It began, as most controversies on the Internet often do, with a photo. The news of Scarlett Johansson’s casting in the lead role of in Rupert Sander’s live-action interpretation of Ghost in the Shell had been announced as early as January 2015, but it wasn’t until the first press photo of the production had been released that the vocal outrage at the casting choice swelled to a fever-pitch.
It’s a photo that’s become ubiquitously tied with the film, the locus of an ongoing debate surrounding Hollywood’s troubling history of ethnic typecasting and racial preference. In it Johansson is seen touting a black-dyed bob with purple corkscrew bangs, the collar of her bomber jacket hiked, staring intensely into a reflective surface. The likeness is unmistakable to a generation of anime fans who grew up alongside the film at turn of the century. A resemblance that inspires an uncanny disturbance. The initial shock eventually subsides, the grim reality of the situation quickly coming into an unflinchingly sharp focus.
Major Motoko Kusanagi was going to be played by a white woman.
(Warning: Spoilers for Ghost in the Shell ahead).
Masamune Shirow’s manga The Ghost in the Shell was released in 1989, right at the tail end of what many would describe as the first generation of ‘cyberpunk’. A story of high-tech speculative fiction born out of Japan’s then-booming bubble economy, Ghost in the Shell was the story of Major Motoko Kusanagi, the cyborg leader of a domestic cybercrime task-force called Section 9, who contends with futuristic criminals all the while struggling with her identity as a human brain housed inside of an artificial "shell." Though well-received, it wasn’t until the release of Mamoru Oshii’s anime adaptation in 1995 that Ghost in the Shell became recognized outside Japan. Riding on the initial wave of home media which brought anime to the west, the film went on to become a word-of-mouth classic among first-generation anime fans, earning a reputation as a "serious"example of the medium’s potential, eventually weaving itself into the DNA of Hollywood’s action aesthetic through its influence on such directors as James Cameron and The Wachowski Sisters.
Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell is sacrosanct among a generation of artists, writers, animators, and filmmakers who witnessed anime’s ascendency as a cultural export, so naturally when fans caught wind that the Major, a character traditionally coded as a Japanese woman working at the behest of a Japanese domestic terrorism unit, was being played by the unambiguously non-asian Scarlett Johansson, to put it bluntly: they started freaking the fuck out.
“I don’t think it was just a Japanese story. Ghost in the Shell was a very international story,” producer Steven Paul said to Buzzfeed in response to the accusations of whitewashing in the wake of the photo’s release. Avi Arad, co-producer and founder of Marvel Studios, responded in kind, “Everything we pulled from the movie is because we thought it was cool. What was interesting about Ghost in the Shell is that it was never really a predictive future. It was more about […][provoking] a feeling in the audience. That’s guided design [...] That’s the same kind of philosophy in this movie.”
Even Oshii came to the defense of Johansson’s casting, speaking to IGN, “What issue could there possibly be with casting her? The name 'Motoko Kusanagi' and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray her. I can only sense a political motive from the people opposing it, and I believe artistic expression must be free from politics.”
As the lead up to the live-action film’s release drew closer, the series’ fanbase began to draw lines. On one side were fans that felt that the effort to adapt Ghost in The Shell into a live-action movie was misplaced, while others hewed to apoliticism and colorblindness, prioritizing the film’s adherence to the aesthetic of the original above all else. News later began to percolate that the name of Johansson’s character was Mira Killian, not Motoko Kusanagi, and so it seemed that one aspect of the debate had been settled. Ghost in the Shell had been whitewashed, Motoko Kusanagi was now Mira Killian. The film, however, had another surprise in mind.
Rupert Sander’s Ghost in the Shell did not whitewash the original. What it did was much worse.
In the third act of the live-action Ghost in the Shell film, it is revealed that Mira Killian’s identity is not in fact Mira Killian, but rather that of a woman named Motoko Kusanagi who was abducted and experimented on along with ninety-eight other victims to create the perfect weapon. This is grotesque, for two reasons. The first is that this purposefully contorts the film’s narrative to serve the awful motivations behind Scarlett Johansson’s casting, not the other way around, prioritizing the film’s aesthetic with her presence above all else, and the other is that this revelation is a horrifying microcosm of the film itself. To reiterate: A Japanese woman was kidnapped, her brain harvested and planted into a caucasian “shell”, and her memory erased and rewritten to make her more docile and compliant. How then is that any different than the live-action Ghost in the Shell, taking the aesthetic and premise of a Japanese sci-fi series and rearranging those elements within the body of a feature-length frankenstein of a film, erasing the story’s significance as a distinctly Japanese text in lieu of a more “International” perspective?
In a sense, Rupert Sanders and company are not unlike the film’s own Secretary Cutter and Hannka Robotics, sacrificing the integrity of a beloved franchise at the altar of progress and profit.
Steven Paul’s attempt to insulate the film against accusations of whitewashing under the auspices of the 1995 original being quote, “a very international story," there’s a world of difference between a film’s themes, story, and characters having a “universal” appeal and a concentrated effort to rebrand a culturally-centric narrative as a polyethnic parable in which to couch one’s bad decisions under the umbrella of faux-progressivism. To Avi Arad’s point that the original Ghost in the Shell was “never really [about] a predictive future”, he is half-correct. Ghost in the Shell wasn’t a story about the future, it was a story about the present.
Oshii’s film embodied the raison d'etre of cyberpunk as a whole, which was to examine the dichotomy and interdependence between “high tech” and “low life” on the cusp of the 21st century. Though it took place in the year 2029, the referent of the film’s aesthetic was rooted in our world, in the claustrophobia of Hong Kong and technologic sprawl of Tokyo at the apex of an economic renaissance in its last throes. The new Ghost in the Shell’s brand of cyberpunk, which refuses to engage meaningfully at all with its present, is to crib influences gauged only by their relative “coolness”, is to recapitulate a shallow aesthetic bred from a critical misunderstanding of a time and place, the dated fetishization of “Cool Japan” rearing its ugly head once again in the year 2017. Finally, and unfortunately, attention must turn to Oshii himself.
Mamoru Oshii’s influence on the course of anime and cinema is uncontestable. And though his word carries a tremendous weight with regard to his endorsement of Sander’s Ghost in the Shell, his argument makes no sense. With all due respect to Oshii, and there is much respect to be paid due, there is no such thing as a truly apolitical artwork. Especially not in the case of Ghost in the Shell. To argue that the world of Ghost in the Shell, a world in which Russia has annexed a territory of the United States in the wake of the country’s balkanization at the conclusion of two world wars that secured Japan as a sole technological superpower, is so tepid of a defense as to be laughable. The choice to cast Scarlett Johansson as the Major and construct a premise of multiculturalism to legitimize her presence is a calculated intersection of art and politics. Even Oshii’s own film is shaped by politics and ideology, describing in the film’s opening epigraph a world where although the pace of computerization has accelerated, the human phenomenon of nations and ethnic groups still persists. For Oshii to argue that “artistic expression must be free from politics” while drawing from those beliefs as fodder for his own work is a textbook example of the author protesting too much.
All that said, Oshii is unequivocally right on one point. In order for Ghost in the Shell to continue to grow and evolve, the franchise must become bigger than any one director. What should remain is the series’ worldview, "to question what sort of society will be born from the close interaction of man and technology, and how that will transform human existence." Every prior iteration of Ghost in the Shell was born out of this sentiment. The new film’s hurried and haphazard reenactment of a decade’s worth of scenes, while contributing little next to nothing new itself, is poor imitation at best and cynically calculated pandering at its worst. In the words of the Major herself, “If we all reacted the same way, we'd be predictable, and there's always more than one way to view a situation. What's true for the group is also true for the individual. It's simple: Overspecialize, and you breed in weakness. It's slow death.”