“Ghost in the Shell”: An Adaptation Haunted by Controversy

It hasn’t been an easy time for the cast and crew of Paramount Pictures’s “Ghost in the Shell (2017)”. The Hollywood adaptation of the seminal Japanese manga and anime classic have had an uphill climb of warding off criticism from all over the net over whitewashing and cultural appropriation. Now that the film has finally been released, reviews have been rather mixed, with every review having to mention the whitewashing aspect of it at least once in passing.

Why this film in particular has so violently relaunched viral discussions on whitewashing in remakes and adaptations is because it follows on the tail end of other Asian-American casting faux pas, most famously in The Martian and Doctor Strange. With Asian-American actresses like Constance Wu and Ming-na Wen being outspoken against it as well, the talk has extended to Hollywood’s history of institutional racism.

The brunt of the criticism falls to Scarlett Johansson, who plays the lead. One could argue that is a bit unfair, seeing as she was pushed by executives for this film, and indeed, the hollywood machine would likely have hired some other non-Asian box-office draw had Johansson passed on the film. Still, Johansson has done a poor job of defending her decision or owning up to any problematic aspect in her casting. Johansson has expressed that her decision to take the role was on feminist impulse, saying that she wanted to take the responsibility of leading a female-led action franchise. This prompted online outrage over Johansson’s seeming inability to grasp intersectional feminism and taking roles that read as culturally appropriative in the name of gender-crusading. With the recent release of the film and the debates on the merits of the film versus the whitewashing controversy, Johansson has outright said that she would never presume to play someone of another race

Director Rupert Sanders has said that he hasn’t heard the the whitewashing question anywhere except America, and that Mamoru Oshii himself, the original writer, encouraged him to be very liberated in his approach. This follows the diatribe both he and production has constantly put out in defense of the film that the futuristic Japan in the original material has a blend of different cultural elements. This directly addresses netizens who argued that this remake was unnecessary when films like “The Matrix” were already inspired by the original “Ghost in the Shell” and took elements of the story that fit Western contexts instead of trying to copy-paste.

Sanders’s point seems moot in the face of his film’s using clearly Japanese-elements like Geisha-robots, Takeshi Kitano speaking Japanese when no one else speaks another language, and the Major’s mother being Japanese. Still, if we were to follow his line of thought, the more important question is if the film succeeds in playing on the universal themes of the dark relationship of humanity and technology the way that the original iteration did. Unfortunately for him, the answer to that has been mixed as well: several reviews have played on calling the film more “shell” than “ghost”, and have said that the philosophizing of the film comes nowhere near close to as engaging as the original.

But of course when I say reviews are mixed, it means there are positive ones as well — there are a healthy pick of people who acknowledge the controversies, but say that Johansson was well-cast and carries the film very squarely on her shoulders. The technofuturistic atmosphere and cinematography, that some reviews nitpick as more Blade Runner than 1990’s anime, has been praised by many people who attack the rest of the film. From reviewers who have self-admitted as having little to no familiarity with the source material and therefore have little interest in all the debates, they say that the film is an enjoyable action flick.

Comments are mixed as well — any foray into twitter or facebook or buzzfeed comment sections or reddit will reveal a plethora of people arguing over whether the Major actually has a race to be lifted considering she’s a cyborg, whether its’ right to lobby any criticism against Johansson considering her only bad decision was taking the role, whether the characters in the original were conceptualized as Japanese but drawn in a stylized way or if they were drawn with more Western features for wider interpretation, and whether fans of the original should be more grateful that the anime-manga is gaining a wider audience or whether they should continue to gatekeep what they believe are elements that are essential to appreciating the original.

Below, I have listed several reviews of the film, of mixed conclusions of the film as a stand-alone and as a mirror of its’ original source. All of them, to a point, touch on the quality of the film as an adaptation and whether it succeeds, as well as the whitewashing of the cast and whether it can be validated in the grander scheme of the cinematic experience. These mixed reviews hint that a week into release, the only thing that seems for sure for the film’s future is that it will forever have the shadow of its’ pre-production controversy following it around. Whether this is good for the future of female-led action films the way Johansson put forward is up in the air. At the very least, the film has kicked the door back open into the discussion of appropriate casting and culture-hinged storytelling that will hopefully make Hollywood bigwigs take pause the next time they want to attempt something along this line.

Business Insider: Australia: “Ghost in the Shell” is a Stunning Sci-Fi thriller — but it has one massive problem
Jason Guerrasio

“There’s an obvious economic motivation behind Johansson’s casting. She’s a proven box-office draw, both in the US and abroad. Paramount is looking at dollars over common sense. But when the entire industry is rightfully being hammered about its lack of diversity, the blindness of all involved in “Ghost in the Shell” is remarkable.”

Empire Online: Review
Dan Jolin

“…for all the accusations of ‘whitewashing’, there’s diversity here, with a Dane (Borgen’s Pilou Asbaek) as the lens-eyed Batou, a Singaporean (Chin Han) as mulletted cop Han, and Japanese cinematic legend ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano as sly boss man Aramaki. As for Johansson in the lead role, the film’s concept (present in the original) is that her body is an artificially produced construct; it would have been a welcome and progressive move to put an Asian actor in the role, but Johansson fits it well in the sense that the Major’s “shell” (i.e. body) is conceived in this script as something that isn’t a natural fit for the character, or rather the character’s “ghost” (i.e. soul).”

ABC News: Whitewashing Aside, Ghost in the Shell is a Pale Homage
Jason Di Rossi

“Meanwhile, Johansson’s casting as a white actor playing a “Japanese” character — something that attracted claims of “whitewashing” and inspired a petition as far back as 2015 — doesn’t jar as much as it might, thanks to the cosmopolitan nature of the film’s futuristic Asian metropolis (shot in Hong Kong but still clearly Japanese).”

GQ: Has A Movie Ever Owned Itself So Hard?
Kevin Nguyen and Joshua Rivera

“For a film that seems so slavish to the imagery of the original anime (it bends over backwards to directly lift scenes from the original, even though the story is entirely different) it’s incredibly timid about reproducing what makes those scenes memorable, which is that they were gross and uncomfortable…Maybe that’s the most cynical part of this new Ghost in the Shell. They made a movie with no interest in its source material.”

Slashfilm: An Adaptation As Cold and Lifeless as a Machine
Josh Spiegel

“This Ghost in the Shell, among other issues, suffers from feeling like the last runner in a race that long since ended. The manga and anime have been so influential to the point where films inspired by the original Ghost in the Shell have themselves inspired other artists… From its whitewashed lead to its flat retelling, Ghost in the Shell can try to act like the real thing, but it’s merely shiny and hollow.”

factmag: A Glossy Update that Misses the Point But Isn’t the Disaster Expected
Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy

“Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell 2K17 is not an important film. It is sometimes good, mostly passable, but not important. It is a given that the film will remain important as a beacon of whitewashing and the continued discussion of adept representation in mainstream cinema… [Johansson], she makes the film work, but should it really have been her? And more importantly, should this film have even been greenlit to be made by an American studio, giving their spin on Japanese pop culture?”

htxt.africa: A New Standard For Live-Action Adaptations
Clinton Matos
“There may be an argument to be made that “whitewashing” such a distinctive Asian character is more than a little insensitive, but I’m not going to make one here. Instead, I have to give credit to Johansson as her performance is the glue that holds the picture together… Small problems in cultural consistency as well as a predictable plot and some ham-fisted attempts at the original’s philosophical elements are not enough to bring this one down.”

iNews: Forget the Controversy — This is Remarkably Faithful
Matthew Turner
“…purists worried about Hollywood dumbing down the 1995 anime into a brainless action flick can relax. Sanders’ live-action version is remarkably faithful to Oshii’s animated classic, to the point where several shots are lifted directly from the original. Plot-wise, there have been a few compromises, like over-explaining what the title means and adding an emotional backstory. But this is otherwise a largely respectful remake that does full justice to the source material.”

ET Online:
Scarlett Johansson’s Anime Reboot Is Mostly Style Over Substance

John Boone

“Johansson herself is great, playing Major one step removed, a bit blank and slightly robotic, with an authoritarian lumber to her. It would be insensitive, if not downright irresponsible, not to address the whitewashing controversysurrounding her casting, though. Sanders has claimed that casting a movie star like Johansson allowed him to assemble an “international” cast around her (including “Beat” Takeshi Kitano), but there are overall probably too many white people to brag about some pan-racial (but still overwhelmingly Asiatic) world.”

The Hollywood Reporter: Film Review
Jordan Mintzer

“But the real issue in Ghost in the Shell may have less to do with whitewashing than with brainwashing, as it often feels like the screenwriters (Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger) chose to jettison the more thought-provoking, cryptic aspects of their source material in favor of a streamlined actioner that jumps from one fight to another without much contemplation.”


3 Comments Add yours

  1. jsebastian says:

    Great article. I’ve been keeping up with the controversy ever since the film was announced and I find it fascinating. I’ve still yet to watch the film, I’m just as nervous about it as I am curious. Do you ever share your work on any film or TV sites, out of curiosity?


    1. Aw, thanks a lot! I still think it’s curious that this, of all modern films, is the one that suddenly dragged the whole conversation into a mainstream light. But yeah a healthy mix of apprehension, loyalty, and confusion keeps me from watching it too.

      And no I don’t. I started this blog for a uni course, so I’m still finding my footing writing-wise. I’d like to someday, though, it’s really fun!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. jsebastian says:

        Hey thanks for the response, and you’re absolutely right. How long ago did you start writing? You have a great voice! I’m asking because I’m actually a community manager here at moviepilot.com, and we’re always interested in finding new, enthusiastic contributors.


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