If you've been on the Internet or alive in the world during the last calendar year, you're probably aware that there is a live-action Ghost in the Shell remake on the horizon. If you're paying only a little more attention, you've probably sniffed out the fact that the decision to cast Caucasian actor Scarlett Johansson in the lead role was a controversial one, with many believing that a Japanese actor should be heading the big-budget adaptation of one of Japan's most treasured animated films. From pretty much the moment it was announced, DreamWorks' decision to put ScarJo front and center of this movie was a landmine thoroughly stepped-on, and we won't even get started on the reports that the studio screen-tested a visual effect to make the actress appear more Asian.
The complaints leveled at DreamWorks and their casting decisions are deserving. As Iron Fist and Dr. Strange just recently highlighted, there is a dearth of leading Asian actors working in American cinema today, and every missed opportunity to put an Asian actor front and center is a new slap in the face the community first and foremost, but also to anyone who wants to see a little more representation in their storytelling.
Whenever a socially-motivated complaint picks up steam — especially online — refutation never fails to be in short supply. Inevitably, there will be a counterpoint, though they tend to from a more antagonistic place than in this particular example. This time, a rather surprising endorsement of Scarlett Johansson's casting came straight from a place of some pretty solid authority: In a recent interview with IGN, director of the original Ghost in the Shell anime Mamoru Oshii said he straight-up loves the casting of Scarlett Johansson. His full quote:
What issue could there possibly be with casting her? The Major is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one. The name "Motoko Kusanagi" and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray her. Even if her original body (presuming such a thing existed) were a Japanese one, that would still apply.
In the movies, John Wayne can play Genghis Khan, and Omar Sharif, an Arab, can play Doctor Zhivago, a Slav. It's all just cinematic conventions. If that's not allowed, then Darth Vader probably shouldn’t speak English, either. I believe having Scarlett play Motoko was the best possible casting for this movie. I can only sense a political motive from the people opposing it, and I believe artistic expression must be free from politics.
There's a lot to unpack here, but we'll start with the most relevant bits. The first thing Oshii points out is that the Major in Ghost in the Shell is not technically a Japanese character because she is not technically human. In fact, she is so not technically a human that they made the entire movie be about her not being human, and large parts of the film involve the Major just pretty much talking about how that makes her feel. In an inescapable way (and I'm frankly super curious to see how much of this makes it into Friday's apparent VFX-fest), Ghost in the Shell is about how the nature of humanity and consciousness has been made malleable by technological advances, and seeks to tease out what it even means to be human when the parameters surrounding humanity have been so fundamentally altered by our technical capabilities. So when Oshii points out that The Major is essentially a character who has literally transcended her humanity, he's right. Where he's wrong, though, is in his implicit assertion that this posthumanism a) applies to our current society, and b) negates the need for a push for racial representation right now.
Another place in which Oshii is wrong is his apparent ignorance (and I use that word in the most literal sense — he is literally ignoring the issue) of the representation problems that plague Asian actors trying to work in the American entertainment industry. While I (maybe) can't speak with authority as to whether or not Mamoru Oshii has a working knowledge of how Asian actors are treated in the American film industry, it can certainly said that his comment widely misses the point of those upset with ScarJo's casting. In pointing out that Johanssen's casting preserves the artistic and thematic integrity of the original Ghost in the Shell, Oshii isn't wrong, but crucially misses the point that an Asian actor in the same role would still remain faithful to the film's thematic and artistic endeavors, while also remaining faithful to the film's place and culture of origin.
To address the second half of Oshii's quote involves a little more wading. First, his pointing out that White actors have played Asian roles in the past is an argument that simply begs the question: this kind of casting is exactly the problem that we're trying to move away from, and this comment supports my suggestion that Oshii is simply not familiar with how much of a problem the whitewashing of Asian actors has historically been for Hollywood.
And finally, should art be free of politics? This seems excessively strange coming from the director of such a political work. Maybe Ghost in the Shell doesn't directly concern itself with governmental politics — no wait, it absolutely does; international relations are central to the plot — but it most certainly concerns the politics of identity and self-actualization. To suggest that art should steer clear of politics is to suggest that art ignore a vast and vital aspect of the human experience, which is just about as bogus as it gets.
Still, Oshii's point is an interesting one, and is not at all without merit (except for the part about art needing to be free of politics; maybe that part is a little bit without merit). The point that he misses in making it, though, is the responsibility that storytelling has, especially on a level like PARAMOUNT PICTURES' GHOST INTHE SHELL STARRING SCARLETT JOHANSSON. Storytelling is a fundamentally important part of society and popular culture, and like it or not, the stories we tell and the way we tell them have an impact on the shape and health of our social body. Having too much White in our diet isn't going to help us be as socially healthy as possible, which is why the missed opportunity to put a Japanese actor at the heart of a fundamentally Japanese film far outweighs the fact that not doing so allows the film to still remain faithful to the original's thematic intent.
What Oshii might not realize is that Ghost in the Shell had the chance to be faithful to its source material and racially progressive at the very same time.