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‘Ghost in the Shell’ cinematographer says the casting controversy is ‘quite weird’

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Scarlett Johansson at the premiere of “Ghost in the Shell” in New York on March 29.

For long stretches of its development, “Ghost in the Shell” provoked controversy over its casting, particularly the choice to make Scarlett Johansson the film’s lead character, the Major. In the original Japanese manga, the character is an Asian heroine named Motoko Kusanagi.

Rupert Sanders’ movie hits theaters this weekend, allowing the debate either to be put to rest or intensify. But at least one of the filmmakers remains perplexed by the kerfuffle.

“I’ve found the casting controversy quite weird,” said Jess Hall, the cinematographer and longtime Sanders collaborator.

“If you look at Section 9, it’s really very diverse casting,” he said, alluding to the movie’s elite 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.”

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Hall was speaking to The Times at the premiere of the Paramount release here this week. The futuristic film, based on Masamune Shirow’s 1990s-era series, follows the robot-human hybrid the Major as she helps Section 9 defeat a dangerous cyber-hacking threat as well as discover her past.

Hall noted that some of the property’s Japanese principals were not upset by the casting, alluding to an interview response by the director of earlier Japanese-language films Mamoru Oshii that the Major’s protean nature rendered race irrelevant. “They don’t seem to have as big an issue with it there,” he said.

The casting raises questions as much philosophical as practical: How much do an actor’s personal or ethnic traits matter when it comes to playing a fictitious character? (This is, of course, a subject that’s come up in a variety of contexts, including with straight actors playing gay characters.)

And in the age of awareness about diversity, what is the extent of studios’ obligations to find opportunities for actors of color? To its critics, whitewashing is as ignoble as blackface and will be judged by history just as harshly. To its supporters, it is simply the reality of Hollywood, which will use actors it believes can best sell or act in a film.

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Hall said he wanted to stress that it’s viable to have these conversations. “It’s important to talk about. I just don’t know that we should be talking about it as much with this film,” he said.

The irony is that U.S. audiences could reject “Ghost” for not being global enough, yet the film could fare better around the world because it features an American star. (Box-office projections for the U.S. this weekend are for a modest $25 million.)

Whether the controversy will quiet after people see Johansson act in the role as opposed to simply as a name on the page remains an open question.

Hall, at least, hopes it will.

“I’m happy it’s finally coming out and people could talk about the movie,” he said.

See the most-read stories in Entertainment this hour »

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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