Yet another new trailer for the forthcoming Ghost in the Shell remake has arrived, and despite the ample new footage, the impression given is more or less the same as that from previous trailers. As Scarlett Johansson’s cyborg policewoman wanders the neon-soaked streets of a Blade Runner-esque metropolis awash with Japanese iconography, an otherwise gorgeous, seemingly pitch-perfect live-action translation of Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime is rendered uneasy by the presence of whitewashing, which has come to the fore once more given recent comments that Johansson made during an interview with Marie Claire, for many, that the actress was willing to champion gender equality at the cost of racial diversity.
Obviously, no definitive judgment can be made until the actual film has been seen, but based on the trailers alone, we sense a film that wants to both pay genuine tribute to its source material and adapt this material into a lucrative blockbuster vehicle targeted primarily at American audiences. It’s a shame that the movie seems to have been unable to reconcile its dual ambitions into a perfectly satisfactory whole. The film’s visual faithfulness to Oshii’s anime has been mentioned already, and—setting aside the troubling racial component of Johansson’s casting for a moment—the megastar seems by and large to be an inspired choice to play the Major, given her impressive track record playing not-completely-human characters within works of cerebral sci-fi (a la Her, Lucy and Under the Skin).
That said, the issue of race can’t be set aside so easily. Theoretically, casting the Major as white would have been fine if the filmmakers had made the world of the film multiethnic, not just in concept but in practice. If the film’s urban setting had been a potpourri of world cultures and of faces all along the color spectrum, then Johansson’s casting would not have been an issue. Stories are adapted across cultures all the time, with shifts in the ethnicity of characters supported by appropriate shifts in the setting (e.g. the Chinese cast of the Hong Kong-set Infernal Affairs became a Caucasian cast in the Boston-set The Departed). Since there is a place for whiteness within the multicultural city of Ghost in the Shell, however, the ethnicity of the protagonist could, in theory, have been changed with no necessary alteration in setting.
The problem is, the trailers present a world that, though supposedly multi-ethnic, is heavily Japanese in look, evoking Tokyo more than a melting-pot metropolis. Within this context, the persistence in casting Johansson, despite being fitting from an adaptational standpoint, is problematic, because it effectively amounts to an appropriation of Japanese culture that erases the Japanese.
Check out the full trailer above in all its troubling beauty, and keep an eye out for the film when it hits theaters on March 31.