Every once in a while, our guest blogger The Explainer explains to us all a phenomenon with which we might not be familiar: think of it like crib notes for the movie industry. This week, The Explainer explains... Ghost In The Shell, in cinemas this week.
Wait, they made another Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie already?
Very much no. Ghost In The Shell is a 2017 live-action remake of the iconic 1995 Manga movie, starring Scarlett Johansson as 'Major', a cyborg who is on a mission to take down a group of hackers and in the process discovers exactly who created her and what happened to her old life. She does this by punching lots of people and generally being a bit Matrixy.
So why the controversy?
Firstly, the original is held in the highest regard in animation circles. It is about as sacred as sci-fi gets to some audiences. If this Hollywood Manga adaptation is successful at the box office - and early numbers are promising - that could open the floodgates for a whole host of Japanese and Asian animation adaptations. Like, say, Akira, which is above only Ghost In The Shell when it comes to Manga movies beloved by Otakus and bearded men who own samurai swords.
Standard remake rage, got it.
Not quite. The casting of Scarlett Johansson in the lead role has led some disgruntled fans to level a claim of 'whitewashing' at the movie, whereby Asian roles are played by Western, white-skinned actors.
I've heard of this. Is this why nobody saw that movie where Matt Damon was Chinese?
Sort of. Zhang Yimou's sci-fi thriller The Great Wall was also accused of whitewashing by casting Damon in the lead, although in this instance Damon's character wasn't Asian. In this case, and in the case of Ghost In The Shell, the studios claim that attaching a big American star to the movie will help it sell globally, and not just in the local market. And when your star is Scarlett Johansson, the highest-grossing female actor in the world, it's hard not to see it from a certain business point of view too.
Is that it?
Rent-a-gob screenwriter Max Landis also caused a minor storm when he claimed there was no Asian or Eastern actress big enough to get a Ghost In The Shell movie green-lit, and although Landis has a habit of putting his foot in his mouth, it's hard to argue that he's wrong.
Wait. Didn't I read that the studio wanted to try and make ScarJo look Asian in this movie?
That, if true, is indefensible, but it's still just a rumour. The unverified story goes that Paramount commissioned tests to use CG effects to "shift the ethnicity" of the white actors to make them look more Asian. The idea was allegedly scrapped, presumably because everyone involved realised what they were doing was no better than putting Mickey Rooney in big glasses and comedy teeth in Breakfast At Tiffany's. Paramount claimed one test was done for a background character which was later ditched. They were also keen to point out that the movie does have a hugely talented Asian cast, including Japanese screen legend 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano.
Of Takeshi's Castle fame?
Unbelievably, the very same.
So what do the filmmakers have to say for themselves?
Everyone has been very diplomatic, fearful for sinking the movie before it's had a chance to launch. Scarlett Johansson said she would not have accepted the role if she thought her doing so meant the role would be taken from an Asian actress, and also pointed out she was just happy to be offered a strong female lead role. Director Rupert Sanders was unrepentant: "I stand by my decision," he said. "[Scarlett] is the best actress of her generation." Even Mamoru Oshii, creator of the original Ghost In The Shell, thinks the whitewashing controversy is unmerited.
What did he say?
He didn't mince words. "What issue could there possibly be with casting her?" he said of Johansson's casting. "The major is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one. The name 'Motoko Kusanagi' and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray her. In the movies, John Wayne can play Genghis Khan, and Omar Sharif, an Arab, can play Dr Zhivago, a Slav. It's all just cinematic conventions. If that's not allowed, then Darth Vader probably shouldn't speak English, either."
So is this a nontroversy and not a controversy?
Maybe, but Ghost In The Shell is a prime example of Hollywood's systemic problem with race and representation. The fact that it is dressed up in a cool cyberpunk costume is just a distraction.
Still, it's not like they remade Takeshi's Castle or anything.
Not yet anyway.