Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Looking Back at Ghost in the Shell 2017 (Part 1)

Before we begin. I know no one cares about this movie anymore but as it so happens I write more for me, than for anyone else and I got a lot of stuff to say about this film.

There's gonna be spoilers . . . 

Also . . .

I don't mean to beat a dead horse by bringing up the film's casting controversy, everyone and their mum has written about or commented on it and the film already came out . . . so yeah. However, I think it's important to take a look back at where the controversy came from and how it evolved, especially because it has a lot to do with quite a few of my criticisms regarding the film.   


Back when it was announced that there was going to be a Hollywood remake of Ghost in the Shell I can't say I had high hopes. To begin with it seemed that the film was attempting to be and adaptation of Momoru Oshii's 1995 adaptation of the manga of the same name by Masamune Shirow -- effectively making it an adaptation of an adaptation. I figured they were going to ruin it. Dumb it down. Screw up the casting. Make something that perhaps looked kinda like Ghost in the Shell but ultimately fell short. Hollywood doesn't exactly have the best track-record when it comes to bringing hard sci-fi to the big screen and even less of an impressive record when it comes to adapting foreign content. Then it was announced that Scarlett Johansson was confirmed to play the lead heroine, Major Motoko Kusanagi and I, along with a lot of other people lost my shit. Her name was Motoko Kusanagi which is clearly Japanese. Johansson is clearly not Japanese. BOOOOO!

The Initial Controversy

As large swaths of the internet rallied in their outcry against the casting choice, an almost equal number of large and vocal groups emerged defending the choice. Some of these defences were pretty paper-thin, at best tone-def and at worst racist (along the lines of, no one's gonna see this movie if they put an Asian person in the lead!), others struck me as more level-headed citing the original content, the world of Ghost in the Shell (GITS), as a reason why the casting choice should have been a non-issue. The most often echoed argument I heard was that story takes place in a (more-or-less) trans-national world where it is commonplace to have human brains in synthetic bodies, ergo race is basically irrelevant (at least as a cultural identifier -- it has become merely cosmetic), I had also heard from some that even the series creator Masamune Shirow agreed that the casting choice was A-ok (which honestly is neither here nor there). 


I consider myself to generally be a man of logic, and this seems to be a fairly logical defence at first glance. However what really annoyed me was the way in which a number of the people using this defence would often, seemingly condescendingly (hard to tell with text mind you) denounce people expressing outrage at the choice as if it was simply inconceivable that anyone would have a problem with it in any capacity, and if you did, you must be some anti-white "social justice warrior". Riiiight. 

Objectively, there was nothing wrong with Scarjo playing the Major, just like how, objectively, there's nothing wrong with suicide. Only that context is a thing and history is a thing, and values are things that people have, and moments before this present one have surely happened and have left lasting impressions on our national and subjective psyches. So if you can't understand why someone might be upset at the idea of Scarjo playing a character that many have envisioned as Japanese, allow me to enlighten you on a few points.

First of all this film was written and in large-part produced in America by Americans. A rather large percentage of Americans are descended from Asian ancestry and many feel that the rather large percentage (over 6% which doesn't seem like much but considering the U.S. has a population of over three hundred million . . .) of the American population they comprise is noticeably larger than the percentage of well-written, Asian-American characters that appear in American media at present. If you combine this detail with Hollywood's rather poor treatment of Asian-American actors and characters throughout it's lengthy history, then, well, I think it's pretty easy to see where the controversy comes from. Most people who read the GITS Manga and/or watched Momoru Oshii's GITS back in 1995 probably imagined a human Motoko Kusanagi looking rather more Japanese than Scarjo's European heritage allows (I feel like this is a safe assumption to make especially since no one was talking about the Major's race before Scarjo had been approached), and when it was revealed that she would be playing the major, a lot of people were likely reminded of Hollywood's historical snubbing of minorities. In other words, the controversy was less about GITS's subject matter than it was about Hollywood's penchant for ethnocultural missteps when it comes to writing and casting. It also didn't help that just prior to the film's release a number of other films that had been released during GITS's production had faced similar back-lash for allegedly white-washing specifically Asian characters.

Like this film, about Hawaii, featuring no Pacific Islander or ethnically Asian peoples, based on a book featuring an Asian protagonist who was switched out for Emma Stone (who no one could mistake for an Asian person) despite these combined demographics accounting for over 50% of Hawaii's total population -- more than twice that of  the local Caucasian population to give you some perspective.   
 However, it seemed that despite this charged climate, the studio decided to ignore the controversy and go ahead with the casting choice anyway, because apparently focus groups are much more legitimate measuring sticks for audience reaction than entire online communities threatening to boycott the film should Scarjo be cast in the lead. Doesn't seem like the best marketing strategy. 

In any-case, in the beginning I was pretty miffed about the whole thing and I wrote a miffed article about it on this very blog. I also posted on a Facebook group that I would not be seeing the film. I was pretty livid. But one might wonder; why was I, a privileged white male frustrated with the casting choice? Because I imagined Motoko Kusanagi as a Japanese woman, I figured that, considering she was an operative operating in Asia -- specifically within the space of Japan (albeit a rather more multi-cultural imagining of Japan), it would make sense for her "shell" to resemble an Asian woman. But this is fairly subjective. You can't always get what you want after-all. Objectively, though, I think that given the substantial outcry, it was a poor marketing decision to go ahead with the casting and by choosing to cast Scarjo, the film lost many would-be viewers and gained little. I think no one would have minded if "the Major" was played by an Asian woman, but people certainly did mind that she wasn't. Then the film was released and received lacklustre reviews and ultimately bombed. Did it bomb because of the controversy? Honestly, that's somewhat doubtful -- it just wasn't all that great (to quote the antagonist from a much better movie it was "MEDIOCRE!") but you can bet that it didn't help, especially since some reviewers criticised the film for being "tone-deaf" as one of it's detractors.     

Still though, I was curious. Frankly, I like Scarlett Johansson as an actress, I'm a huge fan of cyberpunk and a fan of GITS insomuch as it exemplifies the genre. So I figured I had to see it at some-point. That point was just the other day, I ordered it on-demand here in South Korea and finally watched the sucker. So was it as bad as all that?

Find out in part 2 of this review/op-ed type article thingy . . . The Review. 

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