We’ve come a long way since Mickey Rooney’s incredibly racist performance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but still, Hollywood has a lot of work to do when it comes to translating minorities and non-white ethnic groups on the big-screen. While there remains a lingering issue of representation, the real problem that has been cropping up in major film releases lately is the whitewashing of characters that are traditionally Asian. Doctor Strange — the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe film — is the perfect example, as it has long been at the center of controversy since Tilda Swinton was cast in the traditionally Asian male role of the Ancient One.
However, even more egregious than the casting of that Marvel film is the decision for Scarlett Johansson to headline the film adaptation of beloved manga, Ghost in the Shell. That 1989 series written and illustrated by Masamune Shirow has since developed into a franchise of its own, spawning theatrical films, television series, direct-to-video releases, and video games. Yet, director Rupert Sanders’s (Snow White and the Huntsman) film represents the first live-action adaptation of the property. So why aren’t we more excited about the film?
Well, quite simply, because by the sounds of it, Hollywood has gone ahead and stripped Ghost in the Shell down into a generic product made accessible for mass consumption. The story — which centers on a cyborg determined to take down a cyber-threat — taps into a number of increasingly relevant themes concerning free will, technology, and the dark path the future may lead us down. A paragon of Japanese art, Ghost in the Shell has developed an extensive global following over the years but remains a Japanese story at its heart. With an English director like Sanders onboard and the film’s assembled team, the cultural element of the story has likely been lost completely.
Of course, we already know that Johansson is a credible and bankable action star, thanks to the 2014 hit Lucy and her ongoing role as Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Regardless, the fact remains that she is a questionable at best choice for this particular role, not due to her talent or ability to carry a film of this magnitude. Rather, her casting has rightfully outraged fans of Ghost in the Shell who may have been excited to see an up-and-coming Japanese actress take the role, thus keeping this new production in line with the spirit of the source material. Sure, she’s a recognizable name, but valuing Johansson’s name on a poster over staying true to the source material is a problematic call for any studio to make.
In addition to the casting controversy, the live-action Ghost in the Shell has to escape the shadow of the popular 1995 anime film that already adapted the same story. Though the film never received a proper theatrical release in North America, it has since developed a rabid cult following and has become recognized as one of the top anime films out there. Ghost in the Shell even heavily influenced many players in Hollywood, including the Wachowskis of The Matrix fame.
As a film based on a comic, this new production already has enough trouble standing on its own. But with such a widely praised take already out in the world, comparisons are inevitable, and coupled with Johansson’s casting, the prospects don’t look good.
Then again, perhaps we’re worrying over nothing. Maybe Johansson will bring it in the role of The Major, making the character her own and carving out a specific niche for herself within the larger Ghost in the Shell franchise. Naturally, that doesn’t excuse the bone-headed creative decision to turn the property into a sci-fi thriller with few ties to the distinctive Japanese feel of the original. A truer live-action film version would almost certainly have been more interesting to watch.
However, we’re going to opt for cautious optimism when it comes to Ghost in the Shell. After all, the movie is already done filming, and its release is mere months away. So there’s little point in protesting decisions that have already been made. The smartest thing we can do right now is hope for a good film, even if it betrays certain elements of the original vision behind it all. Whether or not Ghost in the Shell manages to pull off the impossible, you can bet we’ll be watching when the film arrives in theaters on March 31, 2017.
Follow Robert Yaniz Jr. on Twitter @CrookedTable
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