I admit it: I love cyber-punk. Mostly of a Shadowrun flavor. But like many geeks who came of age in the early millennium, I also cut my teeth on the burgeoning American fascination with anime. “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” “Akira,” “Battle Angel Alita,” “Armitage III,” and of course, “Ghost in the Shell.” So when rumor had it that Hollywood wanted to bring Motoko Kusanagi, the Puppet Master, and their world of New Port City to life, I was cautious. After all, this was the same town that tried to make “Akira” with Michael Fassbender and Andrew Garfield until George Takei stepped in to point out whitewashing is not okay. And we shall not talk about the “Dragonball” movie. It is stricken from the record.
Turns out my caution was well founded. As of today, Scarlett Johansson is officially signed on to play the lead in the live action “Ghost in the Shell.” According to The Hollywood Reporter, the Dreamworks production snagged Johansson to the tune of $10 million. This wouldn”t be a big deal if we were talking about an original screenplay or, AHEM, the long awaited Black Widow film. In fact, normally a female getting the lead in a tentpole action film would be cause for celebration! But this is “Ghost in the Shell,” and that makes Johansson's casting problematic.
New Port City, the setting of this series, is in Japan. The story revolves around the Japanese Ministry of Home Affairs counter-terrorism and cyber warfare unit, known as Public Security Section 9. The protagonist Major Motoko Kusanagi is Japanese. Her partner Batou is Japanese. Her boss Chief Daisuke Aramaki is Japanese. Because they are in Japan.
So, this tells me one of two things. Either Hollywood is setting this movie in Japan and are tone-deaf enough to cast all-American blonde bombshell Johansson, or they”re reconfiguring the film to take place in America. Are they blithely appropriating “Ghost in the Shell” or merely pulling a “World War Z” where the movie and the original content share nothing but the name? Neither of these is the lesser of two evils.
Whatever the case, it”s disappointing to see Hollywood still so fearful of casting outside the box. Hell, it”s disappointing that casting non-white leads is considered “outside the box.” There are scads of Asian actresses who could play Kusanagi – from Rinko Kikuchi to Rila Fukushima to Ziyi Zhang to Bingbing Li and more – the list is not exactly short.
So why does this keep happening? It comes down to money. Somehow we”ve gotten to a point where an algorithm based on an actor”s past box office performance is a major determining factor in who gets what roles. Instead of looking at the best person for the part, or taking into consideration the culture of the source material, producers look at actors as chips you slot into genres until profit falls out. Johansson has had solid hits with her turns as Black Widow and proved she can carry a film last year with “Lucy.” Ironically, letting machines dictate who audiences will best connect with on a human level removes the key element: humans.