As our friend Angry Asian Man pointed out earlier this week, Scarlett Johansson has been offered the role of Major Motoko Kusanagi in Dreamworks’ live-action remake of Mamoru Oshii’s ground-breaking anime Ghost in the Shell. And well, she’s white. Which to many of us here certainly feels like more Hollywood whitewashing at first glance. Particularly to anyone following the on-again off-again plans for a live-action remake of Akira with an all white cast or M. Night Shymayalan’s tragic The Last Airbender.
Ghost in the Shell is a seminal film in Japanese cinema for its part in a wave of anime releases in the early-to-mid 90s that set a new bar for the form in Japan, and solidified its legitimacy abroad. I watched GITS along with Katsushiro Otomo’s Akira and Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s Ninja Scroll over the course of one night in 1996, and I was converted irretrievably to the understanding that Japanese anime was the default in animation.
But as much as Ghost in the Shell is essential viewing for anyone interested in entering this very Japanese world of anime — a rabbit hole through which careful consideration is required — the film’s premonitory vision of the future is not uniquely Japanese. There are certainly cultural nuances that drive the film, and its rendering of future Japan is one of its most enjoyable aspects, but that is why we adapt films, to make them uniquely ours.
Implying that Dreamworks has an obligation to cast Japanese actors for this film is like saying Japanese movie studios should have to cast white actors for a remake of The Matrix or Dark City. Not only is it unnecessary, it is an exercise in futility. Even if Dreamworks were to set the film in Japan — and even if they cast an ethnically Asian actress as Kusanagi — the film would still be in English and told from an American perspective. It would still essentially be “whitewashed.”
Dreamworks should make it American, but they should stay away from keeping Japanese names (if they don’t cast Japanese actors) for the sake of making it exotic, as in Akira. And, god forbid they keep any deeply cultural Japanese elements or characters and force white actors to try and play those parts. That’s how you get the obliviously absurd Airbender.
All this is to say that I’m not disappointed that Johansson is being offered the part because she is white, I’m disappointed because it is Scarlett Johansson. Or rather, I’ll be disappointed if she takes the part. It is understandable from Dreamworks’ perspective, they want a bankable star to carry a still fairly unknown story, and Johansson is the biggest female action star in Hollywood right now. If she accepts the role, it would be considered a big win.
Johansson certainly looks the part as Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s Black Widow, but one viewing of her 2014 follow-up Lucy should hint to any discerning fan of GITS, that she is no Major Kusanagi, a calculative, sometimes cold, virtuoso. That is something Johannson has never played convincingly, especially not in Lucy. Kusanagi is like a young god seeking a greater truth to her existence, not unlike say Dr. Manhattan in The Watchmen, or even the OS “Samantha” in Spike Jonze’s Her which was played by a body-less Johansson. But no one would ever mistake “Samantha” for Motoko Kusanagi. She is a very different kind of god.
Kusanagi is a “female” cyborg almost by default, she is at once overtly feminine, masculine, and asexual. In the original film, she questions her corporeal existence, unsure of her humanity because of her fully synthetic body. Her femininity is arbitrary, she isn’t even sure if her “ghost” which seems to identify as a woman is real. Johansson exudes femininity, there is nothing ambiguous in how she plays her characters. She is best when playing coy. In Her, despite having no physical being, “Samantha” identifies as a woman, and its perhaps Johannson’s best performance as an actress. As Black Widow, she effectively plays Natalia Romanova as strong, sexually manipulative, yet vulnerable, but all feminine.
Lying beneath its themes exploring existence in a modern, tech-controlled world, Ghost in the Shell also explores the increasingly blurring lines of gender and sexuality. But, Johansson’s line of feminine identity seems very clear, which may be as much Hollywood’s fault as anything else.
But beyond the hesitation of whether or not Johansson can convincingly play Kusanagi, it’s the idea that with her cast in a presumably “star-driven” movie, she will be called upon less to inhabit Kusanagi than to recreate the character to be Scarlett Johansson. Dreamworks could certainly rewrite the character to better suit her strengths, but that just isn’t a version of Ghost in the Shell that I want to see.
As an addendum, here is a short list of actresses that I would much rather see in the role. Since I have absolutely no say in the matter.
EMILY BLUNT: Never would have pictured her in an action movie before Edge of Tomorrow, but I probably thought the same before seeing Johannson as Black Widow. Blunt was a head-to-toe bad ass in Edge, and showed she is capable of carrying a movie. She is a more versatile actress and a better fit to play a philosophical robot.
RINKO KIKUCHI: Even if you don’t have to cast a Japanese actress, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Kikuchi has a distinct edge to her with action movie chops, and she is the most marketable Japanese actress in the U.S. right now. I wonder, though, if she would even be considered for the role in Japan if they did a GITS live-action remake.
LENA HEADEY: Cersei may be a reach at this point in her career, but she did play Sarah Connor in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and the eminently watchable “Mama” in the Judge Dredd reboot. I would watch the shit out of this version of GITS.
Having also starred in The Sarah Connor Chronicles, it would be a seamless transition from cyborg to cyborg for SUMMER GLAU.
After all of the zombie kills she’s racked up on The Walking Dead at this point, LAUREN COHAN should be surgical with all manner of weaponry.