The speculative community has been nurturing a climate of social equity in the past few years. From the removal of statuettes depicting the openly racist H.P. Lovecraft from the World Fantasy Awards, to Cixin Liu winning the Best Novel Award at the 2015 Hugo Awards (the first Asian novelist to do so), it is clear that mind-sets are changing.
However, with each step forward, there is always a step back.
When I heard that Hollywood was casting Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi in the upcoming adaptation of the manga Ghost in the Shell, I knew there was going to be trouble. Ever since the news was released, many fans have criticized the studio’s decision to cast Johansson in the role of an Asian character. Hollywood’s casting decision goes against the speculative community’s goal of social equity by perpetuating misrepresentation, while also revealing an integral flaw within their understanding of the manga.
Whitewashing is still commonplace among Hollywood films—just think The Last Airbender and Gods of Egypt. Moreover, Paramount and Dreamworks studios’ choices to whitewash their major characters reveals a very common and deep-seated fear: almost every big studio is afraid of losing money on film projects. According to Max Landis, a Hollywood screenwriter who defended the Ghost in the Shell casting decision in a YouTube video, there simply aren’t any A-list Asian actors that would ensure the film’s financial success. Not only is this assumption wrong (fans were hoping that Rinko Kikuchi would get the role), it is offensive, and indicates the industry’s financial motivations for the film above all else. Apparently, offering break-out opportunities for the many Asian-American actors struggling to find work in the industry just doesn’t seem to be an option. While this decision affects the social aspect of the film, it also affects its merit as an adaptation.
The studios’ selection of the film’s lead, screenwriters, and director indicates an important misunderstanding of the concepts established by its Japanese predecessors. Scarlett Johansson is most well-known for her action-oriented roles in The Avengers films, while screenwriters Jamie Moss (Street Kings) and Jonathan Herman (Straight Outta Compton) have only ever written action-thrillers. To top it all off, the film’s director is Rupert Sanders, whose only movie is Snow White and The Huntsman. The fact that the director and screenwriters are all inexperienced new members of the industry who have only ever done action films, with action-star Scarlett Johansson in the lead role, definitely points to a focus on action over thought.
However, gunfights and action scenes were never the focus of Ghost in the Shell. Of course violence is present, but its use is minimalistic and often only as a last resort. The point of the series has always been about asking questions that challenge the concept of the human condition. What does it mean to be human if your body is entirely prosthetic? Is artificial intelligence humanity’s next evolutionary step? What defines individuality if memories and thoughts can be hacked, deleted, and replaced? These are all questions that the original manga and its anime adaptations successfully tackle, with the cyborg Major Kusanagi being the embodiment of those themes as she is literally a ‘ghost’, or collection of her original memories, within a prosthetic body or ‘shell’. Ghost in the Shell is about questioning the human condition. It is quiet, introspective, and delicate—never loud.
While I have no doubt that a successful live-action adaptation of the manga can be pulled off, Hollywood’s decisions should serve as a warning for most fans to prepare for disappointment. Ghost in the Shell would’ve been a perfect opportunity for an Asian actor to play an intriguing character and to potentially break out into the mainstream. Instead, Hollywood is content to stick to its routine of whitewashing roles, perpetuating cycles of misrepresentation, and creating adaptations which fail to convey the themes of the source material. This film may have the title Ghost in the Shell, but I doubt it will have the heart of its predecessors.
The only good thing that has come out of this controversy has been the response from fans and the wider speculative community as a whole. By forcing Hollywood to recognize that their actions are outdated and harmful, hopefully the industry will be forced to change its behavior in the future. While the outlook of this film may seem bleak, as it is scheduled to be released in 2017, with not enough time for any major changes, perhaps enough time for its studios to at least consider the community’s response.