Two Asian-American Women Discuss the “Ghost in the Shell” movie

After years of controversy about casting Scarlett Johansson in the Dreamworks/Paramount live action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, the film opened this month to lackluster reviews and poor box office numbers due to moviegoers’ frustrations with the whitewashing of its main character (Major Motoko Kusanagi/Mira Killian). Dawn Xiana Moon and Michi Trota share their differing takes on the film from the perspective of two Asian-American women with a fondness for the 1995 anime.

Michi: I was a bright eyed college freshman when I saw the original Ghost in the Shell anime. We rented a beat-up VHS (subtitled, not dubbed) from Tower Records in Boston (RIP), and crowded into my teeny dorm room to watch the movie on my old 27” tube TV.

Even though I’m sure I missed a lot of the finer details and subtext, I still remember being struck by the deep philosophical questions about humanity, individual identity, and technology that GitS attempted to tackle. Not only was it hauntingly beautiful (and at times viscerally disturbing) to watch, the story wove a complex dialog about the boundaries between humanity and technology, and where individuality begins and ends.

While Motoko is the main character, the 1995 GitS isn’t so much about her individual journey as it is about what insights her journey reveals about the nature of humanity in a world where technology can either augment or replace not only the human body, but the human mind as well. The result is an unsettling and challenging spectacle that clearly resonated with audiences for over 20 years.

By flipping the story to focus on Mira’s (Motoko) individual journey to awareness, Paramount’s adaptation of GitS manages to strip away everything that made the original so appealing, exchanging it for yet another banal — but visually gorgeous — revenge story about a hero done wrong by an evil organization. Mira’s mysterious past turns out to be a fabrication, and the antagonist she’s hunting down turns out to be another victim of corporate malfeasance and unethical science, rather than an artificial mind that wishes for human mortality. In short order, Mira and her team have no choice but to go rogue in order to find the truth and get justice.

It’s a story that we’ve seen countless times before, one that’s particularly Western in its focus on the triumph of rugged individualism. Multiple shots of Johansson stoically staring into the distance and musing about how “different” and “lonely” she feels in a cybernetic body aren’t nearly enough to convey larger themes of technology’s effect on the humanity and the concept of individuality.

By making Mira unique in her ability to have a fully integrated human mind in a cybernetic body (this wasn’t the case in the 1995 anime, where there were others like her), as well as her retaining her individual identity rather than merging with Kuze (Motoko chose to merge with the Puppet Master), any questions about the nature of humanity and how our evolution may be affected by our relationship with technology is virtually absent in this version of GitS, much to the film’s detriment.

It’s adding insult to the injury that is Paramount’s whitewashing of Motoko by not only re-casting her as a white woman, Scarlett Johansson, in a particularly wooden performance, but by also literally making whitewashing the root of Mira’s story. Mira was originally a young Japanese dissident woman, named Motoko Kusanagi, in what was clearly Paramount’s attempt at a clever nod to the original but comes off as especially condescending, who was taken by a greedy white corporate mogul and white scientist so that her brain could be transplanted into a cybernetic body, a successful merging of technology and flesh that heralds the next evolution of humanity.

Naturally, that cybernetic body wears the face of a white woman. In effect, it’s pulling a Reverse Psylocke on Motoko/Mira, a narrative choice that’s breathtaking in its blatant ignorance of white supremacy and cultural context. This same whitewashed fate was presumably forced upon Kuze, the other major character, as well, whose current body wears a white face but whose mind originally belonged to a young man named Hideo.

This choice to have people of color living within white bodies poisons the entire film, because there’s no escaping the subtext that even in this futuristic world where miraculous things are possible, the culmination of human evolution apparently wears a white face with a mind that’s been wiped of her ethnic identity. If the aim of the story was to comment on how white supremacy abuses POC bodies and twists our minds to idealize and internalize whiteness out of a sense of entitlement to our entire selves, it missed. Horribly. Instead, GitS’s narrative is the concept of how “not seeing race” always defaults to “white” writ large.

It’s all a damn shame because aesthetically, GitS is beautifully rendered, full of glorious futuristic neon signs and holographic 3D ads amidst shining towers of metal and glass, with subtle callbacks to dystopian science fiction classics like Bladerunner. Seeing the film in IMAX 3D certainly enhanced those visuals and the 3D was seamlessly integrated. The action sequences are perfectly serviceable, and the visuals of Kuze’s broken and exposed cybernetic form, juxtaposed against Mira’s smooth and seamless body, manage to evoke that same feeling of discomfort and Otherness that permeated the original anime (the scene in which Kuze removes part of Mira’s cybernetic face is chillingly rendered). Batou (Pilou Asbæk) and Chief Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano) were absolutely delightful, Aramaki in particular – Johansson could learn a lot from Kitano about how microexpressions actually work.

But for all its visual splendor, whitewashing and Orientalism are irredeemably at the heart of GitS. While the setting is still supposed to be a futuristic Japanese city, and there are Asians and other POC seen on Mira’s team and in the city, there’s no ignoring that the majority of the principal players in this story are all white: Mira, Kuze, Dr. Ouelet, Cutter, even Batou. Stripped of the specific cultural context of Japanese society’s reinvention of itself post-WWII and its resulting unique relationship with technology, this incarnation of GitS’s narrative about corporate malfeasance and stolen identity is, pardon the pun, a mere ghost of the original.

The insistence that GitS needed to be funneled through an American lens with a bankable (read: white) star, despite the popularity of the original that made it a tantalizing property in the first place, leaves the unmistakable stench of “We like your stuff, just not you” that has permeated so many offerings from Hollywood for decades, not just in the last few months (although Doctor Strange, Great Wall, Iron Fist, and Death Note immediately come to mind).

It’s one more reminder that Asians & Asian Americans are Other, that we’re expendable, and once white supremacy has taken what it wants from us, our erasure on the altar of Orientalism is still an acceptable practice in American media. Let me be clear, because apparently there’s still a temptation to avoid acknowledging that whitewashing (not “controversy” or “claims” about whitewashing) is a problem in this movie: Ghost in the Shell failed because whitewashing IS bad writing. And all the gorgeous visuals and well-choreographed action sequences in the world aren’t worth overlooking that fact anymore — if they ever were worth it. Ultimately, the choice to whitewash Motoko and GitS’s narrative itself tanked what could have otherwise been an enjoyable, if pedestrian, B-level movie.

Michi’s Verdict: Give it a hard pass and just treat yourself to a rewatch of the 1995 anime instead. For bonus points, try Jennifer Phang’s brilliant Advantageous for a masterful examination of technology, individual identity, and family sacrifice.

 

Dawn: I was surprised: I didn’t hate Ghost in the Shell.

Granted, the bar was low.

As an audience member, I never want to hate the thing I’m watching – I’d rather spend my time supporting art that challenges, that inspires, that connects. As an Asian-American and critic, I was fully prepared to hate Ghost in the Shell. After two years of controversy and months of ever-more-ludicrous news about Scarlett Johansson’s character – her name is Major, no, it’s Mira, but don’t worry, Johansson would never “attempt to play a person of a different race” – and slogging through 13 episodes of Orientalism and awful writing in recently-released Iron Fist, I expected a disaster. To my surprise, I didn’t find one. What I found was a very Hollywood retelling of a very Japanese story, with all the mixed results that entails.

I was born in Singapore, where the population is 80% ethnically Chinese. We have ethnic minorities there too – the country has four national languages. When I started kindergarten, I was surrounded by media that looked like me – Chinese women were featured in ads, television shows, music, and film. When I moved to Michigan at the age of five, I was a foreigner – growing up, I remember how notable it was to see any variety of Asian, let alone Chinese-Americans in anything. These days it’s still rare: a study from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism noted that of the top 100 films in 2015, not a single one featured an Asian lead. Half the films didn’t even have an Asian character.

Given all of these things, Asian representation in Hollywood carries a very different weight in Asia than it does in the US. Asians in Asia – who, one must remember, aren’t a monolith – watch Hollywood films and expect them to be white because America is white (obviously, this impression isn’t entirely reflective of reality, but it’s one that the media we export supports). Asians in Asia aren’t looking to Hollywood to make sense of themselves or their stories – they have media that performs that function already, and if they’re part of the group that is the majority in their country, they’re used to being dominant. That’s why Ghost in the Shell creator Mamoru Oshii can make statements saying, “There is no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray [the Major].”

Asian-Americans, on the other hand, aren’t reflected in Asian media or American media – we don’t exist. Our stories aren’t told. We’re desperate to be seen, to be treated as something more than invisible. Hollywood whitewashing hurts us because we never see ourselves reflected as fully-realized people. Which leads to us forgetting that we can be fully-realized people.

If Ghost in the Shell was created in a vacuum, the story of a cyborg wrestling with her humanity and uniqueness would have felt generic, but serviceable enough to gird stunning visual effects, cinematography, and art direction. Director Rupert Sanders and team clearly did their homework – so many shots here were lovingly crafted recreations of shots from the 1995 anime, and the film is beautiful.

Within the confines of the film, the fact that Major Mira Killian turns out to be a memory-suppressed Motoko Kusanagi, now a young, dissident runaway rather than the lifelong special ops police officer of the anime, is a twist that recalls Robocop, and one that highlights the fact that the Major’s robotic body is owned by an evil corporation intent on using her, regardless of consent. It’s not a particularly creative story, but it works.

However, art – even pop art – does not exist in a vacuum.

Context matters. And in context, the entire plot of Ghost in the Shell is a justification for casting a white actress in a Japanese role. It’s as though the story was a direct response to the criticism levied from both the fan and Asian-American communities: “We had to cast a white actress, but it’s OK because it’s important to the story and look, she’s actually Japanese underneath!”

Similarly, the attitude of the Hollywood version changes dramatically from the 1995 anime. Hollywood is concerned with fast pacing, quick cuts, and, like American society, individuality. The Major’s story here is that of a single woman wrestling with what it means to be the only one of her kind, and whether being a cyborg makes her human or not; Hanaka Robotics wants to protect her as an investment, as property, because she’s the first successful experiment in putting a human brain into a cybernetic body. She’s crafted to be a weapon.

The anime, on the other hand, like the society it comes from, is more interested in collective identity – the Major is one of many, and putting a “ghost” into a “shell” isn’t unusual. As a rule, Asian societies think more communally than Western ones – they’re more concerned about families and countries than they are about individuals. Thus the anime is more philosophical: “Overspecialize,” it says, “and you breed weakness.” Evolution is necessary, and many parts are needed to make a whole that thrives. The anime also asks what constitutes sentient life, what the implications are for society when technology makes renders bodies interchangeable. Can a machine have a soul?

Dawn’s Verdict: Viewed charitably, the live action adaptation was a typical Hollywood blockbuster set in a meticulously-crafted cyberpunk world. Viewed more harshly, the film borrows the trappings of the 1995 anime but loses its soul. It’s as though the filmmakers kept the shell, but switched the ghost.