By Carter Glace, Staff Writer
Note: This article was written and submitted BEFORE the film was released. As such, the writer was not aware of certain plot twists or the film’s lackluster box office performance. Those will be briefly addressed next week, as addressing them here would make chunks of this column mute.
March 31st will see a the long gestating “Ghost in the Shell” adaptation finally hitting theaters and with it, the vicious controversy and debate surrounding the project will finally comes to a head. The film—which has been in the works since 2008—received a large amount of criticism for casting Scarlett Johansson, a white woman, in the lead role as Major. Given the comic’s Japanese origins, the fact that an Asian actress was passed up in favor of a big name white star was met with a fury of outrage.
I actually covered this controversy last year, in the wake of Paramount taking up the project and keeping the same cast. How do I feel almost a whole year later? Has my opinion changed? Do I have any more nuance to bring to the debate? Honestly, at this point, I’m just so damn tired.
A part of this sense of futility comes from a better understanding of how the sausage gets made in Hollywood now, and having a stronger theory on the logic behind the casting. So, here’s how I think it went down:
Anime/Manga remakes have been largely dead on arrival when adapted to Hollywood. “Speed Racer,” “Dragon Ball,” and “Last Airbender” all underperformed crucially and financially despite their being iconic, popular series (they also had even more severe cases of white washing, because of course). So instead of looking practically at how they market their films, which regions they expand distribution to, or just commit to finding the right creative minds to make the films, Hollywood just shrugs and says “Well, I guess no one wants anime films,” knee capping various projects in the works (Christopher Nolan and George Miller had both been working on an “Akria” remakes to no avail). So “Ghost” sits in development hell for almost 7 years.
Then “Lucy” happened.
Scar-Jo turned an unassuming sci-fi film based on a little known comic and turns it into one of the sleeper hits of 2014. So then, the light bulb moment occurs: Scarlett draws in audiences, so let’s put her in this!
Yes, that’s cynical, depends on some wobbly logic, and shows very little nuance, but remember that studios are desperate for some kind of magic formula, a guaranteed amalgamation of actors, properties and tropes that will turn film into gold. Lest we forget, Disney was so convinced that Johnny Depp playing wacky side characters was foolproof, having him play red face in 2013’s “Lone Ranger” raised no red flags.
But as cynical as all that is, a part of me wants to give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt, especially in the wake of “The Great Wall.” For all the fury that film received before anyone saw it, the actual film turned out to be a mocking of the whole “white savior” trope, instead revealing itself as a story about how Jing Tian’s warrior character became the leader of China’s elite army. Making Matt Damon a focal point was just a means of presenting it as a “Hollywood” film to international audiences. But on the other hand, “Iron Fist” boiled away my good will and patience by doing literally nothing with having a white guy acquiring this traditionally Asian supernatural power.
What’s most frustrating of all is how Paramount could have easily had their cake and eaten it too. So, I know little of the manga, but my understanding is that Major was caught in a serious accident and rebuilt Robocop style. Remember how in Robocop, OCP ultimately favors the humanoid robotic project because it’s more appealing to citizens? You want to know how you turn casting Scarlett Johansson into a brilliant take down of media’s favoritism toward white people? Cast pre-surgery Major as an Asian. But that would take a desire to be bold and take risks, and this seems to just be a journey to make a film with the name “Ghost in the Shell” into theaters.
Maybe it’s the growing number of problems in the real world. Maybe it’s Hollywood’s refusal to learn its lesson. Maybe it’s just because the film probably wasn’t going to succeed anyway. But I just can’t get the fire in me to raise hell about this. Looking down the barrel, all the outrage will lead to the same song and dance. “Ghost” will underperform, then Hollywood will shrug and go “I guess people don’t want anime” (or deflect all criticism by saying “you all decided to hate it before you even saw it!”) .Shelve every anime and manga project for 5 years until someone tries Akria with a white cast. Repeat.