Rage Against the Shell: Questionable Casting for Kusanagi

A Ghost in the Shell live action film is going ahead; Scarlett Johansson has been cast as the lead. We’re not joyful about this. Let’s take turns blasting out our initial reactions, and then form up to answer some of the questions that will come out of that.

Claire: I’ll go first, as I’m right here. I don’t think I need to see Johansson as another superheroine. I don’t think I need to see a white woman in this role — maybe the script will make a point of explaining (condemning? seems unlikely!) white supremacy in cyborg production modelling, I guess — and I don’t think I need to see Ghost in the Shell in live action. In fact, I know I don’t. I one hundred percent actively desire for a world in which this does not happen. OH WELL.

Jo: I’m no GiTS devotee, and I love ScarJo as an action heroine. The Japanese versions of The Ring and Dark Water were different in flavor, and I think their American equivalents told separate stories. I feel like I’m willing to hold out and see the context of the film and what kind of worldbuilding the American team is going for before strictly condemning a casting decision.

Another scattered thought: this feels different to me from The Last Airbender and Exodus: Gods & Men, which were trying to retell stories based around non-white folks, casting white folks in prominent non-white roles. I’m willing to see what kind of world the production team wants to make, but second the idea that GiTS never needed to be live action.

Wendy: This is a sad example of the Hollywood executive mentality that sees only a bottom line. Hollywood has not wanted to take “risks” on female led movies because they don’t make enough money. Now that Lucy has proven otherwise, they can jump all over this with the narrow-minded belief that Scarlet Johanssen is the only way this could possibly happen. Is it too late to cast her as Wonder Woman too? Hollywood is probably patting itself on the back for giving us a female lead, but now is utterly confused by the whitewashing concerns. To think, if they had cast Rinko Kikuchi, as so many people are suggesting, the big execs would win all the trophies.

Yet, while I would much more readily accept Kikuchi as Kusanagi, it still smells of Hollywood ignorance. As in, she’s the current “it girl” that everyone knows from Pacific Rim, a very anime-like movie. She also conveniently happens to be Japanese, unlike Zhang Ziyi, a Chinese actress and the “it girl” of the early 2000s, who was cast as a young Japanese girl in Memoirs of a Geisha, along with several other Chinese actors. Because North American audiences don’t know the difference, right? And why care about what Japanese people might think?

Basically, this is a case of Hollywood sort of getting it right in finally giving us a female lead, but at the cost of whitewashing. One out of two isn’t good enough. But until we get a female person of colour that can bring in big box office revenues, I’m afraid the complaints will continue to fall on deaf ears. It also sets up a horrible Catch-22. If we refuse to see this movie on the grounds of whitewashing, our box office dollars will then tell Hollywood that Lucy was just a fluke. We really aren’t ready for female led movies, so why should they bother to take the risk again.

Megan P: Is anyone involved in this film a fan of the original? Have they partaken of this vast and varied franchise? Are they aficionados of Japanese cyberpunk or, at the very least, anime? At all? An American Ghost in the Shell is more than a reboot, it’s a translation, a lingual, cultural, and formal adaptation, and nothing from the film’s production, including PR statements and casting decisions suggests they’re taking that task seriously. This whole film, from top to bottom, is a whitewash. I’ve seen countless comments about Kusanagi being “not really Japanese” or the film’s setting and aesthetic being “not distinctly Japanese.” Balderdash!

Brenda: My initial reaction was “meh.” I agree with Claire that I don’t think it needs to be a live action movie. A tiny part of me wants to see it, like I want to see the steampunk goodness of Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age or William Gibson novels made live action. The caveat, of course, is  they would have to be good. Very good. Amazing, in fact. Casting Scarlett Johannson does not make me feel OMG-this-is-going-to-be-so-awesome about the project and that’s what truly disappoints me.

Three main avenues of PROBLEM, then:

  1. Whitewashing.
  2. How can this story (and like: what IS the story that they think they’re gonna tell) be told this way?

Claire: Honestly I have to wonder whether somebody was watching Lost in Translation and saw an actress, who can do kicking, in Japan, in a wig, and had a big idea.

Megan P: There is no winning over Hollywood through the box office. There is no movie success that will overcome the bigotry of studio executives and film teachers. Frozen should have been all the proof they need that female-led movies can be successful. So should have Bridesmaids. So should have Kill Bill. Throughout the history of American cinema, there have been countless hits in every genre of film starring women. Even when female-led films, or PoC-led films for that matter, do well, Hollywood bigots manage to spin things to justify their backwards worldview. Remember the Wonder Woman cartoon? It outperformed many of the other cartoons in DC’s line but its slow first weekend means that female-led cartoons are a bad investment. Bottom line: it did well and execs still didn’t care. They simply don’t want to make movies starring women. There’s a quota, you know. “Too many ladies this year. Audiences are burned out on women. Time for a dog movie.”

Our buying tickets alone won’t be the tipping point — there will never be a movie big enough to spur wide-ranging structural reforms of the film industry and American film culture.

We are getting more and better representation of minorities in film (slowly, oh so slowly), because creators are going to bat for projects they believe in, and because more and more minorities are working behind the scenes, at all levels of the industry. Still, it’s worth noting that 1) female-led movies often make it through the pitch process not based on comparisons to other female-led movies, but based on comparisons to well-loved male-led properties; and 2) even the increased representation we have seen has not made a dent in Hollywood’s love of whitewashing, appropriating, and colonizing all the world’s cultures. And heck, “liberal” Hollywood writers, directors, and actors are all along for the ride. (Not that I expect Scarlett Johansson to take a stand here — she was, after all, grumpy that survivors were clogging up her Google Alerts with disappointment over her working with convicted child-rapist Roman Polanski, and even more annoyed at the disappointment over her endorsing SodaStream, a company that until recently, had a factory on occupied land in the West Bank.)

I’m not going to see the American appropriation of Ghost In the Shell and that won’t matter one whit to studio execs. I’m not real to them.

Claire: I don’t really understand the projected positives of this project, to be honest. What does anybody involved hope to achieve? We’ve seen ScarJo in superhero movies. We’ve seen The Matrix. We’ve seen graphically enhanced babes, from Who Framed Roger Rabbit to Avatar. We’ve seen manga adaptations, hahaha, although most of us skipped Dragonball. There’s nothing that this film can possibly prove (female-led? Megan’s covered that. Japanese remakes? We’ve had tonnes. Futurecops? Save your cash and pick up ten at your local charity shop bargain bin) and there’s…well, what’s the betting that Hollywood can make a better film than Oshii’s two animated features? It’s low, friends. It’s very low.

I can see nothing to achieve here, and I don’t understand why they’d bother. Especially in a world where progressive audiences are noisy and your average media professional is making jokes about social media shitstorms. Scarlett Johansson is white, and pouty, and is a human woman who has been airbrushed for posters. People got mad about that! With good reason! Ghost in the Shell is going to star an unaltered woman’s body? That’s either unlikely or weird. And it’s almost certainly not going to create a woman-friendly environment, either way.

We’re agreed that we don’t like Scarlett Johanssen for the role, then. But if the film must happen, who would be a better choice? We suggested some options back in September. As Wendy mentioned above, since the confirmation of Johanssen in the role twitter’s been alight with varied individuals singing the sheer obviousness of Rinko Kikuchi as Kusanagi.

Claire: To me this idea is an incredible bore. The image used is Kikuchi as Mako Mori in Pacific Rim; blue hair, bob, plastic body armour. Completely inappropriate body language and facial expression. That’s a credit to Kikuchi, of course, but it says terrible things about the applied imagination of people working this angle. Look, casting Kikuchi would probably be fine. She is a fine actress. She is Japanese. She is not remarkably inappropriate. But that is such basic thinking! Come on! If we’re talking up something that won’t happen, can’t we imagine bigger? An actress who hasn’t already played a character the general public will mix up with this one. A second Japanese actress. Maybe one even better for the role. Go wild.

Megan: As for casting Kikuchi? Fine, ok. But I agree with you, Claire, it’s uninspired. Remember when Starbuck was going to have a storied career playing every blonde badass in film? Need someone to wear a funny hat and makeup? Paging Johnny Depp! Casting directors and managers looking to play it safe pigionhole actors to the detriment of those who want to, you know, act. And it speaks to how ingrained racism is that we literally cannot imagine other casting possibilities. “Well who else is there?” A lot of people, friends. There are a lot of people who’d be great for this role.

You know who’d be good at fancasting Kusanagi? Angel. We’ve got to ask her to give us her updated dream list. What a post that will be.

Claire Napier

Claire Napier

Critic, ex-Editor in Chief at WWAC, independent comics editor; the rock that drops on your head. Find me at clairenapierclairenapier@gmail.com and give me lots of money

3 thoughts on “Rage Against the Shell: Questionable Casting for Kusanagi

  1. I accept Bridesmaids as an example of a successful female led movie, but not Kill Bill and certainly not Frozen. People went to see a Tarantino movie. They didn’t go to see Uma Thurman. And Frozen is a Disney movie. Just because it has two princesses in it this time doesn’t make it any different from the other princess movies that are pretty much guaranteed success because. Disney. Some of their princess films might do better than others, but if you’re going to cite it as an example of female led movies earning bucks to please the execs, then cite them all. However, princess movies are not a direct comparison to something like GitS. One is a children’s movie, made to reach a different demographic and a wider audience.

    Lucy did prove something to them. But they can create a self fulfilling prophecy by setting up failures to continue to justify their non-risk-taking decisions.

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