Why Scarlett Johansson Is the Cyborg Hollywood Deserves

By Jeremy Hsu | April 22, 2016 1:03 pm
Credit: Paramount | Dreamworks Pictures

A first image of Scarlett Johansson in the role of a cyborg named Major Motoko Kusanagi from the upcoming live-action film adaptation of “Ghost in the Shell.” Credit: Paramount | DreamWorks Pictures

Hollywood directors such as Steven Spielberg and the Wachoswski siblings have drawn inspiration from the science fiction vision of the 1995 anime film “Ghost in the Shell.” But a live-action Hollywood remake of “Ghost in the Shell” has proven controversial because of the choice to cast Scarlett Johansson in the role of the story’s main cyborg character known as Major Motoko Kusanagi.

Let us not waste time on the common complaints about Johansson’s casting: Hollywood’s history of “whitewashing” Asian roles by casting white actors and actresses as Asian characters; the uphill battle that Asian American actors and actresses still face in getting meaningful roles in Hollywood films; the lack of consideration for how the original “Ghost in the Shell” story relies upon its Japanese cultural setting. I believe it’s far more fascinating and relevant to consider whether Johansson has the acting skills and experience to portray a complex action heroine who must wrestle with existential questions about her identity as both human and machine.

In the original 1995 “Ghost in the Shell” film, Motoko Kusanagi is a human whose original body has almost been completely replaced by mechanical parts. She is effectively a human brain controlling a powerful robotic body designed for combat. Her mechanical body parts can be repaired or replaced as needed, but not without cost. During the film, Kusanagi wonders what remains of her humanity as her body has become mostly machine. Even as she hunts a dangerous and mysterious hacker, she contemplates her own sense of growing isolation from the human society she has sworn to protect. The role demands an actress who can convey a commanding physical presence and power alongside moments of human vulnerability and sensitivity.

Allow me to present a modest proposal: Johansson’s acting career makes her supremely qualified to play a powerful cyborg struggling with an existential crisis in future Japan. In addition, Hollywood has plenty of movie magic to take care of concerns about her non-Asian appearance. We can rebuild her. We have the technology.

Cyborg in the Making

First, let’s consider how Johansson’s acting career has prepared her for the role of Kusanagi. There will be spoilers for some films, so read this section as your own risk.

  • “Lost in Translation” (2003): Johansson won critical acclaim for her role as a neglected young newlywed who forms an unexpected relationship with an older man (Bill Murray) while traveling in Japan. Her character, Charlotte, initially spends much of her time lounging around her Tokyo hotel room in apparent boredom while her husband is off doing celebrity photo shoots. But once she meets Murray’s character, the two bond over their sense of estrangement from their respective marriages and the sense of isolation that comes from shallowly experiencing Japanese culture as a weird and futuristic wonderland. That key theme of isolation in the midst of an alien Japanese culture ought to serve Johansson well in her “Ghost in the Shell” role of being a non-Asian cyborg in a futuristic Japan.
  • “Lucy” (2014): Johansson plays a young woman named Lucy studying in Taiwan who unwittingly gains superpowers by ingesting a synthetic drug. As her mind-bending powers grow, Lucy eventually becomes so powerful that she can easily take on both heavily-armed police and the villainous Korean gang members alike. At the same time, her personality shifts to something fairly machine-like as she casually shoots the leg of a Taiwanese taxi driver who fails to speak English properly. (It’s a known fact that anyone who cannot speak English in a proper manner is asking for a bullet in the leg: a rule that also applies to Americans who speak with a dialect other than the mainstream media approved “Midwestern” accent.) Lucy even gains the power to see electromagnetic signals from cell phones as though they were the computer code lines of “digital rain” running downward at the start of “Ghost in the Shell.” (Yes, “The Matrix” took that inspiration from “Ghost in the Shell.”) Johansson’s “Lucy” role as a powerful, non-Asian heroine kicking ass in an interchangeable Asian setting might as well have been a test run for playing the powerful Kusanagi in Hollywood’s “Ghost in the Shell” remake.

  • “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015): Johansson reprises her role in the Marvel superhero film extravaganza as the assassin-turned-agent Black Widow. Like Kusanagi, Black Widow has amazing martial arts skills and all-around combat prowess. And like Kusanagi, Black Widow faces a moment of crisis over her humanity as shares an intimate story about how her reproductive organs were removed as part of her assassin training. Black Widow suggests that her lack of ability to have babies makes her a “monster” by dehumanizing her existence. That incredibly deep insight explains why all women who can’t experience the miracle of birth or motherhood automatically transform into subhuman troglodytes. Black Widow’s understanding of her monstrous “otherness” parallels Kusanagi’s sense of dehumanization stemming from her cyborg body’s mostly non-biological existence in “Ghost in the Shell.”

Even Johansson’s real life has unintentionally inspired echoes of “Ghost in the Shell” themes. A Hong Kong robot enthusiast has built a humanoid robot with an uncanny resemblance to Johansson, Reuters reports. The robot’s unnatural movements and stilted voice may seem creepy now, but it represents an exciting forerunner to the robotic and cyborg bodies of the future.

Turning Japanese

Johansson’s qualifications to make “Ghost in the Shell” a success go well beyond her acting capabilities. Johansson represents one of the few actresses whose mere association with a project can guarantee that Hollywood studios will give the film the green light for production, as Variety explains. Johansson’s roles in both large and small films has undeniably provided a boost for their box office revenues. Her star power’s value to Hollywood’s bottom line on the “Ghost in the Shell” project cannot be outweighed by concerns about portrayals of Asian characters and lack of casting opportunities for Asian American actors and actresses. (It helps here to cover your ears and sing “la la la” whenever someone mentions the Pew Research Center statistics about Asian Americans representing the “highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group” in the United States. Done? OK.)

Still, Hollywood studios get it. They understand that it can seem a little strange to cast an actress of Ashkenazi Jewish and Scandinavian descent in the role of a character who originated as Japanese. The good news is that filmmakers have several technological tricks to dampen the outrage of social justice warriors and ensure that Johansson’s casting satisfies everyone.

  • Digital Yellowface: Screen Crush reports that the new “Ghost in the Shell” production tested a computer-generated imagery technique of making Johansson’s face look more Asian. It’s a high-tech version of the tried-and-true “yellowface” method of using makeup to make Caucasian actors and actresses appear Asian. A spokesperson from Paramount Pictures, the main studio in charge of remaking “Ghost in the Shell,” denied that the digital yellowface method had been tested to make Johansson appear more Asian. Instead, Paramount Pictures said the test was conducted on a background actor. But would Paramount Pictures really waste time and money on using CGI to make a random background character look more Asian? It seems more likely that the studio is modestly disguising its best intentions to make Johansson’s casting seem less awkward for those few overly-sensitive moviegoers.
  • Lip Sync for Your Life: There may be an even bolder way of leveraging Johansson’s star power while satisfying anyone who remains critical of her non-Asian appearance in the role. The 2013 film “Her” featured Johansson as the voice of an artificial intelligence OS (operating system) character named Samantha. Why not simply cast an Asian-American or Japanese actress as the body of “Ghost in the Shell” heroine Kusanagi and have Johansson once again deliver a compelling voice performance? Studios already translate Japanese anime films and TV shows into English by “dubbing” over the original Japanese voices and replacing them with the voices of English-speaking actors and actresses. Surely any actress would be proud to provide her facial expressions, body performance and lip syncing as a silent vehicle for Johansson’s vocal star power to carry “Ghost in the Shell” to critical and financial success. If “Ghost in the Shell” becomes a success, the Asian-American or Japanese actress might even use it as a stepping stone to future Hollywood roles where she finally gets the chance to speak. It’s basically the same path that early Hollywood actors and actresses followed when they moved on from the silent film era to the “talkies” of the 1920s and 1930s. (We have voices, guys! So exciting.)

Fans of the original “Ghost in the Shell” should feel grateful to be alive at a time when Hollywood’s remake could introduce the story’s philosophical musings on humanity’s future to a much wider audience. In fact, many Japanese fans had already expected the Hollywood remake to star a white actress, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Sam Yoshiba, a director at the Japanese publisher that owns the “Ghost in the Shell” rights, even praised the choice to cast Johansson in the iconic role.

As a result, The Hollywood Reporter shrewdly observes that Japan’s outrage has seemed muted in comparison with the sound and fury coming from some Asian Americans and Western social justice warriors. This especially highlights the absurdity of the whitewashing complaints coming from Asian Americans. If the Japanese creators and fans of “Ghost in the Shell” can behave so reasonably, why can’t Asian Americans follow the example of their kinfolk living on the other side of the Pacific Ocean?

I’m no cultural expert, but I’m pretty sure that the views of people belonging to Japan’s 98-percent majority population basically mirror the cultural identities and concerns of the Asian-American minority in the United States. Deep within our genetic heritage, we never really lose that cultural connection and identification with our ancestral homelands — or the homelands of people who kind of look like us. After all, U.S. pollsters like to solicit the opinions of Irish citizens to really understand what white America is thinking about. And it’s why Americans whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower can still sing “God Save the Queen” and salute the Union Jack with tears in their eyes.

Enough with the negativity. Rather than dwell on outdated concepts such as ethnicity and identity politics, I think it’s far more productive to focus on universal issues such as how people will preserve their humanity amidst the rise of sophisticated robots, artificial intelligence and cyborg bodies. I believe that Hollywood can transform “Ghost in the Shell” into the post-racial science fiction classic that the U.S. moviegoing audience deserves. Perhaps a successful remake could even inspire that utopian future when we slip the shackles of modern PC thinking and transcend our mortal existence like an exuberant Dr. Strangelove rising from his wheelchair. See you on the other side, space cowboys and cowgirls.

DISCLAIMER: In case you couldn’t tell, I humbly submit this post as satire. Lovesick Cyborg will return to its usual programming next time.

EDITOR’S NOTE: After getting some helpful reader feedback on what was and wasn’t working, I’m going to be playing around with the wording of this post to make my satirical intent more clear. Yes, my original post had a disclaimer at the bottom. But if the rest of the piece can’t stand alone as satire, that’s on me as a writer. Thanks all.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts, Uncategorized
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  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Futurama, seventh season seventh episode (presumably written under a caul), “The Six Million Dollar Mon,” 25 July 2012. Let us not forget artificial intelligence Bender Bending Rodríguez’ “kill all humans,” and Zapp Brannigan’s solution to its killbot implementation, Youtube v=eowPka21BNc Metropolis, 1927; When HARLIE Was One, Release 2.0 (1988), Cybernetic Samurai, (1985).

    I’m pretty sure that the views of people belonging to Japan’s 98-percent majority population” The Japanese are Korean, J. Hum. Genet. 57(12) 787 (2011), doi:10.1038/jhg.2012.114.

    • Jeremy Hsu

      Hah, forget racebending or the last Airbender — Bender is the ultimate bender. And yes, there seems to be good evidence for some shared ancestry between Japan, the Koreas and China.

      • TV Monitor

        Jeremy Hsu

        there seems to be good evidence for some shared ancestry between Japan, the Koreas and China.

        What evidence? Han Chinese are Burmese rice farmers who migrated up north. Koreans are Siberians who migrated south. Japanese are 50% Jomon, 30% Korean, and 20% Chinese.

        This explains why Chinese and Korean/Japanese are unrelated linguistically.

        • Hyeseon Kim

          TV Monitor, your racial understanding is not only misleading but also does not reflect the diverse human migratory route. For Koreans, there is two theory how and when they arrived at Korean peninsular. First is through the northern route – from central Steppe to Siberia then on to Northern part of Korea – Gojoseon- BC 2333- BC 108. second is the southern sea bound route from India, South East Asia to southern part of Korea – 6 Gaya Confederacy (AD 42–532) Koreans are rather homogeneous culturally and linguistically but historical records and artifacts clearly indicate two distinctive cultures coming together and forming a new identity. As for saying that Japanese are 50% Jomon, 30% Korean, and 20% Chinese are not only factitious and ignorant accusation but problematic rhetoric that extreme conservatives in Japan use to revision their history to claim colonization in southern part of Korea and Eastern part of China.

          • OWilson

            Having had relationships with female Asians over the years, I am absolutely fascinated by the physiology, biological and anthropological history of the different groups and nationalities,

            Any recommended current books on the subject? In English?

            And you too, Jeremy?

            TIA

  • OWilson

    My Osaka girlfriend wonders why they would have difficulty finding a convincing Japanese actress. She maintains she has been acting for me these last couple years!

  • vagabundacsm

    You had me until, “I’m no cultural expert, but I’m pretty sure that the views of people belonging to Japan’s 98-percent majority population basically mirror the cultural identities and concerns of the Asian-American minority in the United States.” That’s the EXACT reason Asian-AMERICANS feel upset, because they are the MINORITY, not the majority. Japanese in Japan don’t understand the concept in the same way, because it is–as you pointed out–a relatively homogeneous society, where the majority of the people see themselves reflected on-screen. It would be like if there was a Korean movie in Japan, and they cast a Japanese person in the Korean role. Koreans are, in essence, a suppressed minority in Japan. So, it bewilders me that you say the concerns of Japanese IN Japan are equal to Asian-Americans in the US! Absolutely NOT. Although a sizeable minority population in the US, Asians are not at all represented on-screen relative to their population. If you’re a Chinese kid born and raised in Arkansas, how does what is happening in Chinese media represent you? No, it’s what you grow up with, and how you see people like you represented in the mainstream culture that you belong to. Asians are grossly under-represented as well as misrepresented.

    I can understand why Asian-American actors are mad… They are RARELY offered the leading role in a “rom-com” or whatever, so now when a uniquely Japanese leading character is up for grabs, and it goes to a white person? It’s just another slap in the face.

    • TV Monitor

      vagabundacsm

      It would be like if there was a Korean movie in Japan, and they cast a Japanese person in the Korean role.

      I don’t know about Korean movie, but there are a number of Japanese movies and TV dramas that cast Japanese actors to play Korean characters.

      Go and Blood and Bones were two such big name examples.

      • Hyeseon Kim

        Maybe it is a high time for you to watch Korean movies to educate yourself in non Hollywood movie making. Have you ever heard the term Korean Waves – K-pop, K-Movies, and K -dramas as they are quite different from Japanese and Chinese. Both Hulu and Netflix have separate Korean sub genre. Here is another silicon valley startup called “viki” that specialized in all things Asian related. https://www.viki.com/

    • alex

      There is a disclaimer at the end of the article you may be interested in.

    • Jeremy Hsu

      Thank you for your comment! I agree with pretty much everything you said about why the Asian American experience is NOT equivalent to the experience of living as a Japanese person in Japan. I wrote this article in an attempt to satirize some of the absurdity behind the reasoning used to justify whitewashing of Asian roles. But I’m starting to think that I didn’t make it absurd enough, because you’re not the only person who thought I was serious. So that’s on me as the writer.

  • SueMcMann

    No excuse for taking an anime classic, an inherently Japanese film and character, and whitewashing her to suit Hollywood’s taste. It’s irresponsible and I am ashamed of all associated with this film. And I’m actually ashamed of the person who even wrote this, trying to defend Hollywood’s whitewashing policy.

    To Japan and the Japanese People, as well to all actors of Asian decent: On behalf of this American – one who does not give money to whitewashing films or theaters that show them – you have my apologies.

    • alex

      You should be ashamed at your lack of observational skills. “DISCLAIMER: In case you couldn’t tell, I humbly submit this post as satire. Lovesick Cyborg will return to its usual programming next time.” Right there at the end of the article.

  • OWilson

    That’s just Hollywood.

    They took a perfectly good Japanese monster, Godzilla, and Spielberg ripped it off with all that Jurassic stuff.

    • Tommy McMillan

      Jurassic Park is based on the Michael Criton novel you idiot.

  • Seri Park

    The Japanese creators do not have to deal with the legacy of racism in the United States and the negative media images of Asian-Americans. So, why should they care? This issue is about how the absence of positive roles affects Asian-Americans in America… and how Asian-Americans are cast either as the villain or the fool most often in American film and TV.

    • TheSilverPrince

      And? I am sorry but this idea that Asian actors should get the role for a racially ambiguous cyborg is absurd. In Ghost in the Shell, Japan is supposed to be a multi-ethnic state due to WWIII. Cyberization has turned race into a non-issue and being a cyborg is being robbed of identity. By casting an Asian woman as Motoko then you are robbing the character that makes her mysterious. You make the “body” her identity when in truth Motoko body is just the superficial. The real story is the Ghost inside the machine body.

  • alex

    It’d be really great if people didn’t get halfway through an article before they decide they need to comment on it. Every single person seems to have missed the “DISCLAIMER: In case you couldn’t tell, I humbly submit this post as satire. Lovesick Cyborg will return to its usual programming next time.” part.

  • Krwemil

    It might be because I am not very familiar with the issue nor I care about Hollywood and its cultural differences very much, but can someone explain to me how this is satire? I just don’t seem to get it…

  • Michael Ferri

    a cyborg ,woman,,great as long as she is programed to love me

  • Joe bob

    Glad this is a satire article. You had me going.

  • bwana

    Who cares!? It’s a movie.

  • Alice Williams

    Also glad I saw the disclaimer. I really had no idea this was a satire, I am afraid. Still a well-written article in my opinion!

  • Tommy McMillan

    They should have just changed the characters and setting to an American one like they did with “The Ring”.

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Lovesick Cyborg

Lovesick Cyborg examines how technology shapes our human experience of the world on both an emotional and physical level. I’ll focus on stories such as why audiences loved or hated Hollywood’s digital resurrection of fallen actors, how soldiers interact with battlefield robots and the capability of music fans to idolize virtual pop stars. Other stories might include the experience of using an advanced prosthetic limb, whether or not people trust driverless cars with their lives, and how virtual reality headsets or 3-D film technology can make some people physically ill.

About Jeremy Hsu

Jeremy Hsu is journalist who writes about science and technology for Scientific American, Popular Science, IEEE Spectrum and other publications. He received a master’s degree in journalism through the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at NYU and currently lives in Brooklyn. His side interests include an ongoing fascination with the history of science and technology and military history.

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