: Ghost in the Shell, Hollywood and the “whitewashing” of characters

Scarlett Johansson Ghost in the Shell Major Kusanagi

While I am not a huge fan of Hollywood changing the race of such an iconic character and would prefer if this film had an Asian cast, it has gotten me thinking about the subject of “whitewashing” in Hollywood, and more specifically “Can Ghost in the Shell be given a Western makeover, and can it be done without sacrificing the key concepts of the story?”

When I saw the shot posted online last night, I thought to myself “I’d prefer that they stuck to an Asian actress, but at least Scarlett looks the part.”

Scarlett Johansson versus the 1995 version of Major Kusanagi.

If we take the time to look at the character from a purely visual perspective, one can see that Johansson’s look is closest to the Arise version of the Major, while being most notably different from the Stand Alone Complex version of her due to the change in hair and eye colour.

The different versions of the Major (left to right) from the original 1995 movie, Stand Alone Complex, and Arise.
The different versions of the Major (left to right) from the original 1995 movie, Stand Alone Complex, and Arise.

Regardless of her visual style, Major Motoko Kusanagi is a Japanese character. You cannot simply sidestep this fact.

Or can you?

The issue of whitewashing characters in Hollywood has been picked up more and more in Western media. A lot of these pieces decry this process, and in many cases this outrage is justified. However, today I’m here to ask a couple of questions regarding this topic. Is there a rule that says Hollywood is not allowed to make Western adaptations of Asian/non-European stories and re-cast the characters because it’s always offensive? Or are there instances of when it is okay to change the cultural setting and characters in an adaptation?

Firstly, one has to point out that the Asian film industry has adapted Hollywood/Western films for their audiences, “Asian washing” them in the process, so it’s not like this process is unique to the Hollywood film industry.

Secondly, when you’re adapting material for different audiences, how you adapt that material depends entirely on the source material. You really need to ask does changing the cultural setting and characters have a massive impact on the story? Will you lose a large part of what makes that story great if you remove culturally specific elements? Will pretending a character is a different race be offensive to people?

In some cases the answer will undoubtedly be yes. Dragonball is one franchise that was completely butchered in its transition from East to West.

I think something was lost in translation here...
I think something was lost in translation here…

Another adaptation that spat in the face of the original source material was Avatar: The Last Airbender, which was a complete mess by the time it hit the big screen.

The Last Airbender poster
4 nations? I thought there were only two? The white good one and the brown bad one!

Both of these adaptations had huge Eastern and other non-Western influences and philosophies that were completely gutted or downplayed, or emphasized in the wrong way, and in the end both films suffered as a result.

Then there’s instances when you should really just find people who fit into the right demographic, or are at least close enough, as was the case in the two films below.

Gods of Egype Exodus whitewashing
Sweet tan bro!

But what about Ghost in the Shell? Can Ghost in the Shell survive a “whitewashing” and still turn out fine?

I think it can. One only needs to look at the key themes and ideas behind Ghost in the Shell to see that while the film may be set in a futuristic Japan, what makes the story great is the science fiction ideas and questions that drive the film, not the country or culture the story takes place in. If the people working on the adaptation are aware of this, they might be able to make a great Western adaptation of this anime classic.

Or we might end up with something like this.

The Guru poster

Food for thought: I will laugh if the creators of the Hollywood adaptation decided to mind-fuck us all by tying Scarlett Johansson’s appearance into the key themes of the original 1995 film by making us ask the question “Is a Japanese person in a cybernetic body that appears Caucasian any less Japanese?”




2 thoughts on “Geek Ink Thinks: Ghost in the Shell, Hollywood and the “whitewashing” of characters

  1. You make some good points, but I don’t think one can fairly compare whitewashing with “Asian washing.” When you consider the target audience and context of western entertainment, you have to consider which parties have the upper hand in this specific social power dynamic. Asian washing does not harm white people – at worst it will make whites angry because the quality of the end product does not meet their expectations. But whitewashing definitely harms whichever culture or race is being erased. I could elaborate but I know you know what I’m talking about. Thought it might be worth mentioning it though.


    1. Do white people/Westerners actually have the upper hand in the context of cinema though? I’d love to actually hear from someone who exists in an Asian context, who’s seen an Asian adaptation of a Western film and see what they have to say and whether they would view it as a power issue. Clearly some people would agree as demonstrated by the article below, even if it’s not in regards to race specifically.


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