Ghost in the Shell (2017) surprised me. It isn’t perfect, but it ended up being way better than I thought it would be. A lot of “hard-core” GitS fans were disappointed apparently, but, considering the quality of other film adaptations of anime, they were being unduly harsh.
One of the major complaints about Ghost in the Shell was the plot, which, when analyzing the structure of this iteration, is an origin story more than likely intended to set up a franchise and series. The “joys” of beginning a series of films surrounding a single character lies in the careful handling of the origin story. Though enjoyable to me, this particular plot runs the risk of being predictable, particularly due to the fact that quite a few superhero origin stories have proliferated in the past decade.
In my opinion, the origin story is no more or less predictable than any other kind of story because in a sense, all conflict and all tropes can be pared down to a handful of scenarios. For me, the journey is not so much the surprise but the details and the delicacy of how the characters are handled. This is probably why I am able to spoil myself for films and still be able to enjoy them immensely. Not everyone is like that, so the origin story can be a common pitfall for starting franchises.
That being said, I found the origin story of the Major to be particularly compelling and timely (more on this later). There were also homages to the original, particularly in design features of characters and in certain plot scenes.
The Lead Actress
There was more complaining about the main actress, but I found Scarlett Johansson to be a great choice for the character. I could see why she was chosen for the role.
First, Johansson is an A-list actress, who would bring the film into a higher profile for folks who don’t give a crap about anime or the Ghost in the Shell series. Her portfolio and years of experience allowed her to create a very convincing Major. How she walked and held her body was fascinatingly like a robot. Combined with her deadpan voice and petite physique, Johansson could sell the dangerous android.
Second, Scarlett Johansson is a very attractive actress. When it comes to selling sex, Hollywood has a difficult path to tread when it comes to female robots; they can’t use a hot Asian woman to sell the movie in case they look like they are referencing the long history of Asian women in the sex trade.
Third, Scarlett Johansson is a very active woman. Actresses open to the rigorous training required of stunts are rare with only a few names in the industry – Johansson, Seldana, and Lilly – dominating the active woman roles. In the past, we had Thurman and Jolie as well with great secondary performances by Bullock. However, in general, Asian actresses able to perform convincing stunts have been far and few in between – particularly if you include other necessary factors: A-list, attractive, AND fluent in English.
I am trying to think of some Asian actresses who would be up for the same rigorous performance which Johansson gave. The only option that immediately comes to mind is Rinko Kikuchi, who acted in Pacific Rim. Or the recently debut of Jessica Henwick (Iron Fist‘s Joy Wang), who is in fact not even pure Asian, certainly not Japanese.
One of the interesting things in the story is the amount of diversity in the cast. Reading through the cast list, it is apparent that they attempted to show the potential diversity of a future.
Major – Scarlett Johansson [Danish/Swedish American]
Chief Aramaki – Takeshi Kitano [Japanese]
Kuze – Michael Pitt [White (unknown) American]
Batou – Pilou Asbæk [Danish]
Togusa – Chin Han [Singaporean]
Dr. Ouelet – Juliette Binoche [French]
Cutter – Peter Fernando [White (unknown) British]
Motoko’s Mother – Kaori Momoi [Japanese]
Carlos Ishikawa – Lasarus Ratuere [unknown – Australia]
Ladriya – Danusian Samal [Middle Eastern]
Dr. Dahlin – Anamaria Marinca [Romanian]
Dr. Osmond – Michael Winnicott [White (unknown) Canadian]
Saito – Yutaka Izumihara [Japanese]
Borma – Tawanda Manyimo [African]
Skinny Man – Daniel Hensall [White (unknown) Australian]
Geisha robot – Rila Fukushima [Japanese]
Ambassador – Chris Obi [Nigerian British]
Lia – Adwoa Aboah [Ghanian British]
Tony – Pete Teo [Malaysian]
Data Host – Yuta Kazama [Japanese]
There are a few observations that can be made from looking at this list.
The white-washing claim is not 100% applicable. For one thing, there are other nationalities who are taking part in the film – Malaysians, Chinese, Africans, and Middle Easterners.
The majority of the white actors are part of a corrupt system. Dr. Ouelet, Cutter, Dr. Dahlin, Dr. Osmond, and the Skinny Man are antagonists (or at least placed in very questionable positions). The only two white people who are sympathetic are Kuze and Major (who are technically Japanese people stuck in white robotic bodies). This leaves Pilou Asbæk as the only “pure” white actor on set who is neither troubled with issues of corruption or unsanctioned violence. Dr. Ouelet is more sympathetic, but should remain as an emblem of the corrupt white technocracy.
Compared to Blade Runner 2049, the diversity of this cast is very encouraging. Think about how the critics raved about Blade Runner 2049 but not a peep about how there was a devastating lack of diversity considering the setting (California).
Furthermore, if you take a careful look at what they chose for each character, you could see how they couldn’t avoid going to non-Asian actors. After all, unless a ton of the Japanese cast was willing to shave their heads or whatever to wear wigs for some of the roles, we would have a situation similar to the recent film adaptation of Fullmetal Alchemist, which drove me nuts.
A White World?
Filmed in Hong Kong, the future of Asia looks incredibly diverse – and, considering the trajectories of the south of China and Hong Kong area, as well as Thailand and Malaysia, this future is not entirely unrealistic or far off. Although many sections of Asia (parts of Northern China, Japan, and South Korea) remain incredibly homogeneous, Asia is slowly opening up – willingly and unwillingly – to refugees, illegal immigrants, and international workers. I lived in China myself for nine and a half years, so I can say that China itself is striving to increase their international populations.
So, the future represented within Ghost in the Shell is not improbable. Neither is it unwanted. A strongly homogeneous population, whether it is white or coloured, lacks some of the spice that a multi-ethnic population has. My favourite trips outside of China were to places like Malaysia and Thailand, which offered multi-ethnic experiences.
It gets even more odd when you consider this possibility: Hollywood believes white-washing not only exists, but is a perpetuated symptom, pointing to an unspoken hegemony of white European-centric supremacy. Yet, at the same time, a film must be sold. So, the film-making corporations, which are essentially and necessarily amoral, promote a white actress because they think she’s more accessible and marketable. However, at the end of the day, since a white supremacy hegemony doesn’t ACTUALLY exist on a large scale within North America, the movie’s box office figures suffer due to cultural dislocation, misunderstood plot, or social justice smearing. After all, no one is going to watch a film widely panned no matter who Scarlett Johansson is, no matter how white or sexy she is.
Meanwhile, the Japanese authors and publishers support the casting choices, as well as the Japanese public, have applauded the casting choices. Apparently, the so-called victims of white-washing refuse to claim victimhood and cultural appropriation, and attempt to divide art from politics… while a CHINESE-AMERICAN actress (Agents of Shield) screams “white-washing”.
And why would a Chinese-American attempt to defend Japanese culture? I applaud her open-mindedness regarding Japan, but realistically speaking, no real Asian is super concerned with preserving and promoting cultures other than their own. Conflating Chinese Asian identity with Japanese Asian identity is dangerous and frankly impolite, since both cultures see themselves as being individual and separate.
As usual, it’s the Americanized minorities that confuse the issue as they fight battles for OTHER minorities who don’t really care or for minorities who aren’t necessarily their own. (It would be like a half-Dutch mixed with Irish and German descent standing up for Russian culture.)
A Chinese-American standing up for Japanese culture isn’t a bad thing, because overcoming the past is what immigration to North America is all about. I also believe there is a real problem in Hollywood in terms of representing Asians in general. However, the basis for this under-representation may not be actually related to racism, but other issues such as internal Asian societal expectations or the body image standards which standard American women prefer of their male counterparts (see the intercultural number deficits on the part of white American women dating Asian men). At any rate, as a result, people in the West are going to get the idea that Asia is just one unified mass of discontent, racial marginalization, or victimization when Asia is more than that.
The actual message of Ghost in the Shell (2017) defies the accusations of “white-washing” fundamentally. Within this film, corporations are demonized as corrupt entities which literally appropriate the body and soul. The faces of these corporations and systems are white people, who attempt to literally steal people (mostly Japanese runaways) off the street. Ghost in the Shell presents a picture of a future where the soul becomes property, and organic culture (as represented by the pagoda) are under attack. An attempt to erase organic, communal culture lies at the heart of the film – and gives the viewer a warning about how we ought to view humans and the soul.
The title “ghost in the machine” actually refers to a philosophical concept that explores mind-body relationships. Quite a few sci-fi and science fantasy stories from The Dark Tower series to The X-Files reference and explore this concept. Is the mind wholly separate from the body? To what extent is the mind and body intertwined and how do they inform each other? If the body is intrinsic to self-hood, Matoko has an eternal problem she must deal with, for her soul has been placed in a false container. Yet, at the end, Matoko’s final words suggest, in a typical sci-fi humanist fashion, that the human will triumphs.
My mind is human. My body is manufactured. I’m the first of my kind, but… I won’t be the last. We cling to memories as if they define us. But what we do defines us. My ghost survived to remind the next of us… that humanity is our virtue. I know who I am… and what I’m here to do.
At any rate, the representation of the body as product is roundly condemned in this film as is cultural and physical appropriation. Perhaps the critics of Ghost in the Shell had best actually take the time to seriously watch the film before criticizing it.
Viruses: A Narrative for Shifting Ideologies
Cutter refers to the Major’s change of mind and consequent rebellion as a “virus”. In a world where knowledge is power, where personal agency is threatened by corporations, and where information leads to freedom, it is no surprise to find ideologies represented as viruses which can infect the machine. In some ways, Cutter’s comment suggests that ideological viruses hijack not only the mind but the body. After all, our bodies literally embody the ideologies we accept.
I would posit that the ideology of “white-washing” is itself a virus ideology which has caught on in certain parts of America (and Canada). As a result of this virus, people behave in irrational ways like making accusations without information, speaking for others out of turn, virtue-signalling, and so on.
I could go on about how much I loved Lorne Balfe’s soundtrack, how stunning the visuals were, and how the remake of the original song by Steve Aoki just made me go “I NEED TO DOWNLOAD THIS NOW!”. Minimal swearing and minimal over-sexualization allowed me to enjoy this film fully. I felt that the Major was treated respectfully, particularly in regards to her relationship with Batou – platonic and based on respect.
In conclusion, I found that Ghost in the Shell, though lacking in some of the more substantive concepts found in the originals, is really not that bad for what it is. The message, lost to many, made me think quite a bit about how we are facing a world where robotics are becoming increasingly popular, conceptually-speaking – and where our technology may lead us.
It reminds me, to a certain extent of my Distortions in Time, where my re-imagined Loki has a familiar journey but his decisions are different because the chain of events are different. This Ghost in the Shell is similar – the Major is the same, yet not the same. She is asking different questions because she is not the same Major of the original films or the manga… but that doesn’t mean those questions shouldn’t be asked.