For those who don’t know, Ghost in the Shell is a Manga series by Japanese writer Masamume Shirow. Manga are Japanese comics, and this one was so popular that it inspired a 1995 anime film from director Mamoru Oshii. The basic premise is that a cyborg cop named Motoko Kusanagi is tasked with finding “The Puppetmaster”, who’s been hacking into people’s subconsciousness and replacing valid memories with invalid ones. Ultimately, Motoko confronts The Puppetmaster, chats with it and, reluctantly, agrees to a merger with its intellect.
Ghost in the Shell is both influenced by and has influenced Hollywood blockbusters in the late-20th Century. It incorporates its aesthetic and existentialist themes from Blade Runner, while it went on to influence the films Dark City and The Matrix. It’s as much a big deal directly in Japan as it is indirectly in the West, even if I’m, personally, not the biggest fan myself. So it should come as no surprise that there had been talks of a live-action remake for Western audiences for years. The fact that it took so long to come to fruition should be an indication that something was wrong, but add that the main character, a Japanese cyborg, was given to Scarlett Johansson, a white Jew, and you’re not helping.
Ignoring the comments made by Johansson, which I discussed here, about her casting, a recent trailer uncovered that her name had been changed from Motoko to Mira to accommodate the ethnicity change. That’s already bad enough, but the cherry on the top is a piece from this website that had this to say about the 15 minute preview shown in theatres:
“From the sneak peak footage I saw, it looks the Major is originally Japanese. Let me explain. It appears that the character is in a nearly fatal accident. This accident causes her body to be rendered useless, but her brain is the only thing that can be salvaged. So this Japanese woman whose brain is recovered is transferred into a body, or Shell, that just happens to be Scarlett Johannson’s new body. Now her name is ‘Mira.’
Ignoring the misspelling of Johansson’s last name, this should alarm you. I even criticized this on my Facebook page:
This is horrifying.
The ‘yellow face’ comments hold merit because there is a scene that shows Mira awakening in her new body. That particular shot is suspect as Johannson looks… well… Asian. Even the cut of her eyebrows makes me side eye. However, nothing about the Major has ever screamed WHITE WOMAN. That is in the imagination of people who default to whiteness.”
“I've already written about this a few times for Infinite Rainy Day, but this news makes me want to vomit. Whitewashing is already a problem as is in Hollywood, but how is THIS okay?!”For those who still aren’t convinced that this is a problem, allow me to divulge some history:
Western media has had a history of racism. This is because of European civilization’s roots of imperialism and subjugation, and art tends to reflect societal trends. One need not look further than Oliver Twist and The Merchant of Venice for examples of this, but even in more recent decades racial stereotyping via white people, or “whitewashing”, is a big problem. It permeates almost every form of narrative and non-narrative art in some capacity, to the point where it’s become an occupational hazard.
The issues of whitewashing have started being challenged in recent years as society has moved toward globalization. The concept of there being other cultures and races worth exploring and respecting is increasingly becoming commonplace, and minority perspectives and voices are starting to be heard more and more frequently. One of the side-effects of this global voice is the demand for proper representation in art. Because, and let’s face it, whitewashing isn’t really about only whiteness.
Which leads me back to Johansson’s casting. In my second piece on Ghost in the Shell for Infinite Rainy Day, I mentioned that Johansson being unable to recognize harmful, marginalizing behaviour is unbecoming considering that she was chastised for advertising SodaStream, an Israeli company, during the Super Bowl a few years back. Her inability to reciprocate sensitivity was disappointing and hypocritical, and I expected better from her. Looking back, my critique should’ve really been directed at the studio higher-ups. Because while Johansson may not be guiltless, she’s not the real problem.
For those still unsure why this is an issue, I’ll use an easy equivalency: see this picture? Notice how it sends off negative vibes about Jews? What if a movie were made depicting Jewish culture, and the main character was a gentile dressed up in such stereotypical attire? Wouldn’t you be insulted?
That’s basically what Ghost in the Shell is doing for people of Japanese origin, except it’s not as direct. Motoko Kusanagi, or Mira, is behaving and acting like a Japanese woman despite being white, a fact not helped by inheriting the brain of a comatose, Japanese woman after an accident. On its own, this wouldn’t be a bad idea, especially since body-swapping is common in fiction and leads to excellent existentialism, but the fact that one culture is being completely absorbed by another is where the line gets drawn. Especially when the absorbing culture has a history of dominance.
It’s not even like this is being played up as satire. That would’ve been troubling, but at least the biting commentary could’ve somewhat softened the horrors of the core concept. Sadly, it would’ve required effort, and Ghost in the Shell is too busy aping the Jason Bourne and Total Recall movies to actually care. So it’s not only lazy in its appropriation, it’s lazy in its lack of self-awareness. That’s actually more scary than a simple case of whitewashing.
I don’t want to be unfair to this movie. It was in production limbo for a long time, and it’s been fraught with difficulties every step of the way. It also, judging by its aesthetic, is trying to copy the look of the original material, something anime-to-Hollywood adaptations in the past haven’t attempted. Not to mention, it’s visually arresting. It’s merely a shame that its core premise and writing are so incredibly tone-deaf, as we could’ve had a success story had someone given a damn.
And yes, I don’t think the movie will be good, which might make feeling bitter somewhat less frustrating, but the aforementioned should still terrify you. Because it terrifies me enough to write about it here, and isn’t that what really matters?