Today, Paramount and DreamsWorks released the first official image from its long-awaited, live-action adaptation of Ghost In The Shell, the popular anime adapted from Masamune Shirow's 1989 manga serial by the same name.
Shiro's Ghost In The Shell tells the story of Major Motoko Kusanagi, the cyborg leader of the Japanese National Public Safety Commission. In both the manga and anime, Major's usually depicted as a tough, sexually-liberated, Japanese woman with vivid purple locks. In the American adaptation, though, she's being played by Scarlett Johansson, who is, quite obviously, a white woman.
If there's anything we've learned from the American spins on Dragonball, Speed Racer, Evangelion, The Last Airbender, Akira, and Death Note, it's that Hollywood is very, very fond of casting white actors as characters of color. As problematic a trend as that is, The Nerds of Color's Keith Chow explained to me, Johansson's casting isn't all that surprising, especially considering this Ghost In The Shell is probably going to be very Americanized.
"It's also tricky because any instance of cross-cultural adaptation will be complicated," Chow told me. "The fact that this is a Hollywood movie in English automatically means elements of the original anime will be fundamentally changed."
Chow has a point. As far as anime go, Ghost In The Shell is one whose plots and character are deeply rooted in Japan's identity as a rapidly-changing, technologically-advanced nation. While the series' plot involves police hunting down cyber criminals, Major's story often focuses on her identity as a cyborg straddling the gap between traditional humanity and the cybernetic future.
Out of all of Ghost In The Shell's controversial themes, its commentary on the evolution of human gender and sexuality is easily the most eye-catching. Like many anime before it, the series featured sexually-charged imagery of women's bodies that were meant to titillate viewers, but in many cases, the sexuality was used as a narrative tool to challenge viewers' understandings of humanity.
In her series critiquing Ghost In The Shell's objectification of Major's body, writer Claire Napier declared that one of the series' strengths was its exploration of its main character's gender and sex in a world where her body was literally an object she was free to reject, rebuild, and customize.
"The Major has been given new bodies as she ages, at age-appropriate intervals," Napier argued. "What’s your image of yourself? Can you disengage from what you’ve been given?"
Unlike many of Ghost In The Shell's characters, Major lives with a fully prosthetic body inhabited by her ghost, a digital copy of her mind. Over the course of the series, Major is repeatedly questioned as to why she's continuously chosen sexualized, female shells despite the disadvantages that come along with them. When asked why she doesn't opt for a bigger, stronger, male shell, her answer is simple.
"This body’s always suited me," she says. "No other will do.”
The original Ghost In The Shell unpacked questions about identity, individuality, and what it meant to be a "real" person all while telling the story of a woman of color trying to save the world. The story was not without its problematic elements, but they were the types of issues that could be addressed intelligently in a big-budget, studio-backed film.
The American Ghost In The Shell could still touch on what made the original series so interesting, but only by using actors of color to literally act as shells for Johansson's ghost to accessorize herself with. Instead of casting an actual Japanese woman, the film stars a white woman made to look vaguely Asian while also rocking some of those funky streaks in her hair to let you know how cool she is.
"Honestly, ScarJo's casting isn't more or less egregious than other examples of whitewashing," Keith Chow told me. "In a vacuum, I'm indifferent to the casting, but we don't live in a vacuum and it's hard to ignore the pattern of whitewashing POC, and specifically Asian characters."