AMID ALL the vivid tints in the new live-action adaptation of “Ghost in the Shell,” many filmgoers will view the movie through the scrim of “whitewashing” — an issue that has dogged the project since Scarlett Johansson was cast as its star warrior two years ago.
It has essentially become the aspect that must be grappled with — one that for many fans is intensified by their knowledge of the 1989 manga and the 1995 anime masterpiece. The “Major Motoko Kusanagi” character from those works now, in Rupert Sanders’s adaptation, becomes simply “Major,” a cyberkinetic “shell” of a fighter with the “ghost” of human residue of mind and soul. That shift ostensibly gives Johansson cover when she says to Bustle, in defense of the new film, that her synthetically bodied character is without identity.
Nothing against Scarlett Johansson. In fact, I'm a big fan. But everything against this Whitewashing of Asian role. https://t.co/VS6r6iish9
— Ming-Na Wen (@MingNa) April 14, 2016
Yet some critics are having none of that. Though the director of the 1995 film, Mamoru Oshii, may defend Johansson’s casting against charges of whitewashing — that is, a white actor cast in what is determined to be a non-white role (a Hollywood practice that, with characters of Asian descent, goes back at least to the era of Charlie Chan films launched in the ’30s) — there are too many crucial problems to be ignored, they say.
Here are five of the most intriguing responses by arts and culture writers so far:
Anthony Lane, The New Yorker:
“Why not hire an Asian performer? The brutal answer to that, I imagine, would be: A production this vast and costly demands a name from the top rank, and there are currently no English-speaking Asian actresses on the A-list. And the indignant answer to that would be: Yes, that’s the point—only by placing an Asian star in the spotlight will you buck the system, break the habit, and right a persistent wrong.”
Aisha Harris, Slate:
“By wading into such treacherous territory without really grappling with the implications, the film makes its artistic liberties feel cheap and even more infuriating—like a 21st century, ‘post-racial’ incarnation of yellowface.”
Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune:
“Here’s why the casting controversy isn’t a deal breaker to me. For one thing, director Sanders’ on-screen ensemble ranges all over the globe. … For another, ‘Ghost in the Shell’ owes a great deal to previous incarnations of the material, including the 1995 animated feature. But it actually feels like an organic entity, which is an odd thing to say about a movie about robots and humans with robotic upgrades.”
Sam Machkovech, Ars Technica:
“Bizarrely, this new ‘Ghost in the Shell’ slams head-long into questions about Johansson’s casting. [Spoiler alert:] We come to find out that her character’s original source brain came from a 20-something East Asian woman named Motoko [Kusanagi], which is revealed when [Kusanagi’s] fuzzy flashback form runs smack into Major. Yet even after this revelation, Major continues repeating the film’s mantra: that our actions define us, not our past. To drive this point home, Major has the nerve to go to [Kusanagi’s] grave at the film’s end, where her mother is standing and crying, and tells her, ‘You don’t have to come here anymore.’ Culture? Tradition? Mourning? Pfft. Your new, improved white daughter is here with no pesky memories of her old life!”
Ty Burr, Boston Globe:
“The Japanese heroine [spoiler alert:] of the original story has been literally killed off to make way for the internationally approved visage of Scarlett Johansson. And a movie that has been accused of whitewashing turns out to have as its narrative a surprisingly precise metaphor for whitewashing.
“This might be fascinating if the filmmakers were aware of their own film’s double meaning, but the people responsible for the new ‘Ghost in the Shell’ seem oblivious to anything but wowing the audience out of their money. Hollywood cultural imperialism: It’s a profit center that in this case has blinded everyone involved to the ghost in their own movie’s shell.”