'Ghost In The Shell': So Is Scarlett Johansson's Character Japanese Or What?

Ghost in the Shell has already come under fire from fans unhappy that the Japanese tale is getting remade with a white lead. So far, the production's strategy has seemingly to try and downplay the property's Japanese roots, with producer Steven Paul defending his "international approach" and Scarlett Johansson's character simply being called "the Major" (as opposed to Motoko Kusanagi, which is her name in the source material).

Which makes it all the more confusing to learn that Johansson's Major may be Japanese after all. At the very least, it seems she has a Japanese mother. 

Japanese actress Kaori Momoi was announced as part of the Ghost in the Shell cast in April. In a more recent interview with the Associated Press, she revealed that she is playing the Major's mother. Which could indicate that the Major herself is at least part-Japanese — unless she's adopted, or there's some other reason that Momoi's Japanese heritage has nothing to do with the Major's. It seems like an odd choice to make the Major Japanese when the move away from "Motoko Kusanagi" suggested the filmmakers were aware of how awkward it would be to have Johansson playing a Japanese character.

Momoi, for her part, seems quite pleased with her role in Ghost in the Shell, saying she felt "blessed" to work with Johansson. Indeed, the Associated Press spoke to many Asian actors who seemed indifferent to the controversy over Hollywood whitewashing. But it's worth pointing out that the context is different for Asian stars trying to make it in Asian movies, where mostly Asian stars and filmmakers are making movies aimed at mostly Asian audiences, than it is for Asian or Asian-American stars working in American (or other Western) movies.

If the Major is indeed Japanese (and again, that's a big if since we don't know the specifics of the relationship between Momoi and Johansson's characters), that means we have a white actress playing a part or fully Asian character. In the world of the film, it's easy enough to come up with an explanation as to how an Asian woman could look like a white woman. The Major is a "human-cyborg hybrid" with many prosthetic parts, so her appearance now does not necessarily have to resemble the one she was born with.

However, the outcry was never really about Johansson's hair and skin being the wrong color or her features being the wrong shape. It was about the decision to whitewash an Asian property. Hollywood so rarely even considers Asian or Asian-American lead roles for mainstream movies, so it rankles to realize that even when one comes along, the filmmakers would rather cast a white star. It's Emma Stone in Aloha all over again: it feels like Hollywood would rather come up with a tortured rationalization to explain why an Asian character has to be played by a white person, than simply give an Asian character to an Asian actor.

Granted, we've yet to see Ghost in the Shell and it's possible there will be a good reason why the Major had to look like a white woman despite her Japanese heritage. (Note: "Why not?" is not a good reason.) Or maybe we're missing some crucial information here, and the Major isn't actually Japanese — in which the case the whitewashing is still frustrating, but at least we're not looking at Johansson pretending to be half-Japanese.

Ghost in the Shell opens March 31, 2017.

Based on the internationally-acclaimed sci-fi property, "GHOST IN THE SHELL" follows the Major, a special ops, one-of-a-kind human-cyborg hybrid, who leads the elite task force Section 9. Devoted to stopping the most dangerous criminals and extremists, Section 9 is faced with an enemy whose singular goal is to wipe out Hanka Robotic's advancements in cyber technology.