There's always a certain contention when a reboot, a remake, or a continuation of a classic series is announced years after it ends, but in the case of Ghost In The Shell the main furore has been the furious discourse regarding the whitewashing of Major Motoko Kusanagi.
When Scarlett Johansson was announced to be portraying the hugely iconic character in the Ghost In The Shell live-action adaptation, a lot of fans were pretty upset by this, prompting a widely circulated petition to have her removed from the franchise. Nothing much to do with Scar Jo as an actress, more to do with this being just another example in the erasure of Asian lead-characters from traditionally Asian media. And there have been defenders on her side in this argument.
But Ghost In The Shell isn't just any old piece of Japanese media, it's an incredibly influential franchise. Born from Masamune Shirow's original manga from the late '80s and early '90s, the series spun off to encompass two feature films, an animated series, a video game and the Arise reimagining.
Casting a white actress in an originally Japanese role isn't just troubling for the current state of Asian actors in Hollywood, but for the themes of the movie itself. As RUNLOVEKILL writer Jon Tsuei points out, Ghost In The Shell was created to play off the uniquely Japanese relationship with technology around the time the original manga was published and first movie released.
He goes on to describe Ghost In The Shell as "a pillar in Asian media," and resents the Western "bastardization" of the story:
You can 'Westernize' the story if you want, but at that point it is no longer 'Ghost In The Shell' because the story is simply not Western. Understand that media from Asia holds a dear place in the hearts of many Asians in the west, simply because western media doesn't show us.
This isn't the first time Hollywood has piggybacked off Eastern media, using the name and characters to present something different to a Western audience (don't even mention Avatar: The Last Airbender, Shyamalan is dead to us). It's tricky to say that there's something inherently wrong about this, but at the same time, warping the meaning for profit is problematic to many fans.
Just think of the ire evoked whenever a reboot is announced — the recent Ghostbusters for example — the knee-jerk reaction is almost always negative. The thing is, we as consumers like to take some form of ownership over things we love — that's a huge part of what can be termed "geek culture," and we get fiercely defensive when things like this happen, especially when a formerly niche franchise is opened up to the wider public for profit.
Such as in the case of Ghost In The Shell, the themes of the novels are now being presented through a Hollywood lens, and we suspect will be boiled down to a typical crime thriller, which is far from what the franchise represents to many people. While that doesn't negate the meaning still inherent in the original works, fans like Tsuei are absolutely justified to feel uncomfortable about this — as are we all.
Tsuei highlights the erasure of Asian themes and culture in relation to his own identity as a man of Asian descent, and his is absolutely an important voice in this conversation. Speaking as a Western Caucasian, I personally have a very different relationship to Ghost In The Shell, but one that is still intrinsically tied to it existing as a piece of Japanese media.
When first reading the books and viewing the movies many years ago Ghost In The Shell presented this fascinating world, gorgeous visuals and characters and new ideas, themes that you didn't find in American or British media. It was something new, something different, and this was the draw, not just for myself but for many Western fans of the series.
And now? It's looking like we're going to get another bland thriller in the same vein as the majority of what Hollywood puts out.
The sad reality is this: Scarlett Johansson — while a talented actress — is in this case largely a box-office draw due to her bankable A-list status, though her previous portrayals of characters like Black Widow certainly has something to do with the casting. But even if a Japanese actress had been cast, it's still highly unlikely that we'd get an American version of Ghost In The Shell which works in tandem with the original media.
You don't have to like it, you don't have to agree with it. But Ghost In The Shell will still make money, probably a lot of money. People who don't have any connection to the series — and in the Western world that's likely a lot of people — will see a box-office movie starring Scarlett Johansson as a cyborg Task Force head taking down criminals and think: 'That sounds like a fun movie.'
And perhaps it will be, British director Rupert Sanders doesn't really have a long list by which to judge his work, his only other feature production being 2013's Snow White and the Huntsman, which wasn't all that well received but certainly has its fans. But make no mistake, the filmmakers care little for what Ghost In The Shell means to people, be they Asian or not.
Make no mistake, Scarlett Johansson is the draw of Ghost In The Shell. Fans of the franchise are unlikely to be on board with an American live-action adaptation in the first place, so they aren't necessarily the target audience here. And it's okay for people to view and enjoy the movie, just as it's okay to be upset and write rants about it on the internet.
So what can be done? As much as we'd love to believe otherwise, no amount of angry blogs or articles or discourse is ever going to change the way Hollywood operates, and we really shouldn't be all that surprised by the Ghost In The Shell controversy.
At the end of the day this is a profit-driven venture, so if you don't agree with what you've heard so far about Ghost In The Shell then all you can do is nothing. Don't go and see it, don't purchase the DVD, don't give DreamWorks Pictures and Paramount Pictures your money for this.
Other people will, and heck it might actually turn out to be a half decent film. But it won't be Ghost In The Shell, so that's what we should expect. At least then, we're less likely to be disappointed.
What you think about the Ghost In The Shell controversy? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.
Source: Jon Tsuei (via Twitter)