WARNING: Major spoilers for the 2017 film Ghost in the Shell follow
Paramount’s live-action adaptation of the legendary manga Ghost in the Shell debuted over the weekend to lukewarm reviews and disappointing box office, and there are a lot of reasons why it may have failed to find an audience. The marketing sold the film on its visuals but did little to promote its story or ideas, it’s been released right between the monster hit that is Beauty and the Beast and potential monster hit The Fate of the Furious, and the fact that Ghost in the Shell isn’t a highly recognised brand to mass consumers in the way that most studio blockbuster fare is. But more importantly, it just wasn’t very good.
But of course, there is also the racial controversy that may have dampened its initial reception. Ever since it was announced that Scarlett Johansson would play Major Motoko Kusanagi in the film, the Internet went into uproar. Some saw it as yet another example of Hollywood whitewashing, whilst others (including the filmmakers obviously) defended the decision by saying that Johansson was simply the best fit for the character.
But the real answer is far more simpler: financial security. Not only are there very few female Asian stars in America, there are definitely none who can sell a major Hollywood blockbuster. Ghost in the Shell is a high-concept movie that requires a large budget, and investors aren’t willing to back a picture without some guarantee of success. Attaching a star is one easy way to do that, and Scarlett Johansson is someone who most certainly fills that criteria. The filmmakers aren’t inherently racist, but they are working in a system that isn’t exactly doing much to curb it.
From a personal perspective, I wasn’t up in arms about Johansson’s casting. I would have greatly preferred a Japanese actress in the role, but in all honesty The Major isn’t a character who is particularly defined by her ethnicity. Her struggles with identity and reality are universal concepts relatable to all walks of life, and her detached but determined personality is certainly within Johansson’s wheelhouse as seen in her performances as Black Widow. Given the state of affairs, this is an issue I was willing to let by. If this is the concession that has to be made for Ghost in the Shell to be made, I can just about accept it. But then they had to go and draw attention to it in the worst way possible.
First, a little bit of context. Johansson’s Major goes by the name of Mira Killian and has no memory of her past life before the terrorist attack that killed her human body, with her human consciousness now transplanted into an artificial shell and working for the counter-terrorism group Section 9. She only sees brief glimpses of what may have been her origins, and her lack of memory leads her to feel more robot than human; she has no connection with her own identity. As the film goes on, it’s revealed that what little Major was told about her past was a lie so she could be manipulated into joining Section 9, but she is handed the key to her real past. It turns out her brain originally belongs to a young Japanese girl called Motoko Kusanagi, an anti-augmentation radical abducted by robotics company Hanka and used as a test subject for their experiments into full-body prosthesis. So essentially, our main character has been literally whitewashed within the story.
Making the issue even more troubling is the fact this revelation is played without any comment on the race issue. Major seems no more troubled by this than Jason Bourne discovering something about his past, and the fact that no one ever even comments on this discrepancy makes the decision seem even more tone-deaf. It’s almost like the filmmakers wanted to pay tribute to the original but, like how the film glosses over the more philosophical aspects of the source material, they didn’t linger on the unfortunate implications of their decision. They would have been better off leaving the issue alone, but now they’ve only gone and made it larger. At first I felt disgusted by this, leaving me feel uneasy throughout the rest of the film, but on further thought I realised something. Under better circumstances, this idea could not only have worked, but in a way that helps break down the diversity issue rather than accentuate it.
The filmmakers were essentially forced into casting Johansson for financial reasons due to the lack of bankable Asian actresses, but decide to reveal that their seemingly Caucasian character is actually Japanese after all. Why not take this unfortunate situation and use it as a wake-up call to Hollywood? The film could have so easily used the concept of an Asian character transplanted into the body of a white person as meta-commentary on the lack of diversity in American cinema. Major should be mad at Hanka for not only taking away her memories, but for warping her identity into something she inherently is not. You could have Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) question why Motoko had to be transplanted into a white shell. Perhaps Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) could have insisted upon it for the sake of “image”? What if the reason Kuze (Michael Pitt) and all the other failed experiments didn’t work because their brains were being transplanted into incompatible bodies; the wrong race, the wrong age, the wrong gender?
These ideas not only compliment the source material’s established themes of feeling at odds with your identity internally and externally, but it would have been a genius way of playing by the rules of the broken system whilst simultaneously giving it the finger. “Yeah, we were forced to cast an American in the part,” the personification of this movie would say. “But we’re not happy about it and it’s pretty f*cked up that we had to, right?” It would have given the film a new layer of context beyond the intentions of the original and, if the audience showed support to the idea with their wallets, perhaps make Hollywood executives take pause about the ingrained diversity problems within the industry.
Get Out recently woke up moviegoers to the indwelling racism still present in our society and, if you’ve seen the film, perhaps now you might realize that it and Ghost in the Shell have more in common than you might think (though the former’s subtext is definitely intentional). This movie could have made a statement on that excellent film’s level if it was even half as smart as it think it is. Maybe there was some intention of this ilk considering how the filmmakers blunder all of the other subtleties of the source material in its adaptation, but I sincerely doubt it. As is, Ghost in the Shell comes off as completely clueless and misses the opportunity to be more than yet another example of Hollywood mining a property without understanding what makes it special.