Even if it's not a wholly done deal, the fact that Scarlett Johansson has signed on as Motoko Kusanagi for a live-action Hollywood adaptation of Ghost in the Shell courtesy of DreamWorks SKG is the strongest evidence yet that said project will get the green light. It's also the strongest evidence yet of how misguided the whole affair is, and how Hollywood's thinking about anything sourced from Asia — live-action or animated — remains blinkered by its own timidity and lack of imagination.
I've written before about what folly might ensue if this project went ahead outside of Japan. I was not thrilled with the idea then, and I remained unthrilled with it now for all the same reasons and more. The original reasons were mainly aesthetic: you can't take a story set in Japan, rooted in that country's history and aesthetics, and transport it to the West without losing, well, everything. Any Western remake of AKIRA was also likely to suffer from the same issues, but at last report that ill-conceived and disrespectful project is still grinding along, too.
Three ways to fail
Casting Johansson for Shell, though, adds new reasons to feel uneasy: that this project would end up becoming a race-washed mess, one where Western/white actors are dragooned in to sell the results to audiences that allegedly won't sit still for anything but familiar faces (something Donna Dickens of HitFix also shook her head at). This is a prophecy that is both self-perpetuating and self-fulfilling — and all the more surprising in the light of how a greater proportion of production money and revenue for modern A-list blockbusters comes from overseas in the first place.
Assuming this production does get out of drydock, three possibilities present themselves for how the final product could turn out:
The Whitewash. In this version, Johansson isn't the only Anglo/Western actor; the rest of the cast — or at least the top tier — is also filled out with familiar names so as not to scare off timid audiences. In the case of the character Batou, Kusanagi's muscled-up male cohort, this might be justifiable, since his character was allegedly an homage to Steven Seagal in the first place. But it's still shortsighted, doubly so when names like Rinko Kikuchi and Ken Watanabe are routinely appearing in major Hollywood productions with plenty of screentime and dialogue apiece. Unfortunately, they aren't seen as being "bankable" — a notion I find all the sillier in the light of how more movies these days are sold by concept and imagery, not casting.
The Retrofit. Also known as "The AKIRA Approach". In this version, the story — with or without its names intact — is crated up as-is and transported to a Western setting. Some of what made Shell special might be reconnected with the West, but I don't expect this to be any less clumsy than the way the AKIRA remake tried to substitute 9/11 for Hiroshima. This version may not be as egregious in terms of its racial politics, but aesthetically, it's still a mangle job.
The Voice-Only Version. The least likely version to be made, but also the one likely to be least egregious. In this version, the production ends up being CGI-assisted to such a degree that all that remains of Johannson & Co. is mocap and voices. Such a thing could be redubbed in Japan, for instance (one of its original target audiences anyway), without too much trouble. But all signs point to this being a full-blown live-action vehicle, and not a halfway-house of digital and real-world work, and it still skirts over the central issues of who this thing is being made for and why.
In fact, there's an easy enough answer to that question: this movie isn't being made for "the fans". It's being made for a mainstream, paying, and ostensibly Western audience. But unless Ghost is either stretched or cropped to fit on the Procrustean bed of such a market, it can't get made — not at the budget and scale it deserves, anyway.
Ghost in the shell, or worms from the can?
I'm not sure any live-action adaptation of an anime property can succeed — in the sense of garnering enough box-office draw to justify its likely pricey investment — if the fact that it has a fandom is a primary motivation for making it. Too many of the properties brought up for anime/manga-to-live-action projects are fan favorites that have little to no chance of being adapted coherently. That they are fan favorites seems to be what motivates acquiring the rights in the first place, not that the stories lend themselves to being adapted well to a mainstream movie. (I've speculated before that this might be one of the side effects of some of the former generation of fans getting into positions of power: now that they can make these things happen, they're not thinking as carefully about whether or not they should.)
But really, the plotting and thematic issues are the least knotty of the problems when it comes to adapting any property that's rooted deeply in the culture of its creation. I worry, for instance, about the ways in which a whitewashed cast could be justified post facto by this particular project's setting. Call it the All Cyberbodies Are Grey In The Dark Excuse: after all, in a future where the body is an interchangeable and malleable a commodity as one's clothes, why wouldn't you choose to look like ScarJo? Sure, but a) it's not as if there would be anything wrong with looking like Rinko Kikuchi, either, and b) while that might be the case for the in-universe future presented in the film, such a tap-dance shouldn't be used as an excuse for ignoring issues of race for the real-world, present-day audience. (Exercise for the reader: How often do Asian markets with healthy film cultures make Western properties with Asian characters?)
This is complex stuff and I don't expect Hollywood to get it, no more so than have been able to in the past. The least I would expect them to do is steer clear of that particular tarpit, and go for properties that don't have these issues attached to them. Plenty other such properties exist — ones that are lively and creative, which come with a certain amount of fan prestige attached, which already has a degree of separation from the culture of origin, and which are none the worse for being that way. Fullmetal Alchemist, Claymore, Soul Eater, Black Lagoon -- all of which I've made cases for in precisely this light — could all make for projects that are at least as profitable and worthy.
It isn't wholly impossible for Japanese properties to be remade in the West. It just needs to be the right ones. Look at how Seven Samurai was transformed, quite admirably, into The Magnificent Seven. Japan even went us one further by recently producing its own localized remake of Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (starring Ken Watanabe, and by all accounts a great film). But Ghost in the Shell is so peculiar to its setting that maybe it's best to leave it as it is, and look for inspiration elsewhere.
Finally, I shouldn't make it sound as if Scarlett Johannson herself is the problem. She's not. She's a splendid actress, one clearly willing to push herself and try new things (c.f., Under the Skin), and whatever happens to her with this project, I wish her only the best. It's the project itself that's misguided, a product of well-intentioned but ultimately wishful thinking. But I suspect it will get made, and that it might even make money thanks to the names involved — and that Hollywood will once again find a way to learn all the wrong lessons from its mistakes.