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Ghost in the Shell beloved in Japan, despite box office blowout in the West

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People don’t seem to mind ScarJo as much in the East

Paramount Pictures

Hollywood’s version of Ghost in the Shell is unlikely to turn a profit after low box office returns and scathing reviews in the West. But in Japan, where the film just opened this weekend, the live-action remake of the classic 1995 anime has found popularity with local audiences.

Ghost in the Shell brought in more than $3 million in Japan during its first three days in theaters, a modest sum that looks stellar compared to its U.S. gross during the same period. Japanese audiences have reportedly taken to the film, despite its primary controversy stemming from its predominantly white take on a historically Japanese property.

Yahoo Japan’s movie review site lists the film at a decent 3.56 user rating, higher than that of the original anime. The Hollywood Reporter also spoke to local moviegoers, who mostly had positive things to say about the Ghost in the Shell remake. Praise went to the visuals, Scarlett Johansson’s performance and the overall original approach to the iconic source material.

On comment in particular stood out, however. THR spoke to a fan identified as Yuki, who thought that the film was better off with a white woman in the lead role, instead of a Japanese one as intended.

"I heard people in the U.S. wanted an Asian actress to play her," Yuki told THR. "Would that be OK if she was Asian or Asian-American? Honestly, that would be worse, someone from another Asian country pretending to be Japanese. Better just to make the character white."

Anyone following along with the pre-release conversation surrounding Ghost in the Shell may not be totally surprised. Although critics quickly decried director Rupert Sanders’ whitewashed take on Ghost in the Shell, both its creative team and original author didn’t see a problem.

Mamoru Oshii directed the animated Ghost in the Shell, which is set in a futuristic version of Tokyo and as such features a primarily Japanese cast of characters. When asked last month whether he, too, was disappointed that Hollywood put American action star Scarlett Johansson front-and-center instead of an actress of Asian ethnicity, Oshii shrugged.

"What issue could there possibly be with casting her?" Oshii said to IGN in an interview. "The Major is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one. The name 'Motoko Kusanagi' and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray her. Even if her original body (presuming such a thing existed) were a Japanese one, that would still apply."

Some stateside fans echoed Oshii’s argument in their praise of the film, as did Johansson and Sanders. Nonetheless, Ghost in the Shell was so roundly panned that its failure at the box office was ultimately a forgone conclusion.

Kyle Davies, who heads domestic distribution at Paramount, said that the studio felt the whitewashing discussion played a part in the film’s performance.

“You've got a movie that is very important to the fanboys since it's based on a Japanese anime movie,” he told CBC. “So you're always trying to thread that needle between honoring the source material and make a movie for a mass audience. That's challenging, but clearly the reviews didn't help."

Whitewashing controversy or no, adaptations of anime tend not to do well in the U.S. The poor reviews of Ghost in the Shell also called out its storytelling as a big disappointment. Whatever the reason, the film isn’t likely to make back its budget, even if Japanese audiences view it more favorably. It’s still fascinating to see how dramatically reactions to Hollywood’s anime reimaginings can differ on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.