Behind Ghost in the Shell’s Big Marketing Fail + Why Asian Americans are Angry


In a wonderful instance of karmic retribution, the live-action Ghost in the Shell film’s latest marketing scheme – a meme generator – has failed miserably. Instead, the tool has been used against the film to critique its perceived whitewashing in casting Scarlett Johansson as its main protagonist, the Major – a character critics argue is depicted in the series as Japanese.

The marketing campaign prompted users to visit, asking, “What makes you unique?” Users could then upload a picture to be stylized with a glitchy-futuristic overlay in line with the new live-action’s aesthetic, and a caption of their choice. In an unsurprising turn of events, the film even became a symbol for other instances of whitewashing, with denizens creating memes using Ghost in the Shell‘s tool, hitting back at productions like Avatar: The Last Airbender, Iron Fist, Dragon Ball Z, and more.

If you weren’t aware, Ghost in the Shell is an adaptation of a Japanese manga by Masamune Shirow, which was also adapted into several animated films, the first of which is considered legendary among genre fans – Mamoru’s Oshii’s 1995 adaptation. The narratives of each are set in a futuristic Japan in which cybernetic technology is widespread and cybernetic enhancements or body parts or (including your memories) are at risk of hacking.

Major Motoko Kusanagi, to be played by Johansson, is a fully cybernetic being, and it’s admittedly up for debate whether the Major’s character even has a “race.” Her origin story is kept ambiguous. But as a franchise that’s set in Japan, it follows that its audience mostly understood the Major’s character to be Japanese – or at least carry the physical appearance of a Japanese person. If we look at western sci-fi, we’d see the same formula. After all, much of what makes an android’s existence in film a source of narrative tension is its near-perfect assimilation with the majority. In Ghost in the Shell, the Major’s existence underscores the blurred line between robot intelligence and human consciousness. She’s a central figure in the series’ philosophical exploration of memory, artificial technology, existence, and individual identity.

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

It’s an exploration that resonated with many fans of the series. With a fiercely loyal following, fans of the franchise are understandably protective, but the live-action’s casting of Johansson has also lit aflame the anger of many Asian communities and anyone who gives a damn about advancing opportunities for underrepresented populations.

Asians are rarely represented in film. A study released by USC in 2016 revealed that of 2015’s top 100 films, almost half (49) included no Asians or Asian American characters. And none of the leading roles belonged to Asians or Asian Americans. Looking at films from 2007-2011, of the 886 directors examined, only 2.8 percent were Asian or Asian American. With little visibility in mainstream film or behind-the-scenes, Scarlett Johansson’s casting in a major role in a film backed by a studio such as Paramount, caused an undeniable uproar.

While we’re enjoying the creativity of the internet’s response to Ghost in the Shell’s major – pun intended – blunder,  we hope the backlash serves as a pertinent reminder to studios (and audiences) to play a more active role in making room for Asian and Asian American representation film. In a realm mired not only by racial misgivings but also by a lack of originality, it’s time to tap into Asian communities for new stories and give them a fair chance at representing themselves – these are their stories, after all.

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