Ghost In The Shell: The Whitewashed Complex?

GeekMom TV and Movies
Photo: Melanie R. Meadors

This week the news broke that Scarlett Johansson has been cast to play Major Motoko Kusanagi in the yet-to-be-greenlit live action film of Ghost in the Shell, and to say there were mixed reactions would be an understatement.

Ghost in the Shell is a popular Japanese anime movie and TV series based on the manga of the same name by Masamune Shirow. Set in a futuristic Tokyo, Japan, it features the counter-cyberterrorism organization Section 9. Motoko Kusanagi is one of the leaders of this organization.

Now, I have to admit, when I first read that Johansson was cast, I said, “Wow, that could work.” I mean, Kusanagi has a fully cybernetic body. She could well look American, if that’s how her body’s designers had planned it. Plus, we’ve seen what kick-ass characters Johansson can play from her portrayals of Black Widow and Lucy. After some reflection, however, some serious doubts began to set in.

Sure, I have no problem if Scarlett Johansson was going to play Kusanagi, if that was the only thing they changed about it. But I know Hollywood, and I’ve seen what they’ve done to other films and franchises.

Ghost in the Shell is a story steeped in Japanese culture. All of the main characters are Japanese, it takes place in Japan, it draws on Japanese history and society to create the world and plot. My worry is that Hollywood will strip this franchise of its culture, of its framework, and leave us with a whitewashed husk of something vaguely resembling the original. We have one American actress, what about the other characters? Will they all be white as well? Will they keep the setting as Tokyo or change it to New York?

When one looks over the plotline of the story arc (and it is yet to be announced what part of the whole Ghost in the Shell story they will be using for this movie, if it is the original movie, or something from the series Stand Alone Complex), it seems on the surface it could be adapted to be American in nature. But again, on the surface. Superficially. Ghost in the Shell is awesome because there are so many layers to it, so many things to grok beneath the surface. Why can’t Hollywood write an original story of their own if they want an American story that “Americans can relate to”? I’ve heard time and again, Hollywood Americanizes stories so that American audiences can understand and sympathize with them. Are we as a nation truly so shallow that unless characters look like us and live in our country, we can’t sympathize with them? I don’t believe we are. Furthermore, how are we supposed to learn to sympathize unless we are exposed to different things?

Again, this movie has not been green-lit for production yet. But it disturbs me that people feel that in order for this movie to be successful in this country, it would have to have a white actress playing a character that identifies as Japanese. It’s speculation on my part that any other aspect of the film will be American, but let’s get real. If Hollywood thinks an all-white-American cast will make the movie sell better, then that’s what they will do, story and quality be damned. It’s happened before *cough* Edge of Tomorrow *cough*.

Author N.K. Jemison (The Dreamblood and The Inheritance Trilogy series) shared her thoughts on the subject:

“Hell, Americans are mostly villains in the GiTS’verse, constantly horning in on the ‘Japanese miracle’ that’s saved the world from their warring and pollution. The geopolitics are crucial to the manga/film/show’s world-building. And GiTS properly depicts those Americans as racially diverse. If the source material can show us that much basic respect, doesn’t it behoove us to show that much respect to the source? And not impose our own simpleminded racism on it, instead?”

I couldn’t agree more.

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4 thoughts on “Ghost In The Shell: The Whitewashed Complex?

  1. This is coming from an American white guy so take it with a grain of salt, but in the GITS:Stand Alone Complex anime at least, none of the main characters have struck me as particulary “Japanese” looking other than Aramaki. They pretty much all look Western or European. But the same could be said for main characters in most big anime series.

    1. Hi Jason, thanks for commenting. I think my main issue is that the characters very much identify as being Japanese. Like I said, if they only had Kusanagi looking American, that would be one thing–her cyberization could explain that and allow for her to still identify with her culture. But I am waiting to see what the other characters will be cast like. I think this is where there is a….stylistic? thing between media. In anime, the characters are drawn and stylized. When they watch the shows in Japan, they never think,”oh that character must be American,” though. Like Sailor Moon, for instance. She is a Japanese high school girl. When you start getting into live action stuff, things are a little different. When they made the live action Kenshin movie, the actors are all Japanese. In a preview I saw of a Dragonball Z live action movie released (or to be released? I’m not sure), again, the actor who plays Goku is Japanese.

      So I think that is the major thing I am waiting to see.

  2. While I agree with Jason, that none of the characters necessarily strike me as outwardly appearing Japanese, I hope that the story is kept intact and is not ‘Americanized’. The history/culture where this takes place in is an important part of the story, especially so in the series. Casting American actors to the parts does tend to lead one to believe that there will be changes.

    1. Yes. I am trying to be careful to not be TOO judgmental before the movie even exists, but I’m hoping that maybe if the producers see enough people’s concerns they might address them? Who knows.

      Thanks for commenting, Chris!

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