Note: spoilers ahead.
Last week, Scarlett Johansson sat down with Good Morning America and tried to justify her being cast as the amnesiac Mira Killian, The Major, in Paramount’s live-action adaptation of Ghost In The Shell—a decision that many saw as another example of whitewashing in Hollywood. Johansson said that she’d “never play a person of a different race, obviously,” adding, “Hopefully, any question that comes up of my casting will be answered by audiences when they see the film.”
When pressed about whether she was playing a role that should have gone to an Asian actress, Johansson pointed to the character’s unique experience of being a a living brain piloting a cyborg body as evidence that the role, in a way, existed outside of race in the way we traditionally think of it.
As it turns out, Johansson was lying, as anyone who’s seen the movie now knows. She is playing a person of a different race. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons that Ghost In The Shell opened on Friday to middling reviews and barely managed to rake in $60 million worldwide, despite costing $110 million to produce. Audiences got a chance to see Johansson’s take on Major and, according to the numbers, they weren’t exactly impressed.
Compared to the original Ghost In The Shell’s heady reflections on the nature of human identity and whether we are, ultimately, little more than thoughts trapped inside organic casings, Paramount’s movie is a by-the-numbers action flick. This telling of the story spends much more time focusing on the the “shells” themselves and the advantages afforded to people living with cybernetic enhancements.
It’s only in the second half of the movie, though, that the deception at the heart of Johansson’s assurances becomes clear. In a very confusing scene, the Major learns that she was actually born as Motoko Kusanagi, a Japanese woman (briefly portrayed by Kaori Yamamoto in a flashback) whose brain was put into the Major shell after a catastrophic accident destroyed most of her original body.
While this origin story for the Major isn’t drastically different than some of the others she’s been given in various other Ghost In The Shell manga and TV series, the optics of making her physically Japanese in a past life is a deeply questionable one.
Throughout the film, we see a number of cyborgs clearly played by Asian actors and, as is often the case with films starring white leads in Asian settings, those Asian cyborgs end up being brutalized during flashy action sequences. On more than one occasion, there are scenes in which cyborgs that read as Asian are blown apart and have their heads shot off at point blank range.
The brutality of those images means something very specific within the fantasy of the film itself: these bodies are mass-produced, replaceable, and in theory can be made not to feel pain. Visually, though, what audiences are seeing are characters portrayed by Asian actors being literally torn apart.
“Something can probably be said here about how the white actress plays a human looking android while the Asian actress does not,” Women Write About Comics writer Clara Mae tweeted back in February. “It matters in what the writers do to the body of the AI/android/cyborg that’s presenting as a POC versus the ones presenting as white.”
Having seen Ghost In The Shell, I can say that the idea Mae was getting at proved itself to be true. Even through we’re meant to understand that race no longer exists because bodies are manufactured, the film very clearly treats various types of shells in drastically different, and problematic ways.