I must admit, I originally played into the public cries of cultural appropriation concerning the Paramount Pictures live-action Ghost in the Shell remake. I found myself easily joining in with other minority journalists who criticized the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Matoko Kusanagi. I shared the bad reviews on my personal social media accounts. I joked about hoping for the movie to fail at the box office. I had absolutely no intent on seeing the film.
Then my roommates invited me to the theater and Ghost in the Shell was the only movie they wanted to see. At first, I declined. Then they offered to pay. Reports about the film had sparked my curiosity, plus I didn’t have to spend my own money if I didn’t end up liking it. I begrudgingly took them up on their offer. As I watched and enjoyed the Rupert Sanders directed film, I came to the realization that I had made a mistake.
With all of the examples of cultural appropriation happening in Hollywood against Asians, it’s easy to group Ghost in the Shell with other productions that have received similar negative backlash. However, there’s an important detail naysayers aren’t factoring into their persecution of Johansson’s casting. Ghost in the Shell is derived from a Japanese animated film and anime has a longstanding habit of westernizing its characters. On top of that, (spoiler alert!) Johansson plays a cyborg with the brain of a born-Asian woman. The movie even covers the fact that Kusanagi was indeed Asian before undergoing her cyborg transformation.
That being said, is Ghost in the Shell truly an example of cultural appropriation against Asians? Or was the casting director simply following the lead of the original animated film’s aesthetic?
In Marvel’s live-action adaptation of Doctor Strange, actress Tilda Swanson plays a character known as The Ancient One. In the comic books, The Ancient One is elderly and of noticeable Asian decent. The casting of Swanson is in direct conflict with the original source material. Deeming her casting as cultural appropriation makes sense in that scenario. Johansson’s casting as Matoko in Ghost in the Shell actually coincides with the aesthetic of the original animation.
In others words, why are we scrutinizing the casting director of the live-action Ghost in the Shell film and not the creators of the original 1995 anime? If Asians want to channel their frustrations at Hollywood for a lack of representation in what it produces, they might also want to focus on the work and standards their own people have allowed to become normalized. Matoko Kusinagi has fair skin, wide blue-grey eyes, and indigo hair in the original anime. She’s also a cyborg. How do we even know she’s supposed to be Asian when the creator of the original character never left any definitive clues? Maybe we should consider these factors before accusing a fictitious cyborg of cultural appropriation. I mean, really. Do cyborgs even have a race?
Richard Mills is a journalist and political activist.