Is “Ghost in the Shell” an act of whitewashing? Is it the latest example of mega-budget Hollywood racism?
Well, yes and no. As always, a little context goes a long way, but in the case of this movie — a live-action cyberpunk epic sprung from an anime feature that derived from a Japanese manga series — the context keeps shifting depending upon where you stand.
So let’s take a walk around “Ghost in the Shell,” shall we? Only then might we be able to conclude that the new movie does what it does with a guilt-free conscience while managing to damn itself more than it knows.
(Note: There will be spoilers here. I’m not reviewing “Ghost in the Shell” — my fellow critic Peter Keough has already done that — but analyzing it as an object within a messy global pop marketplace.)
“Ghost in the Shell” began life as a 1989 Japanese action manga created by writer-artist Masamune Shirow. The story takes place in the 21st century, when technology has evolved to the point where almost all humans have cybernetic body modifications of some sort or another. The hero, a butt-kicking public security officer named Major Motoko Kusanagi, is almost entirely cyborg, her human brain and her soul — the “ghost in the shell” — housed within a prosthetic body that’s still hot enough to fuel the usual fanboy fantasies.
The setting is the fictional New Port City, which is Tokyo run through the “Blade Runner” machine, more or less, and the story line works well within the cyberpunk genre established in part by William Gibson’s 1984 “Neuromancer.” The 1995 anime feature film, directed by Mamoru Oshii, brings all those elements together into one very satisfying whole, with a stylish but doomy approach that’s darker than the manga yet more linear. Lots of action, an even more sexualized but all-business Major Motoko, and a plot about a mysterious Puppetmaster who can hack into people’s brains.
The movie was (and is) a classic of modern anime, so why would Hollywood want to mess with it? The obvious answer: money. The less obvious answer: a global film marketplace that remains addicted to Hollywood product as a de facto entertainment gold standard but that now consists of a voracious pan-Asian audience (among other consumer blocs) and fresh streams of international financing that the studios can exploit. Indeed, that the studios would be foolish from a business standpoint not to exploit.
A new American studio version of a classic Japanese anime film made with Chinese money (directed by a Brit and produced by an Israeli, no less) would seem like a no-brainer. This is what Hollywood does in the 21st century — finds established but dormant properties, pumps them up with cash, CGI, and movie stars, and sells them back to the world. And it works.
But for it to work properly, the property has to have its ethnicity diluted and its regionalism neutered. It has to be transformed from a Japanese movie into a “global” experience. And “global,” as far as the entertainment corporations are concerned, means Caucasian actors like Scarlett Johansson, who was tapped to play The Major.
Her casting was greeted with immediate ridicule and accusations of “whitewashing” — the accepted term for using a Western performer in a role of a different ethnicity. As regards Asians, it’s a venerable and shameful practice in Hollywood, as old as Charlie Chan (played by Swedish-American Warner Oland) and Mickey Rooney’s Mister Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and as modern as Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One in “Doctor Strange” and Emma Stone’s Chinese-Hawaiian-Swedish character in “Aloha.” There’s race-blind casting — and then there’s “yellowface.”
Still, there are arguments in favor of casting Johansson as the Major. She’s an established international A-list star and thus money in the bank, which is all anyone connected with “Ghost in the Shell” ultimately cares about. (Well, also that it be good enough to squeeze a few sequels out, maybe even a franchise.)
Manga and anime have always emphasized characters with round eyes, not because they “look Western” but because manga pioneer Osamu Tezuka (“Astro Boy”) felt it offered a greater range of expression; that said, the practice might seem to open the door for non-Asian performers. The publisher of the original manga and filmmaker Oshii have given Johansson’s casting the thumb’s up. (Story creator Shirow has been notably silent.) And, anyway, the Major is a cyborg — it doesn’t matter what she looks like so long as she’s bitchin’ and can fire off five rounds a second. Boobs and bullets, that is the name of this game, innit?
Perhaps. But there are arguments against the casting as well. Round eyes or no, “Ghost in the Shell” is a work steeped in Japanese pop culture, very much a product of the place in which it was made. There are countless Japanese actors with the acting skills, action skills, and sex appeal to take the role; what’s wrong with Rinko Kikuchi, who was Oscar nominated for “Babel” (2006) and has kicked futuristic butt in “Pacific Rim” (2013) and its upcoming sequel? Maybe if they’d cast her as the Major, she’d actually become an A-list international star. Or has a century of Hollywood stardom so colonized the planet that a non-Caucasian heroine is unthinkable even to non-Caucasian audiences?
Curiously, the new movie tries to have it both ways and ends up doubly wrong. As the Major, Johansson has been given a black-bob hairdo and a lot of black eyeliner in an attempt to make her look kinda Asian without compromising her bodacious Hollywood bona fides. The film still takes place in a “Blade Runner”-derived Japanese city of the future, and the star has been surrounded with a multiracial crew that includes the eccentric actor-director Takeshi Kitano as the Major’s chief. (For some reason, he speaks only in Japanese while other Japanese characters speak in halting English).
Here’s where we get into the spoilers and the weirdness. The drama in “Ghost in the Shell” revolves around issues of identity: If Major Mira Killian (as this movie calls her) is a brain in a manufactured body, who is (or was) she, really? Late in the film, we learn that her brain was not taken from an orphaned refugee, as she had always been told, but from a young Japanese anti-technology rebel killed by the film’s corporate CEO villain. (By the way: Why do all the bad guys in films made by entertainment conglomerates work for corporations? Discuss.) That Japanese rebel’s name was . . . Motoko Kusanagi.
In other words, the Japanese heroine of the original story has been literally killed off to make way for the internationally approved visage of Scarlett Johansson. And a movie that has been accused of whitewashing turns out to have as its narrative a surprisingly precise metaphor for whitewashing.
This might be fascinating if the filmmakers were aware of their own film’s double meaning, but the people responsible for the new “Ghost in the Shell” seem oblivious to anything but wowing the audience out of their money. Hollywood cultural imperialism: It’s a profit center that in this case has blinded everyone involved to the ghost in their own movie’s shell.