Copyright MediaConnex Asia 2017

Is ‘Ghost In The Shell’ Hollywood Whitewashing’s Latest Victim?

Disastrous flop of sci-fi adaptation of iconic Japanese anime is a sign of the times.


The numbers are in and they’re not looking too hopeful.  Ghost In The Shell, the live-action adaptation of the cult classic, Japanese sci-fi anime series of the same name, has raked in a measly US $19 million, domestically, since its March 31st opening. That’s a paltry figure compared to the anticipated US $40 million-projection of industry insiders 2 months ago.

The dystopian, futuristic story revolving around a feisty woman whose brain is paired with a cyborg body to become the ultimate weapon, was banking heavily on an A-list name to carry the film, but the numbers might finally dispel that notion, especially for a culturally-specific storyline.

Eight days after the film’s release, Ghost In The Shell has an unimpressive total revenue of US $62 million, US and international territories combined, lagging way behind in 3rd place to Dreamworks Animation’s The Boss Baby, which just bumped off Disney juggernaut, Beauty And The Beast, for top spot at the box office earning a whopping US $125 million in just a week.

Albeit it’s imprudent to entirely lay the blame on the Hollywood whitewashing backlash the production faced for the film’s underperformance, there is no doubt that the controversial casting of Caucasian actress, Scarlett Johansson, to play the lead Japanese character named Major Motoko Kusanagi certainly impacted it.

Mamoru Oshii, the Japanese director who adapted the original manga to its animated series, actually found nothing wrong with the casting of Johansson to play the crime-fighting android, insisting that the character is a cyborg who’s not exclusively Asian. Fans and potential audiences, however, disagreed and the controversy behind the unforgivable casting blew up massively. On Twitter, many users already posted memes bashing the film as early as 2 years before its release, when Johansson’s name was announced.


There are many other factors to consider though as to why Ghost In The Shell flopped immensely, like for instance, an extremely large budget (approximately US $110 million) for a niche-specific series. While the Japanese manga and animated series has gathered a huge fanbase in the last 22 years since it first debuted, Ghost In The Shell is still a very fanboy-centric commodity, compared to The Avengers or The Justice League, that’s easily embraced by the masses, even by non-devout audiences.

There has also been widespread, resentful comments about the trailers spoiling the storyline when they were successively released, alienating lots of fans who already felt that the live-action adaptation would greatly depart from the source material, apart from the lead casting issue. In fact, Tinseltown grapevine has it that producer DreamWorks Pictures disagreed with distributor Paramount Pictures marketing campaign, with ad spots clearly highlighting VFX visuals over storyline.

Another cause for its dismal reception at the box office is generally poor reviews from both critics and audiences alike. Currently holding a 46% score on Rotten Tomatoes, while weighted at 52% on Metacritic, Ghost In The Shell was basically panned for favoring style over substance. The mindblowing aesthetic of the film was not enough to compensate for what many found to be lacking in plot, and any emphatic connection with the lead character was clearly absent for a lot of viewers.

At the end of the day, it still all boils down to cultural appropriation. Scarlett Johansson wasn’t th040617-Teaser_poster_for_2017_film_Get_Oute only character that missed the mark on casting. Michael Pitt also plays the villainous Kuze, which fueled the whitewashing accusations even more. Right before Ghost In The Shell was released, the Matt Damon-starrer, The Great Wall, suffered the same fate. Even though he played an originally Caucasian character, the backlash that he was portraying a ‘white savior to Asians in their own land’ kind of character paid for the movie dearly, with losses for the film estimated to be about US $75 million.

On the flip side, Get Out, the Jordan Peele-directed horror-comedy has gone on to become the highest grossing directorial debut from an original screenplay, earning US $168 million on a US $4.5 million budget. The social thriller, a metaphoric commentary of sorts about racism in America, particularly with African-Americans, is a clear example that cultural representation in films really matter, and if done right, will be rewarding at the box office.

Dear Hollywood, we hope this time you’ll listen.

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Janice freelances as a Screenwriter and Director in the Philippines and the U.S., but her first, great love will always be Creative Writing. She's contributed for dailies and magazines in her island hometown of Cebu from the age of 14. One of her most exciting writing gigs was in the Film section of the now-defunct lifestyle webzine, Limité, in which she got to interview one of her filmmaker heroes, Richard Linklater in New York City in 2012. When she's not writing or daydreaming up stories, Janice loves to go backpacking around small islands, making driftwood art, and playing with her Shih-Poo dog, Brandy.

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