Anime and manga fans are very aware that one of their most popular properties, Ghost in the Shell, is going to be a major motion picture on March 31, 2017. They—as are we all, at this point—are also very aware that a character called Motoko Kusanagi is being played by Scarlett Johansson, highlighting another instance of character whitewashing in the name of viability. But what was behind the choice from a creative standpoint? When we visited the set of the film in New Zealand, the topic was at the forefront of our discussion with their incredibly diverse (and international) supporting cast.
If you’re not familiar with the anime, the basic premise is simple: it’s set a few decades in the future in a time where most of humanity has some sort of cybernetic body enhancement, which results in the formation of elite security group called Section 9 who look into cases of memory hacking. The live-action adaptation will explore The Major (Johansson)’s search for her identity and humanity as she tries to find out who she was before her body was replaced by a machine. (For more info on the franchise, check out our earlier article.)
When Johansson’s casting was announced, there was an understandable outcry from the geek community, with many fans upset that a Caucasian woman was going to play an iconic Japanese role. To which Producer Michael Costigan explained, “Some films don’t get made because the right actor doesn’t exist to make the film. That’s what happens some times.”
Johansson spoke about not knowing if she was the right person for the role. “You know, I think… I don’t know if I was the right person, but I think Rupert [Sanders, director] and I shared the same vision for the character. So I think early on, having the same conversation, it’ll be up to the audience to judge if I’m the right person to play this part, but you know, I do work that I think I can do, and be challenged by, and have a take on. I do work that I feel I have something to contribute to. And I think in this case it was my sympathy for this character’s experience that made me feel I was capable to play this role.”
“Look at her films,” explained Costigan. “She is one of our absolute favorite actors working, and somebody who can do what The Major has to do. It’s a strong character with strength and passion and emotions and [Scarlett] can put you into that universe and you believe it. It kind of felt like a class of one,” he said, echoing a sentiment expressed by many studios in cases like this.
The film is set in a future where the world’s people have blended together, and Section 9 is composed of a multicultural cast. Costigan explained that casting Johansson allowed them more freedom to cast with diversity for the other roles. “Normally what happens on a property like this is that you’d have a couple of plum roles and that would be it. The appeal of Ghost in The Shell is what helped us because we thought well let’s go out and cast our favorite actors [for the other roles] and it was very organic.”
Tawanda Manyimo, who plays Section 9 bomb expert Borma, said of the changes, “I mean, just having a conversation is a good start…I think that’s a difficult thing because in books and comics, we get into characters’ heads for hours and pages and pages. That’s really difficult to pull off in film. And if you’re going to do something with so much of a history like the Ghost in the Shell manga—if you’ve got an opportunity to do something really different but stay the same—then go ahead and do it. I mean, you’ll never satisfy everyone.”
On why Johansson was right for the role, he added, “Because she’s an efficient, fantastic actor….You see that when she walks on set. You can see why people hire her because she comes in and she’s really does the job.”
Chin Han who plays Togusa—another member of Section 9—spoke about Johansson in the role, saying, “She brings a strength and a humanity to a very complex role, I think. But not only that, she’s so physically adept and skilled. She can really run with the boys, so to speak. … And as you can see, we do have a very international cast as well. And I think that’s what the future looks like.”
Another attempt at diversity was gender-bending several roles to increase the female presence. Danusia Samal plays Ladria, a knife expert in Section 9, a character created specifically for the film. “Ladria is from scratch…because of that we could play around and decide who she was and what her background was great. I think what’s nice is that we make use of that, and we enjoy it, and kind of play around with the fact that there’s another woman there. But also, no one is spending a lot of time challenging that, saying ‘why is there another girl there?’ I trained with those boys every day, we did boot camp together, we do weapons training together…we’re all in it together, and gender is not an issue in that sense.”
Another female character that we’ll see is Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), the person who gave The Major her new body. “It gets complicated, which is why this Dr. Ouelet character was chosen to be female, [which] also [makes] it interesting: How would a female Dr. Ouelet evaluate this and make the choices that she makes?”
Costigan explained that it the gender diversity not only an important part of the film, but a necessary one. “[Gender] is really explored [in this film], because there are deep friendships and deep emotional relationships. There are very tight relationships where women can have all ranges of behavior. They can be really strong and really tough and have emotion where guys can be really tough.”
But don’t think all the emotional nuance is exclusive to the female characters. Added Costigan, “Batou, our big tough guy, actually has so much emotion that he’s running away from. … It’s complicated because who’s human and who’s ‘cyborised’—who is not human—in the movie? But, even if you’re not human in the movie and have human emotions like love or fear or desire, that was interesting [to explore] for female and male characters.”
He continued, “We got to make a really international movie. That’s what I like about it. The world we have here is very exciting because it’s a very international cast from everywhere so I’m very excited for people to see that too. You don’t always get to have that in a Hollywood movie.”
You know we want to hear your thoughts on this. Tweet me/us @JennaBusch/@Nerdist and let us know if you’re convinced. Are you excited for the film? Stay tuned for more set visit reports, but may I humbly submit that the pre-vis we saw for the shelling sequence done by Weta is pretty mind-blowing!
Image credit: Paramount