The Black Widow herself, Scarlett Johansson, has signed on to play the lead role in the live-action film version of the Japanese manga and anime series, “The Ghost in the Shell.” Set in a future society so immersed in technology that most humans possess cyberbrains, Major Motoko not only has a cyberbrain, she has a cyberbody.
With millions of copies sold and one film version already attempted, “The Ghost in the Shell” seems overdue for the Hollywood treatment. In 2008, Steven Spielberg said about manga: “It’s a genre that has arrived, and we enthusiastically welcome it to Dreamworks.” Now that its 2015, manga has been around so long in the United States that my middle-school niece has a “How-To-Draw Manga” workbook and shelving for the genre takes up an entire wall of my local public library.
Yet as eagerly awaited as “The Ghost in the Shell” might have been, many fans had still hoped that it might retain its distinctively Japanese aesthetic as well as its Japanese heroine.
To adolescent brains struggling to come to terms with self-determination and identity, explains psychologist Jean Kim, “These pop cultural images and role models matter.” For Kim, who was a teenager coming of age in the late ’70s and early ’80s,
“Wonder Woman was the sole badass woman on Superfriends (besides her archvillain The Cheetah) and part of the Justice League of
America. Even as a kid, I had some sense she was the first and best ethnic heroine (technically being Greek, I suppose).”
The existential yearnings of teenagers may be easy to mock, but they happen to be the major themes of “The Ghost in the Shell” and widely acknowledged as major factors fueling its enduring popularity. For millions of Asian-Americans plugged into social media today, Major Motoko is Wonder Woman. And they were really hoping that she’d look like them, instead of some Hollywood producer’s version of a sure thing.
To studio executives, transforming Major Motoko into a gorgeous blonde played by a major star may seem like a smart move. In theory, grafting a white face onto an Asian backdrop creates a cultural Frankenshimuzu, using the most appealing bits of both worlds to make the film more profitable in foreign markets. And yet, have they already forgotten the tragedy of “The Last Airbender?” A Nickelodeon cartoon heavily influenced by manga, “Avatar: The Last Airbender” ran from 2005 to 2008 and featured an Asian universe with Asian lead characters. The 2010 film version, however, replaced all the Asian leads with white actors and was called out by nearly every media outlet for its “casual racism.” The result was a critical and box-office flop.
Nonetheless, casting Scarlett Johansson as a cyborg with a human-ish brain follows a formula that, so far, has worked for her. As a philosophically minded action series about technology and humanity, “The Ghost in the Shell” picks up themes in “Lucy” (last year’s commercial blockbuster about a drug mule who accidentally gains superpowers), as well as in the arty “Under the Skin” from (she plays a space alien who driving around Scotland picking up flabbergasted men), also released in 2014.
A sexbot for the 21st century, Johansson seems to have ditched playing humans in favor of a presenting a pneumatic body that has a vexed relationship to its own mind. Perhaps the sexy boredom she keeps exuding isn’t acting, but how she really feels about the cyberbrains watching her.