Inner Universe: ‘Ghost in the Shell’ and Whitewashing

Note: There are open spoilers here, though they’re an open secret at this point. Plus, I think it’d be a good idea to learn about this stuff before you go about giving money to a thing that has what we’ll call a “concerning racial perspective” (and given its box office returns, you probably aren’t anyway).

If you’re reading this essay, chances are you know a little bit about the 2017 Ghost in the Shell movie’s whitewashing controversy. It’s pretty much the only reason we talk about it — the film seems to exist solely as an Americanized adaptation of Mamoru Oshii’s Japanese classic, where we don’t discuss what it does as a distinct entity so much as what it changes and what it keeps from the original. Which seems unfair. But as a distinct entity, it’s a clunky, unremarkable, somewhat pretty action movie, and it doesn’t much present itself as a distinct entity in the first place. Though the plot is original, director Rupert Sanders recreates many of Oshii’s scenes, some of them shot-for-shot in ways that will surely look unflattering come the inevitable YouTube comparison video. The credits even roll over the anime’s iconic screeching chorus. And in this context, the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi (here renamed Mira Killian) feels all the more incongruous. In spite of it all, producer Steven Paul rejects accusations of whitewashing, and he does more than reject them; he’s pretty sure that seeing the movie will clear things up for people. He told Buzzfeed News, “They’re going to be very, very happy with it when they see what we’ve actually done with it, and I don’t think anybody’s going to be disappointed.”

I am disappointed.

On an aesthetic level, you can tell a lot by each film’s differing approach. Oshii’s film carries an air of disrepair. Of grime. The cities are dirty and cramped and rusted, easy to mistake for post-apocalyptic if not for the crowds. The sun is rare, clouds not so much. You get the sense that technology spread like a virus, that the world struggled to adapt and still isn’t quite used to the idea; human minds have become data inside cybernetic/cybernetically-enhanced bodies at alarming risk of being rearranged or rewritten. Memories can be altered or swapped out entirely to reconfigure who you are, and the sad part is that you might even be happier that way.

Sanders goes for gleaming futurism, segmenting the grime off into slums that won’t obstruct a cityscape beset by neon and massive looping hologram-ads that’s tinted a clean blue-and-white-and-gray. You still see people do things like flip up the skin where their eyes should be to reveal plugs, but it lacks the environmental foreboding that makes it feel uncomfortable. In addition to the prettiness of it all, Sanders indulges in the kind of slow-motion that recalls Zack Snyder. And like Snyder,  Sanders is drawn to the surface aesthetics, to what looks cool, even if he doesn’t seem to understand the larger thrust of the cool source material— just look at how his film repeats many of Oshii’s vital questions about identity, memory, and individuality verbatim yet out-of-context and out-of-place in a breathless, standard action plot. Sort of like how kids will repeat what an adult says not because they get the full meaning but because an adult said it.

Ghost in the Shell 2017 (I hate that I have to distinguish between these two now) has little to say for itself, and it has even less to say about whitewashing (though perhaps more than you’d expect). We assume that although the Major is a brain in a robot body, she probably used to look somewhat like Scarlett Johansson — after all, what would be the point of changing her? Cue the plot twist: once Hanka Robotics, the corporation that built her, turns out to be a bit shady in the way all cyberpunk corporations seem to be, the Major seeks out her true past behind Hanka’s lies. Up the stairs in a grubby apartment complex, she comes face-to-face with an older Asian woman. The woman invites her in, where next to the table where they drink tea is a room still dedicated to her missing-but-presumed-dead daughter, Motoko. Guess who the Major reminds her of.

If GITS17 poorly engages with those themes of identity/memory/individuality/technology-run-amok, it at least brings them up. They are allowed to remain as capital-T Themes, but race exists only as a cheap plot twist. Hanka Robotics appears to be a rather white corporation (white CEO, white scientists, white cyborgs), and yet there’s no attempt to explore what it means for them to erase Asians from public view and stick them in white bodies. Why Asians? Why make them white? What does that say about society viewing white as the default, as the most beautiful, as the higher standard of humanity that being a powerful cyborg implies? The film isn’t interested in these questions — it’s only interested in mining race at a surface level to get a gasp out of the audience and underscore just how different the Major used to be. After all, what’s more different than someone of another race? Asians are not good enough to headline GITS17 or make up its central Theme; they’re only useful as fodder for a plot twist.

Worse, the film exploits this fact that Asians and other minorities are viewed as the Other, the very engine by which they are deemed unrelatable to a white audience and thus unfit to lead a prospective Hollywood blockbuster like Ghost in the Shell, without even involving Asians in the process. As an Asian-American, I wanted to support GITS17 because, though I disagreed with Scarlett Johansson’s casting, the film had Asian actors in other roles — Kaori Momoi as Motoko’s mother, Chin Han as Togusa, Yutaka Izumihara as Saito, the great Takeshi Kitano as Chief Aramaki. That’s a lot of Asians for Hollywood. Turns out, they’re peripheral at best; the key players, the Major and Kuze and Batou and Dr. Ouelet and Cutter, are all white (Aramaki makes out okay but he’s noticeably fifth or sixth banana here in terms of importance, if not screentime). Chin Han gets like three scenes. Saito has one line, and before he gave it I thought they left him out of the movie. And the film even goes out of its way to obscure the faces of the Asian actors cast to play Major and Kuze (who underwent a similar process) before they were abducted and stuffed inside white people. The decision is meant to show they’re not the same people they used to be, but in practice it only further marginalizes the Asians cast in the film; they are a race, not faces.

There’s a scene at the end of the movie where the Major stands on a rooftop, giving her superhero-esque epilogue monologue about how she’s accepted who she is, as some weird amalgam of Motoko Kusanagi (her name as an Asian) and Mira Killian that’s now just “Major.” This after a scene where she stands over the gravestone of Motoko Kusanagi and walks over to her mother, tells her “you don’t have to come here anymore.” For as much as GITS17 fumbles its various metaphors in the adaptation process, this new one comes across quite clearly: Johansson stands over the grave of Kusanagi, the Asian, and nudges her mother, the audience, to move on. “Get over it,” the film says. She’s accepted herself as someone who transcends racial boundaries into something bold, something new, and so, too, should we. Of course, the character who transcends those boundaries still has the face of a white person, and in this way the film becomes the living embodiment of that person you know who insists they don’t see race and neither should you/society.

There has, as usual, been pushback, a rush to defend the system that tells predominantly white stories. People insist that Johansson’s casting makes sense in-universe, that this is not the film to pick a fight with. It’s true that Oshii’s GITS95 never specifies a race for the Major — Motoko Kusanagi is an assumed name (one key point Sanders/the screenwriters get wrong is the fakeness of the name “Kusanagi,” which sounds great to English speakers but is the name of a mythological/maybe-real Japanese sword and therefore you’re about as likely to encounter a Kusanagi as you are, say, a barista called Billy Mjölnir). It’s also true that Oshii came out in support of Johansson with pretty much this exact argument. However, Oshii speaks as a Japanese filmmaker, and it probably goes without saying that Japan, an Asian country, has few issues with Asian representation. So, the question: given the few opportunities available to Asians in Hollywood, if they can’t even get cast as the lead of an anime adaptation, what can they lead?

Furthermore, even if we ignore the Asian-as-hell setting that makes Kusanagi’s ethnicity an easy contextual guess, the argument of what makes sense “in-universe” means very little for Asians getting roles in Hollywood; instead, it means placing equal emphasis on Asian representation and the written excuse for their continued absence. People will accept one or the other. And because of how fluid the adaptation process is, because of how easy it is for writers to shift/insert things that justify the casting of a white actor, there will always be excuses. Films where the casting doesn’t make sense in-universe end up less as targets of justified outrage than scripts that lack the right excuse. The idea of what makes sense “in-universe” becomes just another obstacle for minorities, a club to bludgeon them with when they step out of line as docile consumers.

The villain of GITS17, Hanka Robotics, takes Asians and places them in white bodies. The script cynically uses race to contrast who the Major used to be and who she is now, to underscore the invasive nature of the procedure — Hanka fundamentally changes who she is. It is a dehumanizing process in every sense of the word. I submit another symbol at work here: Hanka Robotics represents the people who made this film.

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