This Week In Whitewashing:
Ghost In The Shell is a live action adaptation of the ground-breaking 1995 anime film, which in turn was based on the Japanese cult manga of the same name, written and illustrated by Masamune Shirow. It’s about a woman known as Major who is cyber-enhanced to be the perfect weapon against the world’s most dangerous criminals. When said criminals develop the ability to hack into people’s minds and control them, Major devotes herself to stopping them. Major’s full name is Motoko Kusanagi. And she’s played by Scarlett Johansson.
Let’s go ahead and address the issue of whitewashing: this is an adaptation of a distinctly Japanese piece of pop culture, which set in Japan, and yet the main character is played by a Caucasian woman.
“But Maha, Hollywood is a business! Movies have to turn a profit, and they’re more likely to do so if they are headed by established stars!”
Take a minute to examine this argument: it infers that “established stars” are mostly, if not all, white. Why is that? Could it be that institutionalised racism means that casting decisions have historically precluded people of colour be considered? The problem is that actors of colour are simply not given the same opportunities as caucasian actors. If they’re not given the same opportunities at the beginning of their careers, they are less likely to become big, Brad-Pitt-George-Clooney-calibre stars. So while it may be true that there currently aren’t any female actresses working in Hollywood with the same Box Office drawing power of Scarlett Johansson, it’s important to be aware of why this is the case: the problematic history of racism and whitewashing in Hollywood. We did not get here by accident.
“Okay, buuuuuut even the author and publishers of the original manga, and the director of the 1995 anime film, are okay with ScarJo’s casting”
They are all entitled to their opinion, but it’s not a stretch to deduce that they wouldn’t benefit financially from the failure of this film, so maybe they don’t want to contribute any further to the negative publicity it’s already garnered.
Now, onto the movie. It was alright. It looked really expensive, definitely no cost spared in the production design. They appear to have skimped in the screenwriting department, but it can’t be easy adapting manga to live action – they have, historically, been awful because the two media are inherently different. If you’re into really slick visual effects, there’s plenty here for you. In fact, most of the film is visual effects, including the acting.
Scarlett Johannson spends most of it looking serious and bemused, perfecting that trans-human look she’s been honing across several roles over the last few years (Lucy, Under the Skin) and I spent the whole movie thinking that Batou was being played by Michael Shannon. I was disappointed to find out that it was not Michael Shannon. Michael Pitt makes an appearance as Kuze, and he delivers a really interesting performance. Again, not Japanese but because his character is meant to be the same model of cyborg as Kusanagi, so he would’ve been cast based on his physical similarity to Scarlett Johansson. Whitewashing begets whitewashing.
There are attempts made in the film to explore themes of the nature of consciousness and identity, never going too deep but delving enough into them to be slightly interesting. A line which is repeated throughout the film is that memories are not what make us human, actions do, a clear hark back to Blade Runner (which also clearly influenced the cityscape and soundtrack).
In a way, the film itself is a ghost in a shell. It’s filled with the memories of and references to 80’s futuristic sci-fi classics like Blade Runner and Total Recall, packaged up in a fancy shiny modern shell. While the film nerd in me enjoyed these references, the story itself was way too thin to keep me engrossed for its 120 minute running time.
Whitewashing or no whitewashing, Ghost in the Shell is no masterpiece. It’s another attempt at starting a franchise using the origin story of an established pop culture phenomena, and its style outweighs its substance. I would go as far as to say that the whitewashing controversy is the most interesting thing about it.
The most effective way to voice your opinion on whitewashing is with your buying power: social media and opinion pieces are great, and we should be having these conversations openly. But Hollywood studio execs only care about the bottom line, so if you really want to show them you’re not okay with whitewashing, use your buying power to make a point.