Seeing Cinema in a New Light: Criticism, Essays and Observations about Classic Cinema

2010s Movies, Editorials, Science Fiction

The Other Reason Why Ghost in the Shell’s Casting Was a Huge Marketing Mistake

Well, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you already know that the live action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell (2017) bombed spectacularly.

There are many reasons why the movie flopped. However, I have no doubt that the Scarlett Johansson casting controversy played a major hand, but not for the reason that everyone thinks.

Now let’s get this out of the way first. No matter whether an Asian or a white person had been cast in the lead role, Ghost in the Shell was going to be a tough sell, because it’s a cult classic that’s only known to an ultra niche crowd. So the odds were stacked against it from the start.

However, the studio was not completely helpless in getting the masses to see the film. There were several things it could’ve done to overcome whatever marketing hurdles there were to be had. One option it had was to appeal to GITS’ ultra niche otaku fanbase (aka as “weeaboos” or hardcore Japanophiles). Why? Because otakus are the ultimate fanboys. Once hooked, they would’ve done everything they could to not only hype the film, but get all of their non-otaku friends and family to see the movie along with them.

The absolute worst thing that the studio could’ve done was alienate the otakus. Alienate them, and they not only wouldn’t have shown up to the theaters but done everything in their power to convince everyone else not to see it. Unfortunately for the studio, that’s exactly what it did by casting Johansson. It alienated GITS fans to such an extent that they were determined to see the movie fail.

Why were the otakus alienated? To understand how, we have to look at otaku culture. First, American otakus are notoriously suspicious, if not hostile towards Hollywood when it comes to adapting beloved Japanese cult classics. Because they know that Hollywood is all about cynical cash grabs that pander to the lowest common denominator, they have no faith in it producing an adaptation that is true to the original. As far as they’re concerned, any adaptation it puts out is bound to be a cheap, hollow, watered down, diluted version stripped of all the elements that made the original so great.

Secondly, otakus resent the idea of Hollywood taking cult classics that they enjoy and giving them mass market appeal. Why? Because making something have mass appeal means changing it to such an extent that it is no longer recognizable. For the otakus, some who’ve been waiting most of their lives for the perfect adaptation, it’s a crushing blow when the movie doesn’t even come close to resembling the original that they fell in love with. To add insult to injury, if the new, improved, mass marketed adaptation goes mainstream, the original fans usually wind up being outsiders of their own fandom.

On top of these issues with Hollywood, otakus are completely used to the concept of seeing actual Japanese actors cast in live action adaptations. They spent years watching Japanese language movies and TV shows like Battle Royale and GTO. So not only does casting Asians in these adaptations not bother them, it’s practically obligatory.

So here came Hollywood with the announcement that Scarlett Johansson was going to play the lead character. Naturally, otakus were either turned off the project or disgusted. For one, the casting was jarring because, like I said before, they’re used to years of seeing Japanese actors play iconic Japanese roles. So they immediately regarded the casting as unnecessary.

What’s more, the casting was an affront to a fanbase that prides itself on being worldly and open-minded. Non-Asian otakus are literally the last fanbase on earth that would ever care if a Japanese actress were cast in the lead role of anything, so the adaptation–by virtue of casting of Johansson in order to appeal to a demographic unable to handle seeing non-white faces in a lead role–was seen as being beneath them. The casting was also seen as patronizing, a message that they were so narrow-minded that they wouldn’t be able to enjoy GITS unless a white actress were cast in the role.

Secondly, the fact that Hollywood was too timid to cast an actual Japanese actress in the lead role sent a red flag that it wasn’t going to have the guts to be true to the manga and anime, since there were also uniquely Japanese storytelling and themes that would not appeal to the type of audience that would not be able to stomach having a Japanese protagonist.

Third, the fact that one of the blandest, nondescript actresses of all time was chosen to play such an iconic character also sent a red flag that the GITS adaptation was going to be exactly as otakus always fear about Hollywood adaptations in general–that it was going to be nothing more than a shallow, watered down enterprise for Middle American audience that only wants entertainment that is bland, safe and comfortable. Worse yet, there was going to be a chance of this watered down version gaining a new fanbase that, ironically, not only hates Japanese pop culture but always writes off the very type of people who love stuff like GITS as pathetic “weeaboos.”

When you factor all of this, it becomes pretty clear how Scarlett Johansson’s casting wound up being a lot worse than the obvious controversy surrounding whitewashing. The studio made a major error in thinking that the worst it was going to have to deal with was pissing off a few so-called “SJWs” and “snowflakes” in social media angry about whitewashing. Instead, there was an even worse scenario it had to consider–alienating GITS’ fan base.


  1. Very intriguing point: that the film alienated the otaku fandom. I definitely see what you mean. I am perhaps one of the minority who are curious to see a successful live-action adaptation of an anime with mass appeal. I would love to see a diverse, multicultural casting. I’m not a fan of whitewashing, especially if the cultural setting is very Asian. It just doesn’t match and makes it more difficult to suspend one’s disbelief. Good, intriguing post.

    • Comment by post author

      Thanks for your response. I wish I could be as hopeful as you about a successful mass marketed adaptation, but seeing the way Hollywood is going, I don’t have any faith in it producing something of value worth seeing and faithful to the work. I did at one point. There was a time when the studios might have been brave and smart enough to, say, tap someone like Quentin Tarantino to do Battle Royale or something. But these days, it seems as if they just don’t care anymore. It’s all about picking directors who can crank out a formulaic movie as quickly and efficiently as possible.

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