Greetings, programs. WARNING – spoilers ahead for Ghost in the Shell. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!
Stephanie and I spent the afternoon adulting, and then as a reward, we went to a movie. We were originally going to see either Power Rangers or Beauty and the Beast, but neither movie appealed to both of us, so we ended up seeing Ghost in the Shell, the 2017 remake of the 1989 manga and 1995 anime. If you have been following the news, you know that there’s been some blowback because the movie casts Scarlett Johansson as the lead role of “Major.” With its roots in manga and anime, a lot of people feel this is yet another case of whitewashing (the casting of a white actor to a role that is explicitly identified in the source material as non-white) – and to be fair, Stephanie and I both felt that same way. So why did we end up going to see it?
That’s a good question; it’s one I don’t have all of the answers to, and in fact I am posting this so my friends and followers can (if they so desired) track my thinking and help me figure out where (if at all) I’m off-base.
Not going to go into major discussions, more bullet points here. This post is a snapshot of thoughts in progress, not an essay defending or attacking any particular point of view. Some givens here: we both agree that Hollywood in particular and media in general still needs to make great amounts of progress in representing non-European (e.g. non-white) actors and actresses in meaningful positions, not just as extras. It’s starting to get better, and some production companies are better at it than others, but it takes active effort to bypass the current casting system to ask for *and receive* more diverse applicants for roles. (For a great example, check out the SyFy show The Expanse.)
Scarlett gives a defense of her taking the role of Major. In short, she says that Major has no identity because of being a brain in an artificial body. While at first I thought that was a pretty specious argument, it turns out that Mamoru Oshii, the (Japanese) director of the 1995 version, says pretty much the same thing. Scarlett also says she hopes that questions of race are answered by watching the movie. Okay, that’s some food for thought, and after discussing it, Stephanie and I agreed that it was worth checking it out.
The pacing feels slow – enough so that I was getting bored. This is a shame. Part of what led to that reaction, I think, is that while the cinematography and visual design are very well done, many (most) shots are too dark and monochromatic. This is a common failing for cyberpunk movies – it’s a convenient and lazy visual shorthand to portray dark and gritty settings. It needs to stop. Also the gratuitous use of slo-mo
Thematically, color (both pigment and racial) is carefully highlighted. There is a very deliberate racial divide in this movie. Major and Kuze, the two living victims/successes of the cyborg project run by Hanka Robotics. Stephanie and I both noted that almost all of the high-level Hanka personnel who created the project (and more important know that the project’s victims have been fed false memories and identities) are portrayed by white actors, as are the two cyborgs. Both of the cyborgs true identities and bodies, though, are Japanese. The one other white actor in a significant role plays a member of Major’s Section 9 team and is her best friend. Otherwise, pretty much every bad guy is white. This is a significant departure from what we normally see in Hollywood-produced media (The Last Airbender, anyone?) where usually the bad guys are non-white. We believe that this is a deliberate thematic choice and was part of the impetus behind Scarlett’s casting. It is used to good effect, although subtly, in the movie in Major’s interactions with her mother.
So was the casting the problem that fans of the original thought? I don’t think so. I’m not sure if the movie hits what it’s trying to do, but it is aware of the issue and tries to address it. I understand Scarlett’s defense a lot better now.
What do you all think?