“I guess cyborgs like myself have a tendency to be paranoid about our origins.”
– Major Motoko Kusanagi
Let’s be clear: there is nothing good about the upcoming live-action adaptation of Ghost In the Shell. As a film, its artistic merits (whatever they may happen to be) will always fall far behind its impact on the community of young women, especially young Asian women, who have waited for years for someone to make something out of one of the most influential manga and anime sagas in the last several decades.
For those who don’t know, Ghost In The Shell’s main character is Motoko Kusanagi, code-named The Major. She’s a scrap of human brain tissue in a completely cyborg body – a body that can be exchanged for any “shell”, that could conceivably look like anything or anyone. It is, I’m sure, this convenient means that Hollywood has decided to use to explain why they’ve cast a white actress in a role that demands a Japanese woman. The reason I say demands is simple: the Major’s shell is immaterial, when the titular “ghost in the shell”, her consciousness and personal identity, is that of a Japanese woman.
In every media depiction, anime move, series, or manga, Motoko Kusanagi expresses her discomfort and dislike for other bodies than the one in which she is depicted. She is a Japanese woman, and because of the fact that her cyborg-self can be so easily manipulated and changed, that identity provides a rock-solid core from which she acts and perceives the world. I want to say it once, all by itself, clearly.
Motoko Kusanagi identifies as a Japanese woman. She is a Japanese woman, and stripping her of that identity makes her someone else.
The heart of the Major’s character is this identity, which is based, not on her body, not on flesh, which she doesn’t possess, but on a sense of her self. This idea, the concept of consciousness and self-awareness as mobile phenomena independent of flesh, is at the heart of the entire Ghost In The Shell universe. To cast a white actress in this role is not only disrespectful of the character, but completely destroys the foundations on which the Major is built.
Earlier, I read an article discussing the recent revelation that Motoko has not only lost her Japanese body in this film, but also her name. Motoko Kusanagi is now Meera. The article stated that:
“It’s possible that prior to gaining her cybernetic body and possibly losing her memory, “Meera” was actually Motoko, a Japanese woman. Her ghost was removed and placed in the body of a white woman, creating a subconscious internal struggle for her. As Johannson says, “the heart of this story is her search for an identity.”
Convenient, isn’t it? Hollywood has been feeding us the same lie for decades now: “Audiences won’t watch a movie without a white actor as the lead!” Theories like the one above are excuses predicated on that lie. With hundreds of hours of source material, in which Motoko is always presented as a Japanese woman, why is it necessary that Hollywood’s version use a plot device that “forces” them to cast a white actress?
If source material in which the characters are depicted with non-white ethnicity or non-Western cultural origins aren’t safe – if a character that began as Japanese or Egyptian or Indian won’t stay that way in a film adaptation, then what hope is there for new non-White characters to just…appear? Obviously it hasn’t happened so far. While I am aware that some excuse the decision to cast Johansson based on the “star-power” effect, let me ask you this: If only white actors and actresses are cast in star roles, then how will a non-white actor ever have that “star-power”?
There are numerous Japanese actresses already within Hollywood, not even counting those who would like to be actresses. There is no reason to cast a white woman in the role of a Japanese woman. In the end, it comes down to what it always comes down to: institutionalized racism. Not only has this racism destroyed this movie – the whitewashing of Motoko Kusanagi highlights more clearly than ever that there is a problem in our cinema. There is a problem with the way stories are being told, even when there isn’t a problem with the stories themselves.
The time has come to vote the only way we can as consumers – with our dollars. If you want to support Ghost In The Shell, buy the anime. The HD releases are excellent. Watch some of the new OVAs, share the manga with a friend, stay up until two in the morning discussing how we know who we are. Just make sure you experience the story as it was meant to be experienced – with a Japanese woman as its heart.