Let truth be told: When I walked into the theater to see Ghost In The Shell (2017), I was cracking my knuckles and expecting to rip the movie up the middle. I walked out with a very different attitude, one I documented in my review. The movie is problematic, and is a limited take on its source material, but I felt a case could be made for how it attempted to use its casting as an actual thematic element. It wasn't obliged to do so, and that I saw a case for how it did such a thing surprised me. But my appreciation is not automatically anyone else's, and there's still plenty about this movie that is worth critiquing and deserves spelling out.

Casting Scarlett Johansson was, and remains, problematic

My own theories aside about what the casting ultimately could mean, putting Scarlett Johansson in the role of Major/Motoko was still a huge thorn in the side.

I'm guessing the reasons for using her in the role were entirely about marketability. My bet is the movie's sales team thought Johansson was more inherently salable a talent than, say, Rinko Kikuchi, even in Japan or Asia generally, just because Johansson has been the star of far more successful films worldwide.

None of this criticism is about Johansson's qualities as an actress. She's one of the most capable folks we have working in front of a camera these days, and I quite liked her in the film. It's just that the choice to use her was a letdown, because it meant a crucial aesthetic decision was made about this movie early on that made things more difficult and problematic than they needed to be. It also highlights how aesthetics and marketability often have nothing to do with each other.

Again, I did argue that the movie found a way to recontextualize the casting and make it an actual thematic component. That said: a) I don't expect everyone to agree with such a view (although I do think there's good evidence to support it), and b) it shouldn't have been required if the movie had done the right thing from the git-go. I'm pleasantly surprised that it was pulled off, but I dislike that it had to happen at all.

There's still a lot else about the film that's flawed or questionable

What the movie did with its casting, in my view, isn't about absolving any of its other issues with ethnicity or race. Random example: The criminal element in the film is almost exclusively Asian — save maybe for the black streetwalker that Major picks up at one point. This is a very good scene, actually, and partly for that very reason, as it hinted at how the criminal underbelly was also an ethnic mix. And I did like how Section 9 is now that much more diverse, both in terms of ethnicity and gender.

But I was put off by the scene in the yakuza club that doubles down on the grimy "Asian = criminal" atmosphere. It could be said this is just a reflection of the milieu that Section 9 was traversing; after all, the real-world yakuza is highly exclusionary and closed to foreigners. But it was harder to shrug off in retrospect than I thought, if only because it gave me bad flashbacks to stuff like Michael Crichton's "Japan-noia" thriller Rising Sun. Some things are harder to recontextualize than others.

This film still sets problematic precedents for anime adaptations

With any creative work of note, precedent is always set whether or not the creators are aware of it. Most often these precedents are misinterpreted. With the 1977 Star Wars, I felt the real lesson to be learned was how it worked as a response to the cynical and jaded filmmaking of the time. It was a great embodiment of how culture can be used to respond to culture. But most people assumed the lesson to be learned was that there was money to be made in ripping off the movie wholesale, or in rushing junky SF of any kind in front of the cameras.

The same applies with GITS'17. The movie found its own way to make hay from Johansson's presence in the film, but that's not a strategy I would recommend as the default approach. It was an ameliorative strategy, rather than a conceptually appropriate one. Also, the fact that this one decision ameliorated a fair amount of wrong in the film for me doesn't mean it'll do the same for anyone else. There are people who still hate the film on principle, and believe me, I get it. None of this is about talking them out of their point of view; it's about me making a case for mine.

To that end, I worry that other prospective adapters of anime/manga properties will look to this film and assume that it's okay to Westernize the casting because they can always find a way to justify it. In my opinion, they got lucky this time, because the story's themes provided a way to do it. They may not be so lucky in the future.

Let me sum up. I still feel the movie makes an attempt to use its casting as a contextual asset, and I think there is enough evidence supplied by the film, directly and indirectly, to support such a reading. I think that goes a long way, for me, to give the film a coherency it might not otherwise have had. But it's not a cure-all for anyone who might have an issue with it. And there remains the danger of taking all the wrong lessons from this project, of assuming its approach is a suitable default.



About the Author

Serdar Yegulalp (@genjipress) () is Editor-in-Chief of Ganriki.org. He has written about anime professionally as the Anime Guide for Anime.About.com, and as a contributor to Advanced Media Network, but has also been exploring the subject on his own since 1998.
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