A friend of mine said, “Let’s talk about Ghost In The Shell”. Well. I heard recently that Scarlett Johansson is set to play the protagonist Motoko Kusanagi, an elite agent of Section 9, the fictional counter-cyberterrorist public security organization set in a futuristic mid 21st century Japan. The previous actress in talks for the role was Margot Robbie, an Australian thespian that appeared in the film, The Wolf Of Wall Street with Leonardo DiCaprio.
I am a big fan of Johansson’s, have been since her performance in Lost In Translation opposite Bill Murray as a recently graduated alumni on a trip to Japan. But what’s interesting about that film is that Johansson’s character was a young woman basically stranded in Tokyo, surrounded by a foreign place replete with alien customs and full of people who spoke a language she couldn’t understand. It’s interesting because this is exactly how I feel about her being cast as Mokoto in Ghost In The Shell, that the property is stranded with an inceptive vision that is remote and out of place. You’ll notice that neither Johansson nor Robbie, with apologies, look quite like women that could pass for Japanese in any place in the world, let alone a film set somewhere that can boast of very few blonde haired, blue eyed natives.
What this says then is that, short of some decidedly offensive choices made in the make up department, they’ll be planning to create an explanation for her being Caucasian to service the change to the story. Which is worse, one wonders; the cultural raping of Motoko’s origin story to appease an audience already well fed on Caucasian hero archetypes, or if the idea instead were to change the entire story and set it in America? Well. Perhaps that’s a question for another discussion, since what we have, by all current indications, is the former. So why a retcon of the story to fit Scarlett Johansson in it and not, say, cast Rina Takeda, real-life Ryukyu Shorin-ryu karate champion and martial arts film actress known for doing stunt work that would make Jackie Chan blush? Or Ziyi Zhang, a talented martial arts actress with a face and name well known to American audiences for her part in films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Rush Hour 2? Why not Rinko Kikuchi from Pacific Rim?
It can be argued that the change is made in order to allow the protagonist character to represent an American perspective. To acquiesce audiences to a foreign mythology, in the same way that we apparently needed Tom Cruise (The Last Samurai) in the driver seat in order for us masses of xenophobic cattle to appreciate the story of the fall of the samurai hierarchy. Or it can be said that it is to allow us a means to empathize with the protagonist’s journey. Kind of like 47 Ronin, that told us that the historical story of Kuranosuke Oishi, one still held in very high regard to this day in Japan as archetypical of the standards of honor, was not compelling enough to hold our attention without the love story of a demon half breed (read: white guy) shoehorned into it.
But even though these arguments can, have, and will be rendered, the official reason is the presumption that an Asian actress can’t sell this film in America. Money. Asians can’t make it. But we’ve no problem using the mystique of their culture to do it our way. Because Go ‘merica!
Recently we had an argument from Ridley Scott that for his film Exodus, a story set under the scorching sun of ancient Egypt, he had no choice but to ridiculously white-wash his entire cast in order to gain the budget he needed for his film. The only ethnic roles went to people playing slaves and servants, but I guess that’s just a coincidence.
We’ve learned from the hacking catastrophe at Sony Pictures that for the 2014 film, The Equalizer, producers were actually warned not to cast Denzel Washington, one of the most celebrated actors of our time, in the titular role because –I can’t make this up- he is a black man, and because of this unfortunate fact the movie wouldn’t make money.
I call bullshit on all of this though, son. And beg pardon but in 2015, we’re getting a little long in the tooth to still be celebrating systemic racism and calling it business. There is no shortage of Caucasian hero archetypes already dominating the public domain, to be sure. We needn’t keep supplanting that same image onto mythologies and stories that by their very existence have offered us a more diverse array and cultural representation. Art is meant to provoke, to challenge us and push us to the brink of our dimensions and beyond. It’s not meant to dwarf those dimensions by slavishly conforming to them. Film is the highest form of art. So much compromise is never without consequence in the collective unconscious.
Khalil Barnett is a martial arts practioner living in Florida, and is also a filmmaker, writer, producer and actor starring in the independent action drama series, The Way, still active in production. Visit the official Facebook page for more info.