Note: My current assumption is that the live-action movie will be based on the 1995 anime movie, rather than the later sequel, tv series and/or OVA. For this reason, I'm referring only to the events and characters within that film.
Earlier this week, it was revealed that Scarlett Johansson has officially been cast as the star of the upcoming live-action adaptation of [Ghost in the Shell](movie:1224130). Long rumored for the project, for many this news was simply a confirmation - no more surprising than learning that Jason Momoa was planned to be [Aquaman](movie:264237) all along (gasp).
For others, however, this was the most rage-inducing news of the week, and twitter heard all about it.
After the recent controversial remarks made about the casting choices for Exodus, casting ScarJo could easily be seen as Hollywood getting the whitewash out again, but is that really all there is to it?
First of all, a little background on the franchise itself. Ghost in the Shell takes place in a futuristic dystopian Japan where cyborgs are very real, and people can be anywhere from fully human to fully cyborg, including a cyber-brain. The plot centers around a hacker, using these cyber-brain connections to re-write people's personalities and memories, and the cyborg detective/officer who is hunting him/her down. Got it? Good.
The general assumption is that ScarJo has been cast as Major Motoko Kusanagi - the aforementioned cyborg cop. However, it's really worth noting that this has never explicitly been stated. The Variety piece that broke the news never actually puts a character name to the report; "starring" is the word repeatedly used. Earlier reports suggested a "10 million dollar offer", but again, no character name has actually been included.
There is always the possibility that Johannson will actually be playing the other major "female" role in the movie; a second cyborg shell, and one that is much, much whiter than Motoko.
In the original film, this is a much smaller role than that of the Major, however, this is going to be a Hollywood remake. There is nothing to stop Dreamworks from changing the script to create an action film where both characters get equal screentime. It may be something of a slim chance, but it is still a chance, and I would prefer not to leap to conclusions about the morality of a studio for casting a white actress, when there is a possibility that she is being brought in to play a perfectly appropriate role.
It's also incredibly important to note that in the original movie, Motoko isn't necessarily Japanese (most of the other characters are described as either Japanese or American). She is a cyborg, and in a common tradition of anime, drawn to be vaguely Asian and vaguely Caucasian (and with an anatomically impossible figure). She also comments pointedly on her resemblance to the blonde shell - and says that her body was made by the same people. The other major cyborg we see is Batou, Major Motoko's second in command. He also looks distinctly western, with a square jaw and blonde crew cut. It seems that the cyborgs, despite being made in Japan, tend to look more Western than the rest of the characters (possibly some social commentary there, but lets leave that for another day!).
I would argue that Motoko is somewhat race-less (although on the paler end of the spectrum), and that it she could therefore be played by any actress with something of a physical resemblance. Which Scar Jo has (not to mention the...ahem...assets to match the original artowork). Give her a purple wig, and I'm sure that the physical resemblance will be actually quite striking.
Of course, the same could be said for an Asian actress wanting to be considered for the part - so why not go with an action star such as Jamie Chung, Rinko Kikuchi or Devon Aoki? Give one of these ladies that same purple wig and they would look just as much the part.
At this point, there is no question that it comes down to money. Scarlett Johansson is one of the biggest female stars of the moment, and adding her name to a movie guarantees a certain draw. Bigger names mean bigger audiences, which means bigger box office figures (Lucy, despite mostly negative reviews, managed over 44 million opening weekend, due in no small part to ScarJo's starring role). It's no secret that this is a motivator for Dreamworks, and it's not necessarily a bad one to have.
Personally, I want films to have big budgets. I don't think that more money necessarily equates to a better film (or vice versa), but when you already have a concept as incredible as Ghost in the Shell, I want it to have an endless money pit to really bring the manga to life. I want to see the best in costumes, sets, CGI and action sequences, and if the studio needs a name as huge as ScarJo's to give that to the film, then bring her in.
I also want this film to do as well as possible because I would love to see more of my favorite anime tv shows and movies turned into live-action (lets not talk about Death Note though, m'kay?). With comic book movies taking over the box office, I feel that it is prime time to start bringing over manga series as well, and the success or failure of this one will have a huge impact on whether or not that happens. A related plus here is that if live-action manga became anywhere near as popular as live-action comic book movies, it would open up a plethora of starring roles for Asian actors, which would be phenomenal.
I feel that while race in Hollywood is a huge issue (along with the lack of representation of other minorities), it may be jumping the gun to accuse Dreamworks just yet. Scarlett Johansson as "star" could be playing an existing white-and-blonde female character, a purple-haired cyborg, or even a new character created just for the film. If the other details about the fictional Japanese New Port City and the Japanese government officials remains, and the only other white cast members are those who are unarguably supposed to be, is that really a problem?
Of course, should the entire movie turn out to be set in New New York, and the only vaguely asian element involves politicians eating sushi, then I'll be on twitter doing my own complaining.