So last week, Paramount and DreamWorks released the first image from the Rupert Sanders-helmed live-action adaptation of the 1995 anime classic Ghost in the Shell, slated for release next year. The single shot featured the profile of a brunette Scarlett Johansson, who’s playing the title role in the feature, that of cybernetically enhanced cop Motoko Kusanagi.
Despite the fact that Johansson’s part in the movie had been common knowledge for months, somehow the actual sight of her — an American blonde playing a role originally written as Japanese — set off a spontaneous conflagration of red-hot outrage across the internet. The Mary Sue, a site which actually had complained about the casting prior to last week, clutched its pearls and decried “racist” Hollywood once again “whitewashing” an ethnicity; Yahoo helpfully listed six Asian actresses who could — “and should!” — replace Johansson; Slashfilm lamented how “frustrating” it is that both Ghost in the Shell and the upcoming Doctor Strange have cast caucasian actors in roles written as Asian; and, of course, an online petition has been started demanding that Hollywood stop doing something Hollywood has been doing for years and years and will continue to, no matter how pissed you get about it.
Scarlett Johansson is a huge star with both acting and action movie chops and she can open a movie big. That’s why she’s starring in Ghost in the Shell and someone else isn’t. Simple as that. Let’s put it another way: If Scarlett Johansson hadn’t signed on to play “The Major,” as the promotional items are calling her character at the moment, there would be no Ghost in the Shell. No ScarJo, no movie — it doesn’t even get green-lit. Both The Mary Sue and Yahoo point to excellent Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi and shout, “Why? Why? Why not her?!” but Kikuchi simply can’t open a picture like Johansson can. She’s not the kind of star Johansson is. Citing Pacific Rim as evidence of her star power is ridiculous, since Pacific Rim barely cleared a hundred million here in the states. (It did better abroad, but Hollywood still thinks of the American market above all, which is understandable given that it’s, well, in America.)
If your argument in response to any of this is that Hollywood shouldn’t make Ghost in the Shell then — sorry, but bullshit. Casting an American actress as a character popularized as Japanese isn’t the same as, say, embarrassingly casting John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror, because Khan was a real person. Ghost in the Shell is a work of fiction and like all works of fiction it can be interpreted and reinterpreted as fiction has throughout the centuries. Paramount and DreamWorks acquired the rights to the manga and anime film, are producing it in Hollywood with a British director and an American star and are shooting mostly in New Zealand with a multi-ethnic and multi-racial cast. They get to do that because they paid for that privilege. That’s how the business works. In spite of its occasional high-minded posturing, Hollywood doesn’t exist to right the wrongs of the world or to cater to your idea of what is and isn’t acceptable culturally. It exists to make movies — movies that make money.
Now there’s a story going around claiming that Paramount gave some thought to enhancing Johansson’s features via visual effects with the goal of making her look more Asian. Obviously, that would be horrific, which is probably why Paramount is denying the hell out of it. The studio says it brought in Lola VFX — who did the aging work on Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — to do a test run for one shot. It says unequivocally that nothing was ever done or considered for Scarlett Johansson. Reimaging a character as caucasian and American is one thing; trying to make her look “more Asian” is something very different. There is indeed a fine line here, but it’s one I would hope Paramount has some compunction about daring to cross.
Screenwriter Max Landis posted a pretty good video clip to YouTube in the wake of this controversy that basically explained why no one should be surprised Scarlett Johansson is starring in Ghost in the Shell. In his estimation, there are really only about 10 to 15 truly bankable movie stars anymore and, sadly, Hollywood does indeed suffer from a dearth of good Asian or Asian-American stars, people who can either open a picture big or at least be value-added elements. He bemoans the fact that in the 90s there were more power players of Asian descent than there are now. But is that Hollywood’s fault? Do they create the stars or do we, through the dollars we spend on the movies we see? Scarlett Johansson has always been a good actress, whether in big-budget actioners or tiny indie art-house flicks, but we’ve damn well helped make her the mega-star she is.
And it’s the fact that she’s a mega-star that won her the lead in Ghost in the Shell. Because in Hollywood, that’s what counts.
By the way, the reaction to the casting of Scarlett Johansson in Japan? Well, let’s just say that perpetual outrage over identity politics is apparently a uniquely Western phenomenon.