If you’ve heard anything about Ghost in the Shell‘s Hollywood excursion, it’s probably the usual: the casting. The cast includes Japanese actors, including an exciting turn from Beat Takeshi as Daisuke Aramaki. But there’s one in particular under heavy scrutiny. That is, of course, Danish-American Scarlett Johansson as the Major.
Tensions have run high, and it’s been all over the map. There are American accusations of whitewashing, but the Japanese front seems to not acknowledge it as an issue. Of course, no one country will have a single opinion. Feelings vary across the board. But speaking broadly, America has protested as Japan watches in confusion. And those looking for a Right Answer will pick a side to be The Authority.
But it’s not that simple — because the opinions come from different experiences.
Japan: Less to Lose
The cultural demographic in Japan is… well… largely Japanese. Unsurprisingly. There are people of other races, Japanese-born or transplanted, but most of Japan is made up of Japanese people. That’s a no-brainer.
With that in mind, Japanese actors populate their films — even if the character is of another race. (See Hiroshi Abe as the Roman lead in Thermae Romae for just one example.) It’s actually fairly rare to see a non-Japanese actor pop up in a Japanese-made piece of entertainment, live-action or otherwise. Casting against race is less of a concern because, well, their demographic doesn’t give them much choice.
There’s little noise from anyone in Japan about the casting — including anime film director Mamoru Oshii, who said he had no problem with it — because casting white people at all is so rare in Japan. Like them, Hollywood is casting from a large, easy-to-access demographic. So what’s the problem?
Granted, this is almost certainly not the case across the board. It is unlikely that no one in Japan is disappointed in the choice. but when it comes to what’s largely out, the response is a baffled “So what?”
America: Slim Pickings
While Asian-Americans make up less than 6% of the American population, the vastness of the country makes a difference. America may have a white majority, but that majority is around half — not almost all. This means that around half the country isn’t white, and defaulting to white isn’t as much a convenience as a default would be elsewhere. That’s half the country unaccounted for… not just a single digit percentage.
Add to this that anime adaptations in America rarely go well (see Dragon Ball: Evolution and Fist of the North Star), and the potential for a Japanese-led anime film out of Hollywood sounds like an amazing opportunity. To see that not happen felt, to many, like a betrayal. Especially considering that the energy spent patching together a subplot to explain the casting choice could have been used to find a different lead.
Hunting down The Right Answer in this situation leads to very little progress. But understanding the differences in opinion could help the industry moving forward.