Volume 9, Issue 12
Not for the first time, Hollywood has bought the rights to a story that has its roots in another film culture. Paramount Pictures and Dreamworks have agreed to produce and finance a live action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, a project which has been in the pipeline since 2008. It is only now in 2016 that feathers have been ruffled. The action which aroused the ire of many was the choice to cast Scarlett Johansson, a white American woman, in the role of Major Motoko Kusanagi, a Japanese cyborg.
Ghost in the Shell (GITS) is a manga and anime with a large canon of work dating from the 90s. The plot revolves around a Japanese cyberpunk future where most people are partly or wholly cyborgs, and follows the investigations of Unit 9 into Japanese crime and corruption. The series explores what it means to be human in a cybernetic world, and Japan’s relationship with a quasi-dystopian digital revolution.
In the past, Hollywood has successfully (and unsuccessfully) remade many foreign films without incident or outcry. Many of these have come from Asia. Infernal Affairs gave us The Departed, The Ring spawned its American namesake and classic westerns such as The Magnificent Seven and A Fistful of Dollars are, in fact, based on Japanese tales. Although many are successful, remakes often do not live up to their parent film’s reputation. Frequently, this can be attributed to poor production, or lackluster acting; Nicholas Cage’s performance in Bangkok Dangerous being a notable example. In other cases, I submit that the issue is rooted in the retold story’s dislocation from its original cultural context, and the resultant loss of nuance or authenticity when the film is translated to Western cinema screens.
The fundamental difference between these adaptations and that of GITS, is that Hollywood has not sought to divorce itself from GITS’ cultural context. In order to effect an authentic translation of GITS to the silver screen, vestiges of Japan remain. Perhaps this is because fans of the franchise are highly conscious of the uniquely Japanese context of GITS, and to exclude it entirely would strip away a key aspect of the film’s appeal. Despite this nod to authenticity, Scarlett Johansson, a white woman, has been cast as the lead character.
The result is a disjunctive combination of context and casting, which indicates that Western cinema is co-opting, rather than reimagining, a foreign story. Hollywood is attempting to preserve the authenticity of GITs by retaining its cultural context, but is incapable of truly doing so by making a casting decision that acknowledges that this is a Japanese story. Its seemingly respectful nod to Japanese culture is belied by the choice to erase the Japanese identity of the lead character.
In Japan, this move has generated more bemusement than sympathetic outrage. Furthermore, the publisher of GITS, Kodansha, has endorsed the casting of Scarlett Johansson, stating it never envisaged that a Japanese actress would be cast in the role of the Major.
However, the transposition of GITS into the realm of Western cinema means that the relevant perspective is no longer that of the GITS creators, or Japanese people alone. It is impossible to divorce the casting choice from its impact on Asian actors. After all, why cast a white person in a role that seems suited to an Asian actor? The answer feeds into the discourse of the long-term marginalization of non-white actors in Western film, a discourse notably absent from the Japanese experience.
Put simply: in Hollywood, white-centric films are the norm. Underpinning this fact is the notion that a successful story requires the insertion of a white main character in order that the film resonate with its (white) audience. As a consequence, Asian actors have historically been relegated to the periphery of a production, or feature as stock characters. They materialize as the ascetic martial arts expert, the comedic caperer or the exotic love interest. The consequence of this action is the displacement of non-white actors by white-centric casting choices, ultimately allowing Hollywood to justify its choice to cast white leads and maintain the status quo.
Hollywood claims that the failure to cast an Asian lead is an economic decision: a necessary consequence of limiting its lead roles to billable actors. However, billable actors are generally white because of the wide range of acting opportunities available to them, while non-white actors are sidelined. And Hollywood, fearful of losing money, will not risk casting a lesser-known, non-white actor in a big-budget production. The fundamental problem is that this situation is not organic - it is a direct consequence of systemic racism.
Therefore, Hollywood’s erasure of the Asian identity of the Major in GITS by casting Scarlett Johansson is more than a question of authenticity, or economic expedience. This casting choice reinforces the message that Asian actors do not belong in mainstream Hollywood roles. Furthermore, it reinforces a pattern of racial marginalization that traps Asian actors in subsidiary roles by failing to challenge the status quo and foster new talent.
Dishearteningly, this is a formula whose success overrules the injustice it perpetrates. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, there is no new chapter being written. Like many films before it, Ghost in the Shell continues the practice of erasing non-white identities from film. Meanwhile, Asian actors will continue to sit on the cinematic sidelines, wondering what it will take for them to be given a chance to shine.
Alice Kennedy is a second-year JD student
The rest of this week's *bumper* issue: