A few weeks ago, word shimmied down the digital grapevine that Hollywood has cast the lead role in its adaptation of the Ghost in the Shell manga, and brace yourself: she’s white. (More accurately, she’s not Rinko Kikuchi, whose name has been bandied about in the press in both pre and post-casting rumblings.) Someone, somewhere, is going to write (or has already written) a strong argument as to why tapping a caucasian actress to play a Japanese character is problematic, and that argument will socially, politically, and intellectually have serious merit. It is, after all, the same argument made four years ago when Paramount and M. Night Shyamalan sucked all the cultural integrity out of Avatar: The Last Airbender.
But this piece isn’t about that. This piece is about Scarlett Johansson. This piece is about the decision to specifically call upon Johansson, one of America’s most popular mainstream actresses, to play Motoko Kusanagi, the cybernetically enhanced, highly intelligent, martially gifted squad leader of Ghost in the Shell’s fictional law enforcement division, Public Security Section 9. It’s a commercial hire that, when compared to Johansson’s recent career trajectory, frankly seems a little bit like kismet.
Johansson’s billing in Ghost in the Shell continues her string of appearances in high concept sci-fi titles, begun at the end of 2013 in Her, continued with Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, and capped off this past July with the lovably dopey Lucy. Each of these three films is as different as the last, but taken together, they make up an accidental trilogy of stories bound together by a common interest in exploring definitions of humanity. For Johansson, that makes Ghost in the Shell a logical next step in theme, if not in tone.
Consider Her, where her bubbly AI slowly develops self awareness and personal desires over the course of the film. Meanwhile, in Under the Skin, an alien’s curiosity gets the better of her (it) as it transitions from being the extraterrestrial hunter to being the hunted. And in Lucy, increased levels of access to her brain power dissolve her humanity bit by bit, sort of in reverse. These films are all noteworthy for a variety of reasons beyond Johansson’s presence—either because of her co-stars or because of the quality of their craft—but as a triple feature, they all ask (to different extents and degrees of sophistication) and attempt to answer the question of what exactly it means to be human. At times, these films are about finding humanity; at others, they’re about losing it. Often, they’re about both, though not necessarily in the same order.
Maybe there’s an actress out there better equipped to play Kusanagi in terms of craft—and there’s most certainly better choices in terms of appearance—but Johansson’s track record in post-human narratives makes her an almost inevitable pick. (Oscar buzz plus box office receipts are like binkies and safety blankets to the worried studio execs.) Johansson can be playful and vivacious, but she also knows her way around an action scene, how to turn cool deadpan into pathos, and is old hat at playing characters compelled to confront the ebb and flow of their own humanity. This versatility, coupled with the aforementioned studio appeal, suggest she’d make a fine addition to a number of different tentpoles. (Her status as “most suggested actress for such-and-such action/sci-fi role” has probably shot up there to Jolie heights.) For Ghost in the Shell, a philosophically minded property unfamiliar to mainstream U.S. audiences, Johansson is a shrewd acquisition both financially—she’ll sell tickets that otherwise might not get sold, guaranteed—and creatively.
Masamune Shirow’s original creation is a pinnacle in the posthuman niche. Whether on the page or on the screen, Ghost in the Shell depicts a world in which people augment their physical forms with robotic upgrades to the point of replacing the bodies they’re born in with artificial ones. It’s sort of like buying a really high-tech car, where consumers have the option of buying base models or customizing the chassis with whatever sundry upgrades they can think of. Such is the case with Kusanagi, the series’ protagonist, who as we meet her exists as, well, as a ghost in the shell, a human consciousness uploaded into a synthetic body. In Mamoru Oshii’s films, Kusanagi’s appearance is androgynously youthful, her demeanor alternatively impassive and steely. She’s pretty much the picture of no-nonsense, and all wrapped up in a nondescript chassis so as to blend in with a crowd.
Johansson’s image and persona blend aspects of Shirow’s and Oshii’s respective visions of Kusanagi alike. She’s decidedly not boyish by any stretch, putting her more in line with Shirow’s conceptualization of the character; her unmistakable femininity may mean that the new film will jettison Oshii’s deconstruction of gender identity alongside human identity. (Besides that, it’s Hollywood—the odds that Sanders’ film would have delving into questions of gender and sexuality were long, anyway.) That, frankly, feels more detrimental to the film’s integrity than whitewashing, particularly whitewashing that occurs in a fictional world where people can purchase appearance and thus appearance has less value than substance. (Which isn’t to say that the whitewashing is irrelevant.) Gender identity is a huge part of what distinguishes Oshii’s movies from Shirow’s manga. Abandoning that deeply intricate study means losing a significant driving theme of startling social relevance. If Johansson is bad for Dreamworks’ project on any meaningful scale, maybe that’s it.
At the same time, she matches up with Oshii’s portrait through her talent at mining empathy out of emotionlessness, seen in both Under the Skin and Lucy. She is ultimately a cross-section between the two distinct versions of Kusanagi seen on the page and on celluloid. How much of any of this Dreamworks, director Rupert Sanders, and screenwriter William Wheeler have picked up on—if they’ve picked up on it at all—is a bit of a curiosity. Truthfully, it probably doesn’t matter, because intended or not, the dichotomy that separates the dueling versions of Kusanagi is there, nestled within Johansson’s frame, right alongside the interest in the metrics of humanity suggested by her recent roles.
The AI voiced by Johansson becomes more human in Her (at least until it evolves beyond human comprehension) while the protagonist in Lucy becomes less so. (And her piece of man-bait in Under the Skin only begins to empathize humanity before being discovered.) All three films seem to suggest that when it comes to be being human, that time-worn cliché is true—it’s what’s inside that counts.
Thematic alignment and box office success aside, the filmmakers will need more than just Johansson at her best to succeed in the live-action Ghost in the Shell. After all, this film comes with a well-established fan base and source material. (So, too, of course, did The Avengers’ Black Widow.) Nonetheless, Johansson is a veteran of working with character blueprints like Kusanagi’s. Their union could prove a remarkable marriage of art with artist. Or not. And even if it is, the result might not blunt, let alone sufficiently answer criticisms of the film’s cultural repositioning. But if Johansson’s recent work in similar thematic territory has earned anything, it’s an initial suspension of judgement. Let’s see what she can do.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film for the web since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant and Movie Mezzanine. You can follow him on Twitter. Currently, he has given up on shaving.