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Asian American media group condemns Scarlett Johansson in ‘Ghost in the Shell’ controversy

This weekend’s arrival of “Ghost in the Shell,” the live-action adaptation of the landmark Japanese anime film, is being met with criticism from the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), which is condemning what it calls the “whitewashed” casting of Scarlett Johansson in the lead role.

The organization’s complaint joins the backlash that erupted following the announcement in early 2015 that Johansson had signed on to star in Paramount and DreamWorks’ version of Masamune Shirow’s manga series that spawned the classic animated film.

Many fans of the franchise called the casting of Johansson yet another example of Hollywood “whitewashing” because she plays an Asian heroine named Motoko Kusanagi.

When asked about the ongoing flap, Johansson didn’t agree with the critics’ point of contention.

"I think this character is living a very unique experience, in that she is a human brain in an entirely machinate body," Johansson said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” earlier this week. "She's essentially identity-less. … I would never attempt to play a person of a different race, obviously.”

She added, “Hopefully, any question that comes up of my casting will ... be answered by audiences when they see the film.”

But MANAA leaders who have seen the film say they are angered, and said in a statement that the actress “was lying” in defending her portrayal.

“Though defenders of the casting claimed that both the original 1989 manga and 1995 animated Japanese film were vague about Major Motoko Kusanagi’s original ethnic identity before her brain was placed into the body of a cyborg, this film verifies she was Japanese; her real name, in fact, was Motoko Kusanagi (her cyborg identity, implanted with false memories, was Major Mira Killian),” the statement read.

MANAA also denounced the casting of Michael Pitt in the role of Kuze in the film, which MANAA said “is revealed to have originally been named Hideo, meaning he too was Japanese.”

“Apparently, in Hollywood, Japanese people can’t play Japanese people anymore,” MANAA President Robert Chan said in a news release. “There’s no reason why either Motoku or Hideo could not have been portrayed by Japanese or Asian actors instead of Scarlett Johansson and Michael Pitt. We don’t even get to see what they looked like in their original human identities — a further whitewash.”

“Though the Japanese versions of ‘Ghost’ took place in Japan, and the latest film version does not specify a location, it was partially shot in Hong Kong and is clearly an Asian city,” Chan’s statement continued. “There are many Japanese/Asian/Asian-American actresses who could’ve handled the role of the Major, including Rinko Kikuchi, Karen Fukuhara, Kiki Sukezane, Chloe Bennet, Maggie Q, Doona Bae, Li Bingbing, and Gemma Chan.”

Chan did not note that most of the actresses he named are not well known to audiences or do not have the proven box-office record of Johannson, who stepped into the role after Australian actress Margot Robbie dropped out in order to focus on “Suicide Squad.”

At the New York premiere of “Ghost in the Shell” earlier this week, the film’s cinematographer, Jess Hall, told The Times that he was confused by the flap.

“I’ve found the casting controversy quite weird,” Hall said.

“If you look at Section 9, it's really very diverse casting,” he added, referencing the film’s self-defense unit. “You have a Fijian [Lasarus Ratuere], a Dane [Pilou Asbæk], several Japanese actors, including one of the country’s biggest stars [Takeshi Kitano]. I don’t really understand it.”

Times reporter Steven Zeitchik contributed to this report.

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gerrick.kennedy@latimes.com

For more music news follow me on Twitter:@GerrickKennedy

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