Posted on Tuesday, April 4th, 2017 by Karen Han
The live action Ghost in the Shell has been the eye of a storm of controversy ever since its inception. It’s been accused of whitewashing due to the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the franchise’s protagonist, Major Motoko Kusanagi, as well as deeply unpleasant rumors that CGI had been used to alter an actor’s appearance to “shift [their] ethnicity.” Coming on the heels of similar controversies (Doctor Strange, Iron Fist) and discussion, the conversation around it (arguments that the movie speaks for itself when it comes to the casting controversy, that the movie’s visuals are merit enough to disregard the problems inherent in it) only seems more tone-deaf, especially considering how those problems stack up.
The Major(’s) Issues
By this time, you’ve probably either already seen the movie, or heard of what the “twist” is. In case you haven’t: Scarlett Johansson plays Major Mira Killian, purportedly the first of her kind as a cyborg with a human brain and a robotic body. As the movie progresses, she begins experiencing “glitches” that hint at her past life. She discovers that she is, in fact, Motoko Kusanagi, a young Japanese woman who ran away from home and was subsequently abducted by Hanka Robotics. This comes to light in a sequence in which she meets Motoko’s mother, played by Kaori Momoi, and the film ends with the both of them at Kusanagi’s grave as Mira tells her that she doesn’t need to mourn anymore, and claims her identity as simply “Major.” There’s a double-whammy there too, as Kuze, Michael Pitt’s character, turns out to be another instance of a Japanese brain in a white body as well. (He was once “Hideo,” as revealed when he and Mira find their “original” names carved — in English — into a wooden post.)
More than anything else, the fact that this finagling exists suggests that there was some level of awareness on the part of the filmmakers that this was a problem. This in turn begs the question of why the story wasn’t either adapted to make Major white from the get-go, or go deep on the identity politics of such a change. The last example of something explicitly similar I can think of is the villain in Die Another Day, in which a North Korean soldier undergoes extensive surgery in order to become a white man. That reveal, too, lands like a lead balloon, though the unexplored implication is clearer: it was easier to get around as a white man. The best argument that can be made for Ghost in the Shell is that no one would recognize Motoko post-procedure, but even then, it’s not convincing. Not all Asian people look alike, after all.
It’s made explicitly clear that Kusanagi was Japanese, which throws Johansson’s comments on the character’s search for her identity ring untrue. When Mira discovers Motoko, the revelation is just a blip before she decides to just call herself “Major” instead. There’s no reconciliation between her heritage and former politics with her current work and new appearance, itself already an easy hook for more extensive discussion given the way Western beauty standards are omnipresent in the East — plastic surgery is the norm in East Asia, specifically with the intent of conforming to Western standards. Women add folds to their eyelids, change the slopes of their noses, even shave bone from their skulls to alter the lines of their chins. Then there’s the fact that Kusanagi’s identity, despite being the crux of the movie, is boiled down just to her name. In the flashbacks scattered throughout the movie, Motoko’s face — despite the actual casting of a Japanese actress, Kaori Yamamoto — is either obscured or blurred out. In that sense, maybe Johansson can get away with saying that she would never attempt to play a character of a different race; the Japanese names and characters in this movie are all tokens, lip service and surface ways of justifying using a Japanese property while erasing evidence of its origin.
Trouble in Section 9
This general sense of tokenism extends to the rest of the cast, too. There’s been much made of the “diversity” in the movie, but how much does that count for when every character of color could be excised from the narrative without any serious cost to the story or to the running time? Chin Han and Itaka Izumihara, as Togusa and Saito, are non-presences, and while the legendary “Beat” Takeshi Kitano has the best material in the movie as Section Chief Aramaki, he isn’t actually given that much to do. Nothing in the story would really change if Aramaki were simply cut out.
Then there’s the quandary brought up by the fact that Aramaki is the only character in the movie to speak Japanese in a city still relatively coded as Japanese. This makes it clear that everyone speaking English isn’t just a byproduct of the movie being an American production or that the movie needed to avoid subtitles, and as far as context goes, that the characters aren’t just comprehending via cyber implants (other languages — including French — still sound like other languages, they aren’t all folded together). Takeshi speaks in subtitled Japanese, and the other characters understand him perfectly, all the while still responding in English. Similarly, Aramaki is also the character whose behavior, outfit, and accessories (his gun holster has an illustration of a samurai stamped into it) are most directly coded to (perceived) Japanese culture.