Note: There will be plot revelations in what follows. If you plan to view Paramount Pictures’ “Ghost in the Shell” and want to experience it with no foreknowledge, read no further.
Also in the following, my impressions from “Ghost in the Shell” are only from this 2017 version, not from the Japanese manga and animé predecessors.
It must be noted, however, that “GitS” received additional scrutiny from fans and media activists once it became known that its filmmakers chose to cast a big-name movie star, who happens to be white, in the lead role eventually known as the Major. The character upon whom the Major is based was, in those previous versions, named Maj. Motoko Kusanagi, who despite being a cyborg (human-machine hybrid), was a Japanese female. That “big-name movie star” is Scarlett Johansson, who is not a Japanese female.
It should have been obvious to the filmmakers from the very beginning that this casting decision would be problematic. The casting of non-Asian actors to play Asian roles is as old as Hollywood, but today, with social media, outcries are quicker and more amplified. In the past few years, there has been growing irritation — which these filmmakers willfully ignored — with casting decisions in such movies as “Aloha” and “Doctor Strange” that came out before “GitS,” because roles that could have or should have gone to actors of Asian heritage did not. The problem has been exacerbated since Asian-specific roles in Hollywood are so limited.
Scarlett Johansson plays a cyborg known as Major in the live-action adaptation of “Ghost in the Shell.”
There used to be a saying in Hollywood: You can’t polish a turd. This is no longer true. In terms of money spent on production values, it turns out nowadays, you can — and in this regard, “GitS” definitely shines.
The swirling urban tableau (with a few inside sight gags) inspired by the far superior “Blade Runner” is goosed up to 11. Same for the hyperkinetic hyperviolence. (Like many animé, this movie is not for the kiddies.) Much of that violence, by the way, has mostly Caucasian parties doling it out on mostly Asian recipients. Meantime, despite the display of Johansson’s curvaceous physique, the result is oddly non-titillating.
Turns out great special effects still can’t beat a compelling story with sympathetic characters. “GitS” is polished. But it still stinks.
Back to “Blade Runner,” “Ghost in the Shell” swipes not only its noir-ish look and themes of implanted/erased memories, it even follows “Blade Runner’s” original theatrical release in that sunlight is not seen until the end. It’s also derivative of yet another far superior movie, the original “RoboCop,” in which the remaining parts of a damaged human get melded (without permission) with a machine. And, in all three movies, it’s an evil corporation that is behind the, er, machinations.
Being derivative is not a crime — what, anymore, isn’t a little bit derivative? As successful as “The Hunger Games” was, similar themes were first explored in Japan’s “Battle Royale.” But “Hunger Games” was different. If you can bring a little twist or inject something unique to the derived work or just simply execute well, maybe that’s good enough. In that regard, though, “Ghost in the Shell” fails, even as it attempts to, like “Blade Runner” and “RoboCop,” examine some serious themes, especially now that people are already virtual cyborgs, dependent on laptops, smartphones, tablets and smartwatches to communicate, manage time and stay entertained.
As for the casting of Johansson and explanations that it makes sense within the movie’s plot, that’s a workaround that does not work. The convoluted explanation: the brain of a human girl is put into a high-tech humanoid machine (or shell), and the brain is reprogrammed, making the cyborg a high-tech, super-efficient law enforcement operative.
This new creation is named Mira Killian (same initials as Motoko Kusanagi!), and has the rank of major. She is under the impression that her parents were killed in an accident when they moved to this unnamed Asian metropolis and that she was so badly hurt in that accident that only her brain could be saved, by putting it into a shell. (Why her? Why not!) The big revelation is that the Major was Motoko Kusanagi and that it was her brain — with altered memories that inconveniently start cropping up — that was put into that shell.
Not only that, the “bad guy” named Kuzé that she and her law enforcement team is after was her former rebellious compatriot and fellow teen runaway, Hideo. The evil corporation Hanka was behind having their bodies killed and brains harvested. Japanese brains in Caucasoid-looking machine bodies. Wow. That, folks, is the given reason as to why casting Johansson supposedly made sense.
The irrefutable fact, however, is that Scarlett Johansson was cast (just like Emma Stone in “Aloha”) because she is a movie star, a known quantity, a talented and attractive brand name that will presumably attract attention and sell tickets. Because there are no big-name stars who are Asian (or Asian American) in the right age and gender range with a track record of being in successful movies for a producer to have cast, we get a casting misfit.
More nonsense: Japanese actor Beat Takeshi (aka Takeshi Kitano, who was in the aforementioned “Battle Royale”) plays Aramaki, the leader of this law enforcement team. He speaks only in Japanese and his lines are subtitled. So, when he asks a question or says something, the audience gets a translation. Meantime, since the folks in the movie don’t get subtitles and since they answer in English, Major and her associates must know Japanese, even though she never speaks it. (And prior to getting her brain harvested, Motoko Kusanagi and her mother, played by Japanese actress Kaori Momoi, are Japanese. When they meet, they speak in English.)
Hollywood, like “GitS,” is a derivative place. The conventional wisdom is that this or that won’t sell — until something comes along, disproves the conventional wisdom by connecting with audiences and making money. Then everyone copies it.
Same goes for casting Asian Americans and Asians in parts that call for them. Until something sneaks through, makes lots of money and shifts the conventional wisdom, it’s going to stay that way.
The irony to all this, of course, is that “Ghost in the Shell” underperformed in its opening weekend, grossing a trifle more than $20 million in domestic box-office. Would actually casting Asian American or Asian acting talent for the big roles in “Ghost in the Shell” have improved its box-office performance? It’s difficult, if not impossible to say. But with such a meager return on investment, would it have hurt?
Interestingly, there is now a rabid, outspoken fan base of Japanese manga, animé and cosplay in the U.S., and most of them — and I’m talking whites, blacks and Latinos, not just Japanese American/Asian American fans — seem to want the Americanized remakes of these properties to stay somewhat true to the source material, and that includes casting Asians.
As “Ghost in the Shell” proves, however, Hollywood remains tone-deaf on this. It’s akin to when, in the early days of rock ’n’ roll music, record companies would issue Pat Boone covers of Little Richard or Fats Domino songs. The hipper teens back then rejected the bowdlerized and sanitized versions in favor of the real thing. If you wanted to buy a copy of “Tutti Frutti” from iTunes today, would you get Pat Boone’s version or Little Richard’s version?
Whitewashing music was dumb and racist back then. Whitewashing movies is dumb and racist now.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2017 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.