Scarlett, you are not my Major Motoko


For the record, I am dying to see a Ghost in the Shell live-action film. I grew up on both the anime films and the manga, and my fandom for this series is only surpassed by Snoopy Jenkins‘, who dragged me on countless scavenger hunts to collect the sequel films and the Stand-Alone Complex series before either were widely available in America.

So, I say this with total sincerity: Scarlett Johansson is not my Major Motoko.


Ghost in the Shell is a gold standard in both the anime and manga genres, and embodies some of the quintessential characteristics of the medium: beautiful artwork, incredible action sequences, and a complex existentialist storyline. Major Motoko is also inspirationally feminist: a take-no-guff Amazon of a woman who is intimidating to those around her — all men — for her physical stature, her hacking proficiency, and her tactical prowess. Yet, Motoko’s status as a cyborg also called into question these notions of identity. One of the most powerful scenes in the film is Motoko’s self-reflection on the construction of self — is Motoko the ghost or the shell? — and her insights still feel relevant for today’s cyborg society. The consistent theme of the series is Motoko’s self-exploration which serves as a powerful metaphor for sexual and gender fluidity, one that rendered Motoko one of science fiction’s more prominent LGBTQ characters for over a decade.

In the grand scheme of popular stories that deserve live-action adaptations, Ghost in the Shell ranks high for me (alongside another popular manga series, Blade of the Immortal). In particular, I look forward to the challenge of translating the existential underpinnings of Ghost in the Shell for the big screen, while also updating the storylines for the 21st century (which was accomplished with great success in the Stand-Alone Complex series, which in particular intertwined highly relevant geopolitical questions with the series’ characteristic metaphysical discussion).

So, yes, when I heard that Dreamworks was interested in a Ghost in the Shell live-action film, I was reservedly excited.

Say it with me now: live-action Tachikoma!
Say it with me now: live-action Tachikoma!

That excitement level plummeted with this week’s revelation that Scarlett Johansson was being offered the lead role of the Ghost in the Shell project. And, while Johansson has yet to respond to the offer, the entire fan community has provided a dizzying amount of commentary on the possibility of Black Widow as our next Major Motoko.

Now, there’s a ton to be pissed about with this announcement, chief among them the simple fact that Johansson’s casting would be yet another example of American Hollywood Whitewashing a Japanese story through transracial casting. Ghost in the Shell is a story set in a future Japan, with elements of nineties-era industrialization and capitalism as well as social isolation central to the series’ subplots. And while fluidity of identity is fundamental to Major Motoko Kusanagi’s character, there’s no denying that the “shell” that she has chosen throughout the manga, three films, and three seasons of a TV show is that of a tall, statuesque (and well-endowed) Japanese woman. Moreso than with most characters, the physical appearance of Major Motoko is not simply an accident of birth, but an outcome of the character’s choice and thus fundamental to who she is.

Therefore, for the simple fact that Scarlett Johansson is not a tall, muscular East Asian woman alone, most fans are up-in-arms with this casting offer. I count myself among them.

In general, I consider myself agnostic on the topic of Scarlett Johansson. She’s strong and capable, and definitely better in some films than in others. I think she’s been passable as Marvel’s Black Widow (although I found her irritatingly one-dimensional in Captain America 2). I really have nothing against her.

But, Scarlett Johansson is not my Major Motoko.


Johansson’s obvious lack-of-being-Asian aside, she lacks the physical or emotional presence of Major Motoko. Motoko is equal parts terrifying and alluring, capable of immediately commanding a room with nothing more than a look. A woman with few friends, Motoko is mysterious, efficient, abrasive, and deadly, while simultaneously lonely and even vulnerable. She is the lone woman commanding a team of men, and has both their fear and their respect. She is described by her creator as someone who chooses to appear young and female, while her ghost is wise and experienced; yet, she is a character who oscillates between hopeful optimism and jaded cynicism on human nature.

Of course, Scarlett Johansson is an actor — some would even say a talented one. But, I’ve never seen Johansson accomplish a character even half as complex as Major Motoko. In most roles, I’ve found her a little too pouty, a little too flirty, and a little too infantalizing — even as Natasha Romanov, who should have none of those characteristics. When she’s playing a badass — for example, as Black Widow or as Lucy — Scarlett Johansson always has this odd, indescribable quality of seeming like she is playing someone-not-to-be-fucked-with, not that she actually is someone-not-to-be-fucked-with. For the role of Major Motoko, that is a very bad fit.

All this combined with the stark discrepancy between Johansson and Motoko’s physical appearances, and consider me completely unimpressed. Johansson may be Hollywood’s It-woman of the moment, but that doesn’t mean she should get all the parts.

Then again, this was also totally predictable given how Hollywood tends to treat its Japanese-inspired properties: absurdly miscast actors with painfully Americanized plots. Ghost in the Shell really is going to be no exception.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of Asian and Asian American actresses one could have recruited for this part. I’ll leave it to others more well-versed in contemporary actors to compile the inevitable list, but you know who I kind of wish they had tapped? Maggie Q.

Tell me you couldn’t see it.

Update (1/5/2015): Scarlett Johnasson has officially signed on to star in the Ghost in the Shell live-action project. Colour me unamused.

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  • Junwei

    Let me express my perspective from a Sino-German perspective. I do not think about cultural appropriation by white-washed casting policy. I think about why there is a need to take such a economic risk with the adaption of “Ghost in the Shell”.

    My explanation is that the American public has a ambivalent feeling about contemporary power relations, and they want to externalize their insecurities into the past and the future.

    Toshiya Ueno wrote in “Japanimation and Techno-Orientalism”
    ( ) that Japan is a symbolic place for the horror of information capitalism and the take-over of the virtual over the real. He suggest a similar psychological dynamic at work for the contemporary Japan craze like the Western engagement in antisemitism.

    The Japanese are admired and feared at the same time. Like the Jews they are a strong competitor in capitalism and cultural hegemony. But their culture is inhuman and robotic and so are the folk of Japan. Like the Jews they cannot produce real and authentic ways of life – everything is virtual and unreal. The puppet master is a similar motif like the Jewish conspiracy in antisemitism. So the enemy of mankind is projected into a techno-orientalist image of the East. The protagonist is of course a white blonde women, because women normally represents the vulnerability of racial identities. And the othering of Japan give the white audience numerous opportunities to identify with Scarlett who wants to explore identity and self-worth.

    The USA is a debtor nation and dependent on Gulf monarchies, Japan and China. In recent years China, Russia, France, Germany, Japan and several important energy exporting nations signed treaties to challenge the hegemony of the Petrodollar with currency swap deals. The Arabian, European and Asian allies stabbed the back of the hegemon. The global financial system become an unease for ordinary Americans. But instead of locating the source of evil in the globalization policy of the US governments of the last decade – they choose to project financial and information capitalism into the image of a future Japan.

    In the past we saw an explosion of vampire narratives with blood thirst as metaphor for consumption urge. Ironically white female writers like Anne Rice and Stephenie Meyer managed to change the image of the vampire into a metrosexual male image – that enable the vampire bite work as metaphor for white sex (or white male rape culture). The white audience are provided with an identity with the rework of romantic sensibility as star cross lover story between a godlike white male vampire and submissive images of white women. Normally middle class white men get a personal identity with the unconditional love of a submissive white women. Later the idea of vampire lineage was exploited in TV shows like True Blood with the representation ostracism against former white identities like Jewish American, Swedish American & Irish American and contemporary gay as vampire.

    We got zombie narratives to warn us against the danger of braindead white consumer society. And even Glenn – an Asian American character – help to signal that zombies are the ultimate danger of whiteness gone wild.

    We got remakes of the Planet Of the Apes trilogy – a metaphor for a black revolution in America.

    We got Avatar as a white savior narrative which is a rework of the experience of Native Americans.

    White America invest huge efforts to prepare for the future in mobilizing such gigantic cultural rework agendas to redefine emotional structure of its populations to build a better white identity – for what ? For what is this new stage of white umbrella identity development useful for ?

  • Adrian Alexe

    Kusanagi is a cyborg. Oshii explained in an interview why he chose to make her features “raceless”. She looks Japanese because, doh, anime. Though her essence and mentality are Japanese, outside look is a “raceless” cyborg body. However, Scar Jo is a no no. All her action roles are bland, Lucy was “Black Widow meets Transcendence”.

  • Deku Scrub

    You want to know why they chose Scarlett? Because $$$, that’s why. She and all the other actors and actresses of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are a success which is why they’ve been offered roles in other movies. Name me one famous Japanese Hollywood actress who could pull off Mokoto Kusanagi. Look, I have low expectations for this movie. I’m expecting another Dragon Ball Evolution and The Last Airbender.

  • LostDesign

    Thank you for your post. I am not admittedly a film scholar, but I do find your post to be a refreshing opinion. Thank you for finding time and posting your ideas.

  • Tobias Thesecond

    Have you ever watched the original movie and did some researching before writing this? this will explain everything to you.

  • Emrah Dayan

    We are still speaking about the Manga that put in some random lesbian orgy simply because of fanservice?