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When Scarlett Johansson Faced “Whitewashing” Accusations Over Japanese Manga Franchise Role ‘Ghost In The Shell’

In 2015, following her success in “Lucy” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” Scarlett Johansson was cast in a live-action adaptation of “Ghost in the Shell.” The Japanese franchise, based on Masamune Shirow’s manga series, delves into the philosophical boundary between man and machine within the cyberpunk genre. When Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks acquired the rights to the series, the project seemed destined for major success. However, Johansson’s acceptance of the role of Major Motoko, a cyborg soldier with a human brain and a cybernetic body, sparked a PR crisis. The character, by all descriptions, is Asian, leading to a public uproar. Many fans asserted that an Asian actress should play the lead role, given the story’s setting in a fictional Japanese city and its creation by a Japanese artist.

As the outcry intensified, Johansson faced accusations of “whitewashing,” a term for white actors playing non-white roles. The situation worsened when ScreenCrush reported that “Ghost in the Shell” producers tested visual effects to make Johansson appear slightly Asian. Paramount Pictures later acknowledged these tests but claimed they were applied to a background actor, not Johansson. The studio stated, “A test was done related to a specific scene for a background actor, which was ultimately discarded. Absolutely no visual effects tests were conducted on Scarlett’s character, and we have no future plans to do so.” Johansson, confronted with the “whitewashing” allegations, chose not to discuss Major’s race but instead emphasized the significance of a woman leading a franchise.

In an interview with Marie Claire, she said, “Diversity is important in Hollywood, and I would never want to feel like I was playing a character that was offensive.” She highlighted the rarity and importance of having a female protagonist drive a franchise, acknowledging the pressure and responsibility she felt. In a Good Morning America interview, Johansson further defended her role, saying, “I would never attempt to play a person of a different race, obviously.” Despite her efforts to address the controversy, the audience remained disenchanted, leading the movie to flop at the box office. According to Box Office Mojo, “Ghost in the Shell” made $40.5 million domestically against a budget of $119 million, with a worldwide total of just over $169 million.

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