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Hollywood’s “Ghost in the Shell”: Why the Excuses Don’t Work

I’m of the firm opinion that Hollywood making a Ghost in the Shell adaptation is iffy in the first place when the original manga is so intrinsically tied to Japanese history. The manga itself was a reflection and reaction to post-war Japan’s economic dependence on technology, and a lot of its power comes from the emotional nuance that the author threaded into its story as someone who grew up in that time period. One of the primary themes of the manga is how technology blends with Eastern philosophy. The fact that Hollywood decided to grab at the monumental task of adapting this franchise without understanding the weight of it offends me as a storyteller. Even then, I might have watched it if the cyberpunk aesthetic was pretty enough.

However, in my view, proceeding to cast Scarlett Johansson as the main character is nothing short of a disgrace. In the end, that is the reason why I am choosing to not watch the film.

On the controversy, Johansson is recorded as saying, “I certainly would never presume to play another race of a person. Diversity is important in Hollywood, and I would never want to feel like I was playing a character that was offensive. Also, having a franchise with a female protagonist driving it is such a rare opportunity. ”

The fact of the matter is, she did presume to play another race of a person. Major Motoko Kusanagi of GitS is about as Japanese as a character can get, working in the setting’s Japanese National Public Safety Commission, with social dynamics and presence that form out of a Japanese setting. Yes, in the story her body is meant to be a ‘mass-production model’ prosthesis which is where some people are getting that she ‘doesn’t have to be Asian,’ but then the question is, why isn’t she Asian? The story may have Caucasian-model shells, but it is set in Japan, and there are many Japanese-model shells too?

The fact of the matter is, the race of the shell in the original is ultimately irrelevant. There is no clear answer in the manga, and it’s proven that white people will tend to see see anime characters as white while Asian people will tend to see anime characters as Asian, so the race of the shell is at best ambiguous. However, the character’s chosen alias is Japanese and she lives in and continues to work in a Japanese setting, and her thematic dilemmas are rooted in Eastern Asian philosophy. If we’re going just on clues, it would be more fitting for the character’s shell to be Japanese rather than white.

The director, Rupert Sanders, has said on the matter, “There are very few actresses with 20 years’ experience who have the cyberpunk ethic already baked in. I stand by my decision — [Scarlett Johansson] is the best actress of her generation.” Well, with that logic, Asian-American actresses will never get a major role because so few of them have 20 years’ experience because they don’t have opportunities to play the roles! And how do they know that there are no Asian actresses with the “cyberpunk ethic already baked in” when they apparently didn’t hold auditions or talks with Asian actresses? The only other actress that was reported to have been in early talks for the role that I can find is Margot Robbie, demonstrating that they clearly didn’t consider casting an Asian woman from the start.

Regardless of the excuses that the Johansson or Hollywood gives about the casting, the end result was that they put an already commercially-successful white woman in a role that, in every view, would have been more meaningful and more fitting if given to an Asian woman. (Specifically a Japanese woman, but hell, at this point I’m willing to give Hollywood a little credit for even casting an Asian in an originally Asian role; they’ve lowered the bar that far)

The thought that there was not a single woman of Asian descent in the US who would have both the talent and desire to act in Ghost in the Shell is utterly ridiculous. As one of the most successful Japanese comics/animated franchises in the US market, there was probably a great number of Asian-American women to whom GitS was even a transformative experience, being a series with an Asian woman as the protagonist of an action series. Johansson says that having a franchise with a female protagonist driving it is a rare opportunity? It’s rarer in America for its Asian actresses! If she made that statement realizing that, she’s just making an excuse, and if she made it not realizing that, she needs to take a step back and think long and hard.

There are people who point to Japan’s reaction to the casting, going, “Look, they don’t care that their character is white, so it doesn’t matter,” but these people need to understand that the Asian-American experience differs from the Eastern Asian experience. Japanese people don’t experience lack of representation and racial discrimination in their own country. Japanese people in Japan have their own issues. It’s the Asians in America that experience racial discrimination, and as a powerful industry in America that is releasing a GitS film in America, Hollywood should have been taking Asian-Americans’ experiences into consideration.

Ultimately, it seems like their excuse boils down to, ‘We wanted to make sure it’s a worldwide success, so we cast an already-famous white actress.’ If they’re saying that a Hollywood adaptation of well-known and acclaimed Japanese story Ghost in the Shell, produced by Dreamworks, distributed by Paramount, following the global success of Pacific Rim and the controversy of Doctor Strange won’t be successful with an Asian actress, if they’re saying that this movie isn’t the perfect opportunity to at least take a chance on an Asian actress, they’re basically saying that Asian women in America can wait forever. They’re saying that Asian women won’t ever get their time in Hollywood action at all.

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