SEOUL: When it was first announced that Scarlett Johansson was going to play Major Motoko Kusanagi in director Rupert Sanders’ live-action adaption of Ghost in the Shell, there was outrage. Fans of Masamune Shirow’s seminal manga series argued that it was yet another example of “whitewashing” by Hollywood, where a Caucasian actor was cast in a role originally written as an Asian character.
While the casting of Johansson has been widely criticised, Sanders told Channel NewsAsia he stands by his decision to give her the role as he believes she is a “conduit”.
“I think there are a lot of people who are stoking controversy that isn’t really there,” he said when asked about the biggest misconception about his film. “I think people who know the manga will also understand these are themes and ideas that come from the manga.”
The film, based on the Japanese pop-culture property of the same name, began as a manga series written by Masamune Shirow in 1989, before branching out into an animated TV series and the 1995 animated film directed by Mamoru Oshii. Considered to be one of the cornerstones of the cyberpunk genre, the iconic postmodern franchise explores globalisation, identity and consciousness through the lens of technology.
“I am so proud of the work that Scarlett’s done. I think she - out of anyone in the world - will bring a huge audience to Ghost in the Shell. What’s important to me, is that she is a conduit … she’s going to open the door to so much of that aspect of Japanese culture,” continued Sanders.
He explained that while people love and cherish manga and anime in places like Singapore and Japan, “globally, it’s still relatively uncharted territory”.
“I think this will be a portal through to manga, to anime, to see Oshii’s work, to read Shirow’s manga and all the way through into others,” he shared.
"THIS FILM REALLY STANDS ON ITS OWN"
For Johansson, the biggest misconception is that people may think the film offers something familiar.
"This is really something else that nobody has really seen before,” she told Channel NewsAsia. “I think fans of the original animation will be really happy with the look of the film."
She explained that the live-action version of Ghost in the Shell pays homage to the original animation, but urged people to not think that it would be exactly like the original.
"We are not making the animation come to life. It’s a standalone film and I think in itself, people kind of look at the title and try to imagine in their mind how it could be brought to life knowing the material that they’re familiar with.
"I think this film really stands on its own," she said.
Directly addressing the controversial casting, Johansson said in an earlier interview that she never wanted to take the role away from an Asian actor and wouldn’t have accepted the role if that were the case.
“I certainly would never presume to play another race of a person. Diversity is important in Hollywood, and I would never want to feel like I was playing a character that was offensive,” she said.
Indeed, even the revered director of the original animated film Oshii has spoken out about the whitewashing claims, saying there’s no real issue with the casting because the character is a cyborg.
He told website IGN in an email interview: “The Major is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one. The name Motoko Kusanagi and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray her. Even if her original body (presuming such a thing existed) were a Japanese one, that would still apply …”
Like Sanders, Oshii has gone on record to say he believes Johansson playing the character “was the best possible casting for this movie.”
“I can only sense a political motive from the people opposing it, and I believe artistic expression must be free from politics,” he said.
So in keeping with artistic expression, could there be sequels where the Major will be played by actresses of different races and ages? Perhaps something in the vein of the British cult TV series Doctor Who, where the lead character has been played by countless different people?
“Yes, we talked and joked about it with Scarlett,” shared Sanders with a laugh. “Because it was a hard film to make and it was challenging, Scarlett was like ‘Great, well at the end of this one, I can die and someone else can just continue with my brain inside them and I can just come and do the voice or whatever!’”
He continued: “Yes, I think that thematically and metaphorically, there is an existential question of identity and of what are we as our exterior shell. There’s so much in that title ‘Ghost in the Shell’ you know? You know, ‘ghost’ to me is everything that is spirit, that is soul, that is fire, that is water, that is organic. And the shell is everything that is hard, that is machinate, that is digital ... so there’s a lot in that title.
“I hope people leave at the end with a resonance and a philosophical question. Not many films do that. Not many films have a strong female lead in a global franchise that would actually make you think.”