Ghost in the Shell (1995) is an anime classic. In Japan, Ghost in the Shell has enjoyed prolonged popularity as a cinema empire. However, save the first movie, Ghost in the Shell has not enjoyed the same popularity in America. Only the 1995 film was ever brought over and, while it enjoyed critical and cult success, it only ever attracted anime fans. Anime was still fringe at the time. Now, anime has become nearly mainstream and, with the mainstream comes the live-action remakes.
So why is Ghost in the Shell (1995) so good?
Ghost in the Shell (1995) deserves the status it’s gained. While the story comes from a distinct Japanese viewpoint, perspectives foreign to us in the West, the themes speak to a broad audience. It speaks to the worry of losing one’s identity in the face of impersonal technology, emulated in Major Motoko Kusanagi’s struggle to retain her humanity as a fully cybernetic human. This struggle, very real in the technological boom that Japan was experiencing at the time, still exists today.
Technically, the movie is done to perfection. The Japanese voice acting is spot on, the environment is fleshed out, the world is believable, and the music is stunning. It does have some issues, such as it’s tendency to have excessive dialogue. However, it is no wonder that Ghost in the Shell has held up as a outstanding piece of science fiction. It’s imaginative, with great action and even better atmosphere. However, it is this greatness that makes the new Hollywood remake so troubling.
Why have people gotten angry?
The crux of the issue is “why?”, split in two. Why do we need a live action remake? Why did they cast a white actress to play someone who was clearly Asian? These questions, and so many others, have caused fan anger against the remake. Ghost in the Shell wasn’t only a classic, it was beloved of the anime community.
The remake controversy:
Ghost in the Shell is no stranger to change. Just look how much the Major changes from iteration to iteration. Courtesy of the expansive universe, changes to the characters as well as new stories are easily accepted as canon. However, the Hollywood adaptation is not a new story. It is a remake.
Anime fans have no good live-action remake. From the absolutely horrible live-action Dragon Ball movie to the utter atrocity of The Last Airbender movie, fans expectations were automatically low when a live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell was announced. When the first few trailers came out, filled to the brim with shot-for-shot remakes of the iconic scenes, the reactions were middling. As cool as it was too see, most fans were skeptical. The trailers showed an action movie, not the intellectual sci-fi movie they were used to. Angry posts ensued.
The actress controversy:
This is where most of the ire lay. Ghost in the Shell has always been a markedly Japanese media property. While it took influences from cyber-punk, Western military aesthetic, and Chinese cityscapes, the story and characters all spoke to a Japanese experience. Yet, in the Hollywood remake, they cast Scarlett Johansson. Even before the movie came out, this was a controversial choice to say the least.
Don’t get me wrong. I like her as an actress. In a world where most female movie stars aren’t allowed to be part of the action, I find it cool that she keeps being type-cast as a female fighter. However, Hollywood has been well-known in choosing name actors over authenticity, and her casting is an extension of the problem. There are two main defenses of the choice:
They want this movie to do well! They need a big name actress!
I understand the drive of the media industry to keep casting the same big name actors and actresses. It makes sense in terms of profit. They have experience. Also, the general public seems to be more interested to go see familiar things. Seeing familiar actors and actresses make an unknown story, like a cult classic from Japan being rebooted, feel more normal.
However, this excuse is faulty. In recent movies, profitable movies have had a more diverse cast. For instance, Get Out features a mixed race cast of up-and-coming actors and actresses. It tells a story from a uniquely Black American point of view, something both new in the genre of horror and engaging. Similarly, Moana, a new Disney Princess movie, intentionally went out of their way to cast Pacific Islanders. The soundtrack producers, designers, and voice actors all hailed from the culture that the movie was building from. These new movies prove that a movie doesn’t always need star power to be popular or profitable, it just needs to be thoughtful.
There aren’t any Asian actresses that would suit the role!
This argument… Always with this argument… Visibility of Asian actors and actresses in America has always been difficult. There are, in fact, many Asian actors and actresses in America. In many movies, though, the Asian roles are relegated to the minor characters. Even in Ghost in the Shell, the only major character played by an Asian actor is the boss of Sector 9 is the only important role in the movie to be played by an Asian Actor.
Going back to Get Out and Moana, both took risks by casting new actors and actresses. Yet, they did it to maintain the culture of the story they were trying to tell. In terms of Ghost in the Shell, this is where the problem of not casting an Asian actress as the Major lies. They had two choices to maintain cultural continuity: go fully western or go fully faithful. Unfortunately, they chose to do something in between. They kept the very Asian cityscape and parts of the very Asian story, yet stitched in parts of a western story with a white actress. The remake has none of the thought that went in the original nor the thought that could have been in a western adaptation.
Why does it matter?
Remaking Ghost in the Shell was an opportunity. It was an opportunity for a uniquely Asian perspective to be brought to the mainstream in a similar way as Get Out did for horror. It was an Asian actress’s chance to not be turned away because “she didn’t suit the role.” Major Motoko Kusanagi was made for an Asian actress to play. That is why the remake was so important to people.
It was important for those who loved the original franchise and wanted to see it done well. It was important for those who grew up in a white-dominated comic industry who turned to Ghost in the Shell to see an unabashed Asian woman as the main character and was also important to those who fight for equal casting opportunity in Hollywood. Yet, it fell short of it’s potential to influence, giving instead a movie with none of the weight of the original.