As of late there’s been a lot more ado about Scarlett Johansson portraying Major Kusanagi in the upcoming Ghost in the Shell live action movie. I try not to shy away from controversial topics on this website, and the portrayal of characters in film as a difference race than in their source material is something I’ve talked about before. In that particular article, I actually mention Major Kusanagi as an example of when race is not important because it doesn’t effect the story.
Well now I’m writing this article to say that I was wrong in this particular example, and to give some examples that I think will help explain why.
The crux of the issue is whether race has implications for the story. The tricky part about Ghost in the Shell is that we need to draw a distinction between plot and story. So let me take a minute to define those two things quickly: plot is the events and what order they happen in, story is the characters and setting in which the plot occurs. (Yes, I’m grossly over simplifying, but these definitions will suffice).
Now it’s true that Major Kusanagi’s race has zero implications to the plot. The events can happen in the exact same way, and in the exact same order, regardless of her race. This is probably the reasoning the movie studio used to defend their choice of Scarlett Johansson during their casting process.
But a story is more than just a string of events, isn’t it. There’s potential implications everywhere, especially given the context of when and where the story is being told. Some stories can even have a tremendous amount of meaning associated with the period in which it was written. An excellent example would be the movie Weekend at Bernie’s. On the surface it’s about a two guys and their crazy hi jinks with a dead body. But how did they get away with paling around the island with a corpse? Consider when the movie was made: in the 1980’s, a time with the most flagrant self-indigence by the upper class America had ever seen. Weekend at Bernie’s was satire of the upper class of the late ’80s, “whose self-indulgences and self-obsessions make them oblivious to Bernie’s dilemma.” (source)
But how does this all apply to Ghost in the Shell?
It’s very simple. Ghost in the Shell is an inherently Japanese story. It’s setting, characters, and the context in which is was written all give it meaning beyond the events that occur within its plot. That’s why I was wrong when I said Kusanargi’s “race is superfluous on account of her android body; she could be any race she wants.” That’s not true. In the case of Ghost in the Shell, if we change Kusanagi’s race, we are changing the story.
Allow me to provide one more example that’s a little more on the nose: Yojimbo and A Fist Full of Dollars.
It’s simply not possible that a film maker could have made Yojimbo using white actors. That’s why, when Sergio Leone wanted to make his own Yojimbo he re-wrote it as a spaghetti western with Clint Eastwood. Yes, he took the plot of Yojimbo wholesale, but by altering the characters and setting, he created a new story with a different meaning and appeal. If Dreamworks decided to do something similar with Ghost in the Shell then perhaps people would feel differently about Scarlett Johansson’s involvement.
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