It’s hard for Scarlett Johansson to talk about her new film, Ghost in the Shell, without diving into some of the same esoteric philosophical debates at the center of its source material, Mamoru Oshii’s groundbreaking 1995 anime: What is it that makes us human? Is it our physical being, or is it our experiences?
In Rupert Sanders’s forthcoming live-action Ghost in the Shell, Johansson plays an elite government-issued cyborg known solely as The Major whose body has been replaced with cybernetic parts — but her human brain is still intact. “She’s not living a human existence,” the actress told MTV News during a press event in Tokyo. “She’s not living a fully robotic existence, either.”
Johansson described the film as less of an origin story and more of a “coming-of-age story” for The Major. The decision to cast Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi, as she’s known in Masamune Shirow’s original manga series, drew ire from fans who criticized it as yet another example of Hollywood whitewashing. However, Sanders stands by his decision, telling MTV News and a group of reporters in Tokyo, “Whenever you cast someone, someone’s going to be critical of it. To me, I stand by my decision. [Johnansson’s] the best actress of her generation.”
Sanders also made it clear that Ghost in the Shell isn’t a remake of Oshii’s genre-defining work; it’s a reimagining. When we meet The Major at the beginning of the film, her job is her main focus. She has dedicated herself to thwarting cybercriminals and hackers partly because she feels disconnected from herself.
“She never sleeps. She never really shuts off,” Johansson said. “She has vague memories of who she was before she became The Major and she has a connection to who she was through her relationship with [Juliette Binoche’s character] Ouelet and the people who work at Hanka — they remind her of what her story was — but the experiences that they’re living around her are totally unfamiliar to her.”
With the introduction of Michael Pitt’s cyberterrorist Kuze, a full cyborg similar to The Major, she begins to question the very nature of her own existence. “She starts to have these glitches and flashbacks of things she’s not really sure if she remembers or if they’re things that were implanted in her,” Johansson said. “As she gets closer to the enemy, she strangely gets closer to herself.”
The film ultimately asks an important question: Are we who we are because we’re a product of our past, or are we who we are because of the experience that we’re living? One of the only characters The Major confides in with these philosophical queries is Batou (Pilou Asbæk), her right-hand man in the Section 9 task force.
“I think Batou is the character that Major feels the closest human connection with,” she said. “He’s someone who is very much himself. He’s been through the tragedy and loss of war. He’s lived a very human experience. She’s curious about that. Through his experiences, she feels like she’s able to absorb some of them and understand how the past informs the person that you are.”
“It’s also a playful relationship, and in some other universe, it’s romantic — or it could be,” she added.
Still, The Major’s existential crisis doesn’t feel that unfamiliar to Johansson, whose roles in films like Her and Under the Skin have explored a similar sense of detachment between the real and synthetic. It’s a challenge that the actress finds intriguing: stripping away all of the nuances and physical ticks that make us human. With The Major, who is disconnected from her human body, the challenge for Johansson became “that split second when your brain is telling your robot body it’s doing something — what’s that like?”
However, with Ghost in the Shell, Johansson admitted, “I think I’ve pushed that genre as far as I can go.”
Ghost in the Shell hits theaters March 31, 2017.