Adi Tantimedh writes,
I've watching the internets hate the idea of Scarlet Johansson being cast to play the heroine of the Hollywood live-action Ghost in the Shell movie and it got me thinking about moves that remake foreign stories.
You can accuse the producers of the movie of racism and whitewashing, and you might have a point. Makoto Kusanagi is a character who was born Japanese and identifies as Japanese, despite the fact that she has inhabited cyborg bodies throughout her life. As I understand it, the producers and studio have been considering various Hollywood stars and starlets for the role, all of them white and none of them Asian. They went for Scarlet Johansson because she's a box office draw now, able to open hit movies like Lucy. And when they're going to make a Science Fiction movie with a budget in the $70-$100 million range, they need a big star to get the movie greenlit.
It may be too soon to tell, but reports suggest the filmmakers plan to keep the character's original name and the story's original Japanese setting. That sounds lazy and ridiculous if true. It would make no sense for the Japanese member of a Japanese covert action police force to be white. Since the star is white and the writer and director are white, with a Hollywood studio producing a movie with an unavoidable American perspective, they might as well change the characters to Westerners and the setting to the West. While the quirks and nuances of the original manga and anime were Japanese, the main themes and philosophical ideas – about whether an increasingly digital world might erode one's humanity, and the heroine's existential crisis over whether she's truly human anymore – are fairly universal. The main plot of a elite cybercrime unit in the police force battling terrorism and other threats to the state is also perfectly translatable. At the end of the day, it's the producers' and studio's movie and they can do whatever they like with it. They just need to do it right in order for the movie to be good enough to be a hit.
Then there's the Hollywood live action remake of Akira, still languishing in development hell after more than ten years of scripts and different directors attached. The impression I've had was that every approach was woefully wrongheaded, no matter how many brilliant comics artists and production designers they had drawing storyboards and designs for it over the years. Every take I heard about was, again, a ridiculous remake featuring white characters that can be played by big Hollywood stars, even setting the story in the US. This doesn't work because it fails to understand the whole point of Akira, which is about Japan's anxiety and relationship with Nuclear Armageddon. The whole story was a pulp prism reflecting everything that Japan was obsessed with: social breakdown, roving street gangs, lawlessness, militarisation, political unrest and instability and, ultimately, annihilation on top of the possibility of redemption and rebirth. To remake it for the US would need a rethink of how America reacts to and thinks about those issues, which has different shades of nuance than the way Japan does, and none of the scripts I heard about even began to tackle that. It's probably just as well that the Hollywood remake hasn't come to fruition.
A good remake takes the story and basic themes and changes it in a logical way so that it becomes its own story. The Ring was successfully remade, after all, with a US setting and characters without being self-conscious about the original Japanese version. Infernal Affairs was successfully remade into The Departed with its Boston Irish-American milieu since it would have made no sense to have a bunch of white American cops and gangsters running around Hong Kong. All You Need is Kill was adapted into the European setting of Edge of Tomorrow, which was actually funnier and wittier than the original novel.
The point is, cultural and racial nuances can be tricky, and the political and practical limitations of production resources don't always help. Take the upcoming live action movie adaptation of Attack on Titan, for instance, which will stray a long way away from the original manga and anime. The setting of the original story is a world mostly populated by people of European descent and Asians are mostly extinct, yet the entire cast of the movie is Japanese. While fans complained about how unfaithful this is to the source material, I can't help but notice the limitations of Japanese production demands. The movie is aimed squarely at a Japanese audience, and over there, they too prefer to see Japanese actors in their movies, so it's virtually pointless for the production to cast white Europeans that the audience hasn't heard of, even if they can just dub them into Japanese later. They can't afford to pay Tom Cruise to play Eren Yaeger, after all. Of course, this means the movie is probably going to end up rather unconvincing.
The decisions behind how movies are made are frequently absurd, and it's often a miracle that any movies get made at all. In the meantime, you don't have to worry or gripe about the Hollywood Ghost in the Shell movie. That's going to take at least two years before it comes out – if it gets made at all – and here's a trailer for a proper Ghost in the Shell anime movie coming out from Japan later this year.
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