“Ghost in the Shell” – Failed Whitewashing?
“Ghost in the Shell,” a Paramount Pictures film controversially starring Scarlett Johansson, debuted Mar. 31 amid criticisms of Hollywood whitewashing. The 2017 film is based on a Japanese manga and animated film of the same title, originally released in 1995. Opinions on the remake of the anime were polarized because of the decision to cast a westerner as the main character, Major Motoko Kusanagi.
When Johansson was named the star of the remake, cries of whitewashing began as filmmakers opted to omit a Japanese actress as the lead. Hollywood has been criticized before for whitewashing ethnic roles in film, such as casting John Wayne as Genghis Khan in “The Conqueror” and casting Max Minghella as Divya Narendra in “The Social Network.”
The publisher of the Japanese version, Kodansha, had no problem with the casting of the American actress. In “Ghost in the Shell,” Kusanagi is essentially a human consciousness inside of a machined, cybernetic body. In the anime, it is not immediately clear that the protagonist is supposed to be ethnically Japanese. This is perhaps why Hollywood producers thought Johansson would be a good fit for the new film.
Though many debated Johansson playing Kusanagi for weeks before the film made its box office debut, others were waiting to see the film before making their final judgments. After its opening weekend, “Ghost in the Shell” brought in roughly $20 million at the box office—an abysmal result considering the film’s $110 million budget. It seemed as though the public had cast its verdict on the film, although it is hard to say if the controversy surrounding it doomed its box office success before it even had the chance to prove itself.
Junior Katelynsam Dixon did not see the film as a concrete case of Hollywood whitewashing. However, Dixon said she thought that filmmakers missed opportunities to showcase diversity.
“In the original [‘Ghost in the Shell’], the main character doesn’t look 100 percent Asian,” Dixon said. “Scarlett Johansson isn’t Asian either, and it’s not a problem, but this film could have been a good opportunity for a rising Asian actress. The film did a decent job bypassing blatant cultural appropriation, but it would have been nice to see an Asian actress represented.”
Perhaps the cries of another case of Hollywood whitewashing did facilitate the film’s financial flop, but reviews from critics were largely unfavorable as well. The film currently stands at a 43 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, while the 1995 original is at a healthy 96 percent on the Tomatometer.
That being said, critics are not out in droves complaining about Johansson’s role in the film. Most seem to have found her performance satisfactory. The criticisms are aimed at the 2017 film’s dumbing down what made the original groundbreaking to many in lieu of targeting a mainstream audience.
The anime “Ghost in the Shell” was not an action film, though it did feature shootouts, car chases, and explosions. The beauty of the film was in its psychological and philosophical questions that it asked of the audience. Questions of the boundary between human and machine, self-awareness, identity, and the definition of “living,” were all essential to the plot of the 1995 film. The guns and fistfights took a backseat to an eloquent narrative, making the film akin to a psychological thriller.
Junior Estefania Martinez gave her thoughts on the film.
“I think the plot was good but a little slow,” Martinez said. “It was not until halfway through the movie when it was apparent what the goal was and who were the good and bad people in the film, but I had not seen the anime version, so maybe that is part of it.”
Martinez also expressed her views on the claims of whitewashing in the film.
“The beginning was very confusing partly because of the people who portrayed the characters,” Martinez said. “This was perhaps because the main characters were not played by Asian actors, and in a way it just made the setting very confusing. Because of the non-Asian actors playing Asian characters, it seemed like a case of whitewashing to me.”
In contrast, the 2017 film is more of an action film with a few of the original’s commentaries sprinkled in. Though the anime was not able to reach a mainstream audience as easily as the new version, what it lacked in accessibility, it made up for it in its detail and its masterful exploration of debates humans may have to face in the near future.
While the new film is not terrible, it did not stay true to its philosophical roots, which was largely the original film’s main premise. The new “Ghost in the Shell” is in many ways a modern Hollywood action film, and it would not be an awful standalone. However, it falls short as the live-action version of an iconic anime.
Ultimately, the film was not a case of out-and-out whitewashing, as Hollywood adaptations in the past have been, and Scarlett Johansson was not completely out of place as Major Kusanagi. The problem with the film was largely that it was designed to appeal to the widest audience possible, which typically does not result in groundbreaking impact in artistic mediums.
With its high standards to live up to, it seems unsurprising that the film fell short. 2017’s “Ghost in the Shell” is essentially a simplified version of the original, and it cut much of what made the 1995 anime so unique. Though it may not be necessary to boycott the film over its westernization, it may not be worth paying to see it in theaters either.
Written by Walker Chuppe, Arts & Culture Editor