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Ghosts in Some Shells

Scarlett Johansson’s latest movie is a couple of different kinds of offensive. Does it have to be this way?

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

Ghost in the Shell, released Friday, stars Scarlett Johansson, who is white, playing a cyborg with a Japanese woman’s brain. Ghost in the Shell is either a bad movie or a clunky movie, or it’s a busy movie but not an exciting movie, or it’s a tone-deaf movie but not an advanced movie. I’m not sure of the exact designation.

I propose to you an idea, and this is going to sound cavalier and also reckless and possibly even dangerous: Scarlett Johansson, who is white, playing a cyborg with a Japanese woman’s brain, was maybe not that great of an idea. To be sure, Johansson is a strong actor who has made many enjoyable movies, including but not limited to Her (where she played a cyborg of sorts, but not one with a Japanese woman’s brain) and Lost in Translation (where she played a woman in Japan, but not one with a Japanese woman’s brain). So she is, of course, quite talented.

But still, maybe a better idea than having Scarlett Johansson, who is white, play a cyborg with a Japanese woman’s brain would’ve been to have a Japanese woman, who is Japanese, play the cyborg with a Japanese woman’s brain, what with the Japanese woman having a Japanese woman’s brain and all.

This is maybe too wild of a suggestion, though. Incendiary language. Paradigm-shifting language. I don’t know.

There are two ways to whitewash a film:

The first way is to just do a straight-up swap and have a white person play a nonwhite character, and that’s that. You don’t change the name of the character or anything about his or her past. That all stays the same. The character is still black or Asian or Indian or whatever. It’s just a white person playing the role. A good example here would be something like when Mickey Rooney played I.Y. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) or when Johnny Depp played Tonto in The Lone Ranger (2013). This version accepts that other races exist, but chooses to ignore them.

The second way you do it is, rather than having a white person play a nonwhite role, you just disappear the nonwhite role and turn it into a white role. A good example here would be how in Pay It Forward (2000), they replaced the original character, Reuben St. Clair, a black man, with Kevin Spacey’s Eugene Simonet, a white man. This version is more of an erasure, really, in that it scrubs away nonwhite characters entirely.

Movies where whitewashing has occurred have generally chosen one option or the other. Ghost in the Shell, however, pulls off the incredibly tricky and rare feat of opting for both choices. Not only does the movie replace the original character, Major Motoko Kusanagi, with Johansson’s Major Mira Killian, but it’s also allowed her to keep a Japanese character’s existence (halfway through the movie we find out that Major Mira Killian is actually Motoko). In this way, at least, it’s a groundbreaking film.

Would you like to see a list of all of the white women who actually have a Japanese woman’s brain? I’ll show you the whole list.

Here it is: Literally none of them, including Scarlett Johansson.

Would you like to see a list of all of the Japanese women who actually have a Japanese woman’s brain? I’ll show you the whole list.

Here it is: Literally all of them, none of whom are Scarlett Johansson.

It’s like that old saying goes, "You can’t really know someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes, and you can’t really know a Japanese woman until you’ve played one in a movie, except as a white woman with a Japanese woman’s brain." That saying.

It’s like that old saying goes, "You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take, and you miss 100 percent of the Japanese brains you never take." That saying.

It’s like that old saying goes, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world, especially when that change is you being a white woman with a Japanese woman’s brain." That saying.

It’s like that old saying goes, "To the man who only has a hammer, everything he encounters begins to look like a nail; and to the white woman who only has a non-Japanese woman’s brain, everything begins to look like a Japanese brain."

It’s like that old saying goes, "To be old and wise, you must first be young and stupid; and to play a character in a movie who has a Japanese woman’s brain, you must first be a white woman." That saying.

It’s like that old saying goes, "Talking to an old friend makes you realize how much your life has changed, and talking to a Japanese woman makes you realize how much you want her brain." That saying.

It’s like that old saying goes, "Don’t mistake knowledge for usefulness, and don’t mistake a Japanese woman for a white woman with a Japanese woman’s brain." That saying.

It’s like that time Martin Luther King Jr. said, "I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by whether or not they are playing a white woman in a movie with a Japanese woman’s brain." That saying.

There are, to be certain, many times a white person has played an Asian person in a movie. It’s a Hollywood tradition that goes back more than a century — the earliest instance I could find was Mary Pickford (not Asian) playing a character named Cho-Cho-San (yes Asian) in 1915’s Madame Butterfly. Here are a few examples, and these are all recent, major-studio movies:

  • Tilda Swinton (not Asian) in 2016’s Doctor Strange as The Ancient One (Asian).
  • Emma Stone (not Asian) in 2015’s Aloha as Allison Ng (Asian).
  • Mackenzie Davis (not Asian) in 2015’s The Martian as Mindy Park (Asian).
  • Tom Cruise (not Asian) in 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow as Keiji Kiriya (Asian), rewritten as William Cage.
  • Noah Ringer (not Asian) in 2010’s The Last Airbender as Aang (Asian).
  • Justin Chatwin (not Asian) in 2009’s Dragonball: Evolution as Goku (Asian).

There are many, many, MANY more. And you and I, we could go through each of them. That seems an unnecessary waste, though.

Instead, I propose to you a second idea, and this one, same as the first, is going to sound cavalier and also reckless and possibly even dangerous, but: maybe cast Asian people in Asian roles? That’s just me being a wild man, possibly. But try it. Just try it. Let’s try it. I’ll bet it turns out pretty OK.