Discussions about race and diversity have dominated the discourse surrounding the Oscars and Hollywood at large for at least the past year. As pointed out by actress Tao Okamoto, it's unfortunate that Asians are often left out of discussions about the roles minorities are given on the big or small screen. But now, a controversy surrounding the upcoming film adaptation of the anime and manga Ghost in the Shell is bringing this issue to the forefront. Despite her critical acclaim as an actress, many are furious about the casting of Scarlet Johansson in the role of Major Motoko Kusanagi, the protagonist of the cyberpunk classic franchise originally written by Masamune Shirow.
For reference, here's the trailer for the first Ghost in the Shell film:
Yes, ScarJo certainly looks like she's from a distant technological dystopia, surrounded by ambient neons in the only released promotional image for the upcoming film. And if anyone is going to play a tough-as-nails, ass-kicking-yet-empathetic cyborg mega-bad-ass, Scarlet seems like the perfect choice.
Here's the thing though: Ghost in the Shell is Japanese. It was written by a Japanese person. It takes place in Japan. It stars Japanese characters. In fact, the very Japanese-ness of Ghost in the Shell is endemic to the whole series, which told the futuristic story of Japan's rise as a global super-power following extremely fast advances in technology in the mid-21st century.
Sure, if we wanted to get into technical details, it could be argued that The Major's body, essentially a robotic shell into which her consciousness is uploaded (get the title of the series now?) is interchangeable, and therefore it's not implausible she'd chose a seemingly white skin for her adventures. Even this is easily refutable though: considering the Major's operations are largely covert, why would she want to stick out as a white person in Japan?
Little is known about what creative liberties are being taken with the live-action adaptation of the series, although evidence seems to suggest that characters names and the setting of the story are not being changed. It does seem notable that Michael Pitt (another great actor, who otherwise would fit seamlessly in a hyper-cybernetic alternate future) has been cast in a similarly racially confusing role.
As Hollywood attempts to come to terms with it's history of racism, wouldn't this have been a wonderful opportunity to allow minority actors and actresses to helm what could be a blockbuster? Is the production company's lack of faith in Asian leads telling about how little progress is actually being made in the industry?
A few personalities have been weighing in on the issue on Twitter, including Chinese actress Ming-Na Wen (best known as the voice actress behind Mulan) and Asian comic book writer Jon Tsuei:
Ghost in the Shell will be directed by Rupert Sanders, whose only other directorial credit is for Snow White and the Huntsman. It doesn't seem likely that this relative newbie on the scene will be able to handle the extreme amount of detail, nuance, craft, and care that went into the original text -- although I'm ready to be surprised. Unfortunately, with this casting disaster leading the way, it's hard to imagine this project will turn out the way many had hoped.
Ghost in the Shell is set to be released on March 31st, 2017.