Spoilers for Ghost in the Shell are present.
Connor Thomas wrote a phenomenal piece about “Racism in Film: Movies and Society Part 8.” In it he mentioned that “in no other place can racism project itself across so many people’s minds” so blatantly. He provided an excellent analysis of the history and overall trends set in Hollywood and some harrowing statistics. For that, I respect him even more as a writer and a person.
The interesting thing is the timing and release of his article. As some may already be aware, further controversy has been sparked by the promotional picture of Scarlett Johansson portraying Major Motoko Kusanagi in the upcoming live action version of Ghost in the Shell. I personally can both defend and attack the studio’s decision to cast Scarlett Johansson (and I will) in this adaption of the 1995 animated film. It is worth mentioning that I do not watch a lot of anime (the majority of what I watch is the Ghost in the Shell franchise because of its cyberpunk nature). In fact, I do not consume a lot of TV or film altogether; rather I play an inordinate amount of video games (Just check my article history on The Roundup). Ghost in the Shell however is in my top three movies of all time (The other two being The Departed & Good Will Hunting). To further understand the significance of this animated film, I will attempt to explain the premise so the larger implications for Scarlett Johansson’s casting can be understood.
According to the Google film synopsis Ghost in the Shell is described as a “Japanese animation (in which), cyborg federal agent Maj. Motoko Kusanagi trails “The Puppet Master,” who illegally hacks into the minds of cyborg-human hybrids. Kusanagi’s pursuit of a man who can modify the identity of strangers leaves her pondering her own makeup, and what life might be like if she had more human traits. With her partner, Kusanagi corners the hacker, but her curiosity about her identity sends the case in an unforeseen direction.”
Ghost in the Shell, the intellectual property as a whole constantly bombards the viewer with incredibly philosophical dilemmas and situations. It makes the viewer question possible outcomes of further cybernetic and neurological breakthroughs. The symbolism and message that was intended to be told by the creator is encompassed by a thought provoking action film. In my opinion it succeeds in doing so. This mainly conveyed through the protagonists, Motoko Kusanagi’s monologues and actions about her own interpretation of her very existence as a full body cyborg.
For the uniformed reader or critic the idea of Scarlett Johansson playing the lead for a remake of a Japanese anime seems like blatant “whitewashing.” Yet, out of all cases of whitewashing this one actually has some defend-able points (I am presenting them; I do not support them). Let me be clear though, Hollywood needs to absolutely be more open to casting Asian actors in more roles, preferably not roles that are stereotypical interpretations of Asian culture. For example, why not cast an Asian actor for an ethnically ambiguous character (a role that isn’t defined by facial structure or specific race)? There are plenty of roles that do not have to be played by mainstream Caucasian actors. Let it also be worth mentioning that more races should be cast in mainstream film as a whole (please do not feel as if I am catering to one specific race).
Here is how I will be devil’s advocate and defend the decision for the casting of Scarlet Johansson(I will argue against it later). In the original film, the Major is a full body cyborg. In 2027, when the film takes place, everything that arguably makes a human can be replaced by cybernetics including one’s brain. Motoko Kusanagi is for all intensive purposes literally a ghost (soul) in a shell (body). She lacks any actual ‘natural’ body parts, even her own hair. Although her complete backstory is argued by viewers, she is by no means a ‘normal’ human. In the society that the series takes place in, however, this is accepted (for the most part). The populace can place their soul or ghost into an artificial body or shell if they choose. In this society race isn’t really an issue because one’s race can be altered by merely obtaining a new shell (if they have the physical capital to buy one). The Major operates out of Japan and is arguably Japanese, yet in nearly every portrayal of the character, she appears ethnically androgynous. In some iterations she appears more ‘Caucasian’ in others such as the ARISE ova; she dawns a more ‘Asian’ appearance. Note this is all relative to the viewer.
Essentially in the case of the original Ghost in the Shell, the Major has a Japanese name but certainly not a typical ‘Asian’ appearance. This is because of the entire cyborg-cyberpunk world that the characters live in. This is not our world. It is important to mention that the Major is not the sole Japanese character who simply does not appear to have Japanese origins. Batou (pictured to the above) is a near full body cyborg and colleague of the Major. Like her, in each iteration of the series as a whole his appearance differs. These characters’ roles are so ethnically ambiguous that in my opinion the live action portrayal of the characters as a whole is unimportant if the sole goal is to get the main message across. The focus for the entire film isn’t really as much about the characters as it is about what it means to be human. More specifically, something that is synthesized in a lab can feel and be accepted as being human. This is accomplished by using the Major as a vessel for doing so. The film especially touches on deep analyses of humanity and life after death. I will explain why Scarlett Johansson is seemingly ‘perfect’ for this in a bit.
Personally, the plot for Ghost in the Shell depends so little on race it could be adapted to fit any kind of futuristic metropolitan setting whether it be in North America, Europe, the Middle East, etc. Once again this is due to the cyberpunk setting and the technological level that society in a whole has advanced to globally. Other successful animes that have made their way from Japan to become mainstream franchises, such as Attack on Titan, Fullmetal Alchemists, Dragon Ball Z, for the most part do not focus on the specific race of the characters but instead more on the environment and issue at hand. I give this choice in creative design credit for their success in the West. Basically, just because it is an anime does not always mean that all of the characters have to be Asian. You would be surprised by how many people believe this to be true. These plots do not have to cater to race to be successful; they transcend that entire barrier as a whole. Anyone who has never watched Ghost in the Shell, however, just sees the Japanese name, in this case Motoko Kusanagi, and freaks out before understanding the plot and reasoning as to why Scarlett Johansson could possibly make sense when it comes to casting. This kind of assumption proves that the individual that is criticizing this decision has no understanding of the plot in the slightest degree.
SPOILER. The Major kind of dies in a sense near the end of Ghost in the Shell. Well, her body that had been acting as a vessel for her very soul is destroyed. She eventually ends up in a cybernetic body of a young girl but that isn’t the point because before that she bonds her very ‘mind’ with an artificial intelligence and possibly the internet as a whole. This may be a lot to fathom at once but just listen to where I am going with this. The Major at this specific point in the film lacks any physical presence in the actual world. She has transcended into the very cloud of data that flows throughout the world. This philosophical commentary for a cyborgs life after her apparent death (she actually doesn’t end up dying for good) is the main focus for the entire 82 minute long film. NOT RACE, nor any kind of IDEOLOGY or POLITICAL AGENDA. The film’s purpose is to propose various possible theories and revelations about life after death for something that arguably was never truly alive. The Major after questioning her humanity and whether she even is human literally becomes a part of the internet, something an actual human more than likely can’t. From this viewers have argued over the years if she was ever even human at one point or merely an artificial intelligence that was given bodies that reflect her supposed age.
Scarlett Johansson has played several roles that make her a suitable choice to play the Major (except you know being white). From a physical standpoint she has already learned the choreography and has portrayed a character who uses the same kind of combat style as the Major: Black Widow in various Marvel films. She has already proven that she can portray a convincing artificial intelligence in Her. The entire concept and her acting abilities to portray the Major in sequences that lack a body or physical form is corroborated by her performance in this film. In Lucy she was able to not only provide believable combat skills, but she also proved to be able to commentate on higher states of consciousness; not to mention deep analysis of the brain and its potential. Off the top of my head, I cannot name an actress who is more qualified to portray the Major based off of past performances. This in itself is intriguing and disappointing, but I will mention why eventually.
The last thing that is a ‘good’ thing that Scarlett brings to the film is her appearance and name. Personally, I would argue that if a mainstream actress was not attached to this live action film few would be interested in it to begin with. The source material is by no means new; the original movie is over 20 years old. There is also a stigma in Hollywood that films with foreign origins for the most part won’t be successful because the general public doesn’t accept them or they will not understand them. My opinions on this and my overall disapproval could be an article on its own. Basically without a major A list celebrities involvement, I could not see this film ever being pitched to audiences and studios, let alone be successful.
To further quell blind hatred towards the casting of Scarlett Johansson, it is noteworthy to say that the manga publisher for the original Ghost in the Shell, Kodansha was impressed with the amount of respect being given to the manga. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Kodansha’s chief international business director, Sam Yoshiba stated, “Looking at her career so far, I think Scarlett Johansson is well cast. She has the cyberpunk feel. And we never imagined it would be a Japanese actress in the first place. This is a chance for a Japanese property to be seen around the world.”
If the original publishers of the source material have no issue with the Major being portrayed by a non-Japanese actress then I cannot see any further reason to detest the idea of Scarlott being the Major (besides her being white). It is also important to mention that the audiences in Japan do not feel offended by the casting of Scarlett in the role either. One commenter from this cached thread of comments even points out that, “Even though in the Attack on Titan manga, the characters were foreigners, the movie version was all Japanese people, so I’m not going to complain.” The issue that should make people mad that was hinted at earlier is the lack of diversity in Hollywood.
A large portion of people online have been demanding that Rinko Kikuchi, a Japanese national (she was in Pacific Rim) be cast as the Major instead. I personally think this makes sense as well. Especially if you want to cast a quality Japanese actress for a film that requires a wide skill set. I blame yet again the lack of a wide range of Japanese actresses (that would appeal to mainstream audiences) specifically to play this role. What I am trying to get at is if Hollywood finally decided to cast more Asian actors and actresses then there would be a larger selection of people to cast for the role of the Major in this live action adaptation. For this film to succeed at all it needs an actress that has a proven skill set and is a household name. I am not saying at all that white actresses are better by any means; the crummy thing is that the majority of the current actresses that fulfill these two requirements are Caucasian (mainly the second requirement). Plenty of Asian actresses have the skill set for the Major; they just lack something they cannot control. The characteristic that also works against the whole whitewashing idea is the previously mentioned fact that this role could be played by anyone of any race that meets the prerequisites. It just so happens thanks to the ill nature of Hollywood that this happens to be Scarlett Johansson.
When it comes to the whole idea of Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi I can personally understand the pros and cons of casting her and as to why she was chosen. This still does not excuse everything else Hollywood has whitewashed in the past and inevitable future but I feel as if this movie isn’t the best example of whitewashing. Rather society as a whole does have an issue with whitewashing but in this case directed its frustration toward a single film instead of a wider pattern in Hollywood. To further understand this struggle in Hollywood for diversity I will once again direct you to Connor’s piece mentioned in the beginning.