The 2017 film “Ghost in the Shell,” directed by Rupert Sanders, was initially thought by critics to be destined for box-office success. However, the film pulled in a meager 19 million dollars on a 110 million dollar budget, and received a 46 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. After all, the popularity of the original source material pretty much guaranteed a dedicated audience, and a big name like Scarlett Johansson locked down Marvel fans who may not have been as familiar with the project, right?
The original “Ghost in the Shell” manga was published from April 1989 to November 1990 by Masamune Shirow. The story is set in mid-21st century Japan, in a world where the popularity of cybernetic enhancements opens the public up to hacking and the possible loss of control over their own bodies. The story follows counter-cyberterrorist organization Public Security Section 9, led by protagonist Major Motoko Kusanagi.
The circumstances surrounding Kusanagi’s existence are intriguing; after suffering from an accident as a child, the entirety of Major’s body is cybernetic to house her cyberbrain, rendering her quite literally as a “ghost” in the shell of body. Shirow explores themes of identity, gender, consciousness and the consequences of technological advancement through Kusanagi, bringing up an essential question: what makes a person human? Is reality rooted in the real world or the cyber one? What do you do when people are capable of stealing copies of your memories?
The success of Shirow’s manga led to full-length animation film in 1995 directed by Mamoru Oshii, which is considered to be one of the greatest anime films of all time. Unlike its successor, the 1995 version of “Ghost in the Shell” holds a 96 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, inspiring a number of directors including the Wachowskis and the creators of “The Matrix.” So where did everything go wrong?
The answer is plain: whitewashing.
Whitewashing is a popular trend in Hollywood that involves taking white actors and casting them in traditionally non-white roles. This is not a new phenomenon–more recent films such as “The Last Airbender” (2010) (No one talks about this film. It doesn’t exist and we are better for it.) and “Pan” (2015) feature white casts where they do not belong. Not only does the new adaptation “Ghost in the Shell” do this, the (spoiler alert) original plot of the manga has been altered to defend the film’s casting choices, failing spectacularly in the process.
The casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major (note that Johansson’s character is simply known as “Major”, the name Motoko Kusanagi is almost completely dropped) was announced in 2014 and immediately sparked controversy that would eventually doom the film. Despite backing from a spokesperson for the publishers of “Ghost in the Shell” and even director Oshii himself, the internet took no mercy in dragging the most recent adaptation to hell and back.
In particular, many Asian-Americans took the film to task, including the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA). In an interview with the LA Times, MANAA denounced the film, President Robert Chan saying “There’s no reason why either Motoko or Hideo could not have been portrayed by Japanese or Asian actors instead of Scarlett Johansson and Michael Pitt. We don’t even get to see what they looked like in their original human identities — a further whitewash.”
Issues with the 2017 adaptation don’t just stop with the casting. The film has been criticized for being essentially all show and no tell. The most remarkable and iconic scenes are ripped frame for frame from the 1995 adaptation, yet lack the depth that made the 1995 film so great. By removing “Ghost in the Shell” from its original cultural context in favor of a high-budget action flick meant to sell, the original philosophical questions of life and consciousness that pervade both the manga and the 1995 adaptation are lost.
Major Motoko Kusanagi is a character concerned with the future and the possibilities of a cybernetic existence such as hers. The 1995 film plays with questions of identity and gender, of living in a world where humanity isn’t very human anymore. The 2017 adaptation, in its efforts to justify whitewashing, anchors Major’s character in the past. The film’s major reveal is that Johansson’s Major was in fact Motoko Kusanagi in a previous life–and Johansson’s preoccupation with figuring out the finer details of Kusanagi’s life and memories locked within her cybernetic brain.
Rather than defending their poor casting choices, Sanders and co. only make the whitewashing more explicit. Motoko Kusanagi’s brain, and perhaps consciousness, is quite literally taken from a Japanese body and placed into white one. Where the original source material may have possibly allowed for flexibility in the race of its characters (if you squint really hard), the 2017 adaptation of “Ghost in the Shell” explicitly acknowledges the Japanese heritage of the Major and in the same stroke, disregards it. This is not only a disservice to Major Motoko Kusanagi’s story, but to stories where a non-white character is placed front and center in their own narrative and the fans who identify with them.
The repercussions of whitewashing have no limits. A simple Google search of whitewashing almost immediately brings up results of “Ghost in the Shell” and clips of a video that demonstrates the harmful effects of removing Japanese characters from their own stories when there are so few of them to begin with.
Hollywood needs to pay more respect to the source materials it draws from, especially since adaptations and reboots seem to be in vogue at the moment. The stories told in countries all around the world contain perspectives those living in the United States are not ordinarily able to obtain. A story about the dangers of technological advancement were relevant in the 1989 and continue to be relevant today. Whitewashing does not have to be the solution to updating a story for current times.