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Scarlett Johansson’s Ghost in the Shell casting is even worse than it seems

Scarlett Johansson is starring in next year’s Ghost in the Shell live-action adaptation, and fans of the original animated film are up in arms. When Johansson was officially cast to play a character known as the Major in the movie, the news sparked a wave of criticism aimed at Paramount and DreamWorks for their decision. After all, the character Johansson is playing is central to a series of manga, movies, and TV shows all set in 21st century Japan. Johannson is neither Japanese nor is she native to Japan. Now that fans have seen what she’ll look like in the role, the backlash has found its second wind.

Let’s get something out of the way: casting Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell is a classic example of whitewashing. The same thing happened to The Last Airbender, Exodus: Gods and Kings, and Gods of Egypt. But this particular example is a little less cut-and-dried. It speaks to the studios’ cynicism leading to a fundamental misunderstanding of the source material all for the sake of making a buck.

Paramount and Dreamworks don’t understand the source material

The assumptions that governed the decision to cast Johansson in the role make sense intuitively. She’s a proven action star thanks to her place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and her success with Lucy in 2014 was a strong argument for her sheer presence ensuring ticket sales. It stands to reason that people love her and will go to see her in movies.

But comic writer Jon Tsuei argues in a series of tweets that, when it comes to Ghost in the Shell, the issue is a matter of ownership.

The idea that Ghost in the Shell is inherently a work of Japanese science fiction is a key complaint. Written by Masamune Shirow, it first debuted in manga form back in 1989. The series, as part of the then-burgeoning cyberpunk genre, explores globalization, the body, and consciousness in the postmodern world through the lens of technology. The narrative challenges commonplace notions about what might make a human being identifiable as a person. However, the setting never varies. The Major is Japanese. Even though the cityscapes she explores are futuristic and multicultural, they have their foundations in Japan. And the relationship the series has to technology is Japanese. (And never forget that anime characters are typically identified as Japanese.) Casting a Caucasian woman as the Major (whose given name is actually Motoko Kusanagi) ignores those facts.

Motoko Kusanagi is a canonically Japanese character

Now, a reasonable argument might assert that properties that have their roots in Asian cultures have crossed over in American adaptations without issue. What about Godzilla? What about Oldboy? What about The Departed, a.k.a. Infernal Affairs? Why can’t a Ghost in the Shell from the States tackle the same quandaries from an American perspective possible?

Tsuei would argue that a movie like that would no longer be Ghost in the Shell.

However, we can still be generous for the sake of argument. While something would certainly be lost in lifting the property and planting it in an American context, it’s still possible (even necessary) to hope that the writers adapting the original work would engage with the same themes the original played with. America’s own relationship to technology is unique and distinct, and it’s easy to imagine a multicultural metropolis that in many ways mirrors what the original work attempted nearly 30 years ago. That’s the essence of cultural exchange: taking ideas from one context and repurposing it in a way that mixes in a new culture while still allowing the original to feel vital. The series benefits from that kind of exchange; there would be no Ghost in the Shell without British author Arthur Koestler’s philosophical text The Ghost in the Machine, and there would be no The Matrix without either. In addition, there’s no 1995 adaptation without Hong Kong influencing the overall aesthetic:

Maybe an American Ghost in the Shell could take place in a futuristic Los Angeles a la Blade Runner, full of self-driving cars and drones, featuring a diverse cast working to solve a crime on, as the Major would put, a net that’s “vast and infinite.”

Even then, the Major needn’t have been made white. Ghost in the Shell already takes place in a world that recognizes diversity, and America is a melting pot of cultures. If the point is to tackle the same questions the original work did, couldn’t any actress be the Major? Especially at a time when Hollywood is being scrutinized for its casting decisions, would it not make more sense to cast an established Asian or Asian-American actress for the role? Surely Pacific Rim’s Rinko Kikuchi could have done amazing work in the film.

Paramount and DreamWorks would like you to believe that Scarlett Johansson was the right choice because she has the chops to play the part. That very well may be. But it mattered more that she could be seen as the face of an American blockbuster. And in America, the universally recognized movie star will more often than not be white. Whiteness, for all intents and purposes, has been America’s default portrayal of itself since its founding. It shouldn’t shock anyone that whiteness serves as the foundation for what the studio is attempting.

Johansson would make the studios money. It’s this particular form of blinkered, appropriative thinking that leads Hollywood to cast white actors for roles that can and should go to people of color. Ghost in the Shell is supposed to be about, among so many other things, asking what comes after we transcend our bodies. Giving the lead role to a white woman reinforces the idea that one embodied point of view is more important than all others. And Hollywood would sooner consider putting white actors in VFX-assisted yellowface than deign to cast an Asian lead.

Hollywood would rather consider putting white actors in VFX-assisted yellowface than cast Asian actors

Unfortunately, it’s too late to expect the studios to change course on the casting of this film. But as more non-white moviegoers and actors speak up about how their stories are represented in film, the industry will have no choice but to respond. And the appropriate response in thinking less about the money and more about the story being told.

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