ByEleanor Tremeer, writer at
MP staff. I talk about Star Wars a lot. Sometimes I'm paid for it. More ramblings on Twitter @ExtraTremeerial
Eleanor Tremeer

When it was revealed that Scarlett Johnasson would get another solo action film, many fans of the Black Widow actress rejoiced. Finally, we'll be getting what Marvel never gave us: ScarJo kicking butt in her very own film! Yet both last year's Lucy and 2017's Ghost in the Shell are surrounded by controversy which may cause problems for Johansson's career.

Scarlett Johansson has long prided herself on being a philanthropic star. She's been involved in many charity causes, spoken out against Hollywood sexism, and just generally proved she's a nice person on and off the screen. However, recently her humanistic reputation has taken a bit of a dive, after Oxfam dropped her as their ambassador. The reason was a dispute over Johansson being the face of SodaStream, a company Oxfam morally opposes.

Could Johansson's involvement in Ghost in the Shell only hurt her reputation further, or is this film a fantastic step for female protagonists of action movies?

White Savior Complex

For those of you who haven't seen any of the Ghost in the Shell films or anime shows, the plot follows Matoko Kusanagi, a cyborg cop, as she balances fighting cyber terrorists with her existential crises.

Life's not easy when you're part machine.
Life's not easy when you're part machine.

It's a fantastic cyberpunk story, one that has influenced many other films since its first premiere in 1995 as well as prompting multiple follow up films and spin off anime shows. Dreamworks has been working on their live action adaptation for many years now, and earlier this year Scarlett Johansson was finally confirmed to play the lead role. And there's no doubt she'll do fantastically: Johansson manages to convey a huge depth of emotion while being fairly minimalistic in her expression. Her style is perfect for a cyborg, and we can wait to see how she'll deal with the questions of reality and identity that Matoko faces.

There's just one problem... she's not Japanese.

This is the crux of the issue, and the reason the unreleased film has already faced criticism. There's even a petition to remove Johansson from the role and replace her with an Asian (preferably Japanese) actress, but whether that's even on Dreamworks' radar is unlikely. The studio, and Johansson, have not commented on the issue. It's also unclear as to whether the film will still be set in Japan, or whether they'll do a Godzilla and just shift the entire plot over to the US. With a white protagonist, neither prospects are particularly appealing.

Lucy faced similar complaints when it first aired, although the situation is a little different.

The film featured a huge amount of Asian antagonists, and has been criticised for its portrayal of Taiwanese people. A moment that really stands out is when Lucy, in English, asks two Taiwanese passersby the direction of the hospital. One of them doesn't understand and replies in his own language. She promptly shoots him and asks the other man instead. Note: she is in Taiwan at this point.

Suffice to say, the movie did not win Johansson many ethical points. Now that she's taken the role of a Japanese character, her reputation is hardly shining.

However, there's no doubt that the star is winning lots of points for women in action movies. Thanks to The Avengers, Johansson is highly sought after for action roles, and Ghost in the Shell will only improve this for her. Should we be happy about the fact that there's going to be another female-led sci fi movie out there? Or is this victory overshadowed by the problem of whitewashing?

A Larger Problem

Of course, this is not all Scarlett Johansson's fault. The choice to cast her is endemic of a larger problem. The studio did not consider any Asian actresses for the role (ignoring Pacific Rim's Rinko Kikuchi, which was a huge mistake on their part). The same could be said for Warner Brothers' attempted Akira film: like Ghost in the Shell, this has been in the works for years, and the studio have only ever considered white American actors for the roles. Star Trek star George Takei has spoken out about this, as well as the larger problem in Hollywood.

"The manga and anime phenomenon is mostly white in this country. It originated in Japan, and, of course, it has a huge Asian fan following. But it’s the multi-ethnic Americans who are fans of Akira and manga. The idea of buying the rights to do that and in fact change it seems rather pointless. If they’re going to do that, why don’t they do something original, because what they do is offend Asians, number 1; number 2, they offend the fans."

This tradition of whitewashing is not limited to discriminating against Asian actors. The recent [Exodus: Gods and Kings](tag:44617) was also criticised for casting white actors in Egyptian roles, and the upcoming Pan will star Roony Mara as the Native American Tiger Lily.

Hollywood is also no stranger to using Japanese creations for movie plot fodder. The recent film Edge of Tomorrow is based on Japanese novel All You Need Is Kill, and Inception was confirmed to be heavily influenced and inspired by the anime film Paprika. Some directors have even gone as far as to buy the rights to anime movies so they don't get in trouble for ripping them off. Black Swan creator Darren Aronofsky was so enamoured with the cinematography of anime film Perfect Blue that he bought the rights. This allowed him to mimic not only the story but the shots themselves.

Both reflections turn to look at her.
Both reflections turn to look at her.

ScarJo's Future

The question remains as to whether Johansson is aware of the controversy, and how it will affect her career. A high profile actress turning down a role because of ethical concerns might prompt casting directors to consider race as a major factor, or it may do nothing. For Johansson, the film may prove very lucrative and lead to more solo action roles. Or could it tarnish her reputation as a charitable figure?


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