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About that new Ghost in the Shell movie

As you may have heard, actress Scarlett Johansson recently signed a deal to star in DreamWorks’ upcoming adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, a Japanese transmedia franchise that began as a cyberpunk manga by Masamune Shirow (the author’s pen name) in 1989.

There’s a Ghost in the Shell poster hanging above my desk, in my office. (It hangs next to the Nine Inch Nails poster and the Hollow Ichigo mask from Bleach.) I’m a nerd, and I’m first and foremost an anime nerd. This is why my novels are peppered with anime jokes. I got into anime in high school, when a friend of mine used the story of Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune to come out to me. She got me hooked on fansubs, and suddenly I was that annoying person who was comparing Cowboy Bebop to The Great Gatsby. (A totally justifiable comparison, by the way. Look it up.) Some of my favourite memories of high school and college involve late nights, fansubs, and popcorn.  I was even the VP of my university’s anime club. (I got laid less in university than I did in high school.)

I love Ghost in the Shell. I think more people should read or watch it. My favourite incarnation of the franchise is Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, a 52-episode anime series that actually takes the implications of a fully cyborg future seriously. Whenever someone asks me about great science fiction television, I tell them to watch that show. It takes less time and is far more satisfying than either Lost or BSG. (The female prime minister doesn’t randomly push back all the progress of feminism at the end, which is nice.) Sometimes when I’m wondering how to fully live in a given premise, I put in one of my dvds and watch a few episodes. It’s so richly imagined, so thoroughly detailed, and yet so very human that I find myself loving Motoko Kusanagi all over again.

Kusanagi, by the way, is Japanese for “grass-cutter.” It’s the name of a holy sword, one of three sacred treasures guarded by the Japanese imperial family. The god Susanoo found it in the body of an eight-headed serpent and presented it to his sister, the goddess Amaterasu, to end his exile from heaven. Amaterasu gave it, along with the mirror and jeweled necklace that lured her from her cave and returned light to the world, to Ninigi, her descendant and the first emperor of Japan. Naming your protagonist after it is like naming her Sangraal, or Cross. For Shirow, who named himself after a 13th-century master swordsmith, it was fitting. After all, he forged the Kusanagi we have known and loved for almost thirty years.

You learn these things, when you’re interested in taking a culture on its own terms. You learn that the Japanese root words for “human” and “puppet” are the same, which is important to a story with a villain named “The Puppetmaster.” If you’re like me, you read all the academic analyses of the story that you can, and then publish your own. Then you write a novel about humanoid robots who look like each other, about the challenges of replication in a world bereft of authenticity. If you’re the Wachowkis, you make a movie about master hackers who can learn kung-fu by downloading it. You find a way to make the story your own. You write a love letter to it. You create an homage.

What you don’t do is cast a white woman in a Japanese woman’s role.

I really like Scarlett Johansson’s work. I thought she absolutely killed it in Under the Skin, a role so cold she already feels like a woman inhabiting a cyborg shell. I thought she was perfect in Lost in Translation — and not just because I identified so strongly with her character. And I think that her signing this deal is absolutely the right choice for her. After all, it’s not like Marvel has given her (or us) the Black Widow movie everyone’s been asking for. She’s a bankable action star in a field that gives women an average of ten years of work. Like a professional athlete, she has to work while she still can. So this is an obvious choice to make. (And it’s exactly the choice you make when you’re pissed at Disney/Marvel for refusing to commit. And then inform your team to make a huge deal about. “Oh, hey, look at this internationally-beloved multiplatform franchise Scarlett’s carrying! It could do really well in Asian markets. But hey, get back to us when you feel like it.”)

And there’s an argument that this can work — Live Die Repeat anglicized the Japanese novel All You Need is Kill, and single-handedly turned Emily Blunt into an action star. But I have to say that one of the things I loved about Ghost in the Shell was how it opened my world to new ideas about identity and autonomy. It gave me a language for understanding myself. In high school, it showed me an image of a powerful woman who was primarily interested in her own self-discovery and actively concerned about her personal freedom. I needed her. And I think the only reason she was what I needed is because she came from another place. Like my friend who could only find representation as a lesbian in a half-hour Japanese superhero cartoon, I couldn’t really find someone like me on American tv. I wasn’t a Buffy, or a Joey. But Kusanagi was exactly the sort of person that I desperately wanted to be.

Now imagine how I might have felt if I were actually Japanese-American. Or one of the many visible minorities who identify as Asian and have been watching the same Ming-Na Wen and Michelle Yeoh movies over and over. I mean, for Christ’s sake, Rinko Kikuchi is right there. Tao Okamoto is right there. Maggie Q has name recognition in the States. And so does Olivia Munn — who actually speaks fluent Japanese. There were options. Now there are just excuses.

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12 thoughts on “About that new Ghost in the Shell movie

  1. “Cowboy Bebop to The Great Gatsby”

    Hmm. Yeah. OK.

    Also, ARISE is pretty good. Not as great as SAC, but a good alt-origin story.

  2. So when there is talk about Idris Elba for James Bond, it’s not about ethnicity of the actor (as it should be) – except when it comes to Motoko Kusinagi (where it’s an android body used by military intelligence to fight a war against the west) – where it is all about enthnicity.

    Kusinagi has an android body. It wasn’t the one she was born to. She swaps it out. Doesn’t have to be ethnic anything.

    James Bond can be anyone who is British.

    There’s a reason that you’re objecting to one and not another – and it’s probably the prejudice that you ascribe to the people who reject the reasons for Idris as the next James Bond.

    1. I haven’t said anything about Idris Elba playing James Bond. You must have me confused with someone else.

      But, since you asked, I think Idris Elba would make a great James Bond. Why? Because Idris Elba is a great British actor. (You did know that, right? That he’s British? He was born in England. Hackney, to be specific.) Also because the Codename Theory of 007’s identity has existed for years. Subscribing to it is certainly easier than imagining that James Bond is an immortal shapeshifter who looked like Sean Connery in the 1960’s and Daniel Craig in the 21st Century.

      Or maybe it’s just that the under-representation of black men on film is a real issue, just like the under-representation of Japanese women and all visible minorities, and your “argument” is a strawman that I’m only entertaining because I’ve had a cocktail. Nice try, though. Thanks for playing.

  3. I’ll be surprised if the real SF contained in the 52 episodes (heck they were even careful about keeping track of details like the needful fact that cyborgs weigh more than humans) ever survives the Hollywood transition to their scripts.

  4. The only wy it could work is if they swap out her body. So SJ is her body for a part of the story (probably an invented bit where we are not in Japan, or Asia) and then another actress is her body in Japan. I doubt they would do that, though.

    As I understand it, the green light only happened when SJ said she wanted the part, so if she goes, the whole thing goes back on the back burner. This is a crock of shit.

    H

  5. They’re going to absolutely destroy this movie, one of my favorite franchises, and the only thing you’re upset about is that Scarlet Johansons white? She’s terrible for the role, but not because of her race. I mean its annoying that she’s white yeah (kind of like a black 007) but its not undoable. I’d enjoy a white Kusinagi if they actually do it right, but they’re not. GITS is a deeply philosophical franchise, but dreamworks just wants to whore it for some cash.

    1. Um, yeah, I’m annoyed. Is that really so hard to grasp? I didn’t like it when the cast of Avatar: The Last Airbender was whitewashed, either. And no, I don’t really have a problem with a black Bond — because my problem isn’t textual accuracy, it’s the lack of representation of people of colour in mainstream media. Which is a problem that plenty of post-colonial critics and philosophers have dealt with, by the way. Besides, we have no idea what that script looks like. It might be great. It might have nailed the tone of at least one of the franchise’s many iterations. We can only speak to the mistakes that have already been made — like overlooking a bunch of very talented Japanese women when it came to casting, or DreamWorks only guaranteeing the film if SJ signed to the role.

  6. Whoa whoa, wait. I was generally with you until you said you’re not concerned with textual accuracy but instead with race representation. Can’t we all agree that what is most important about a story (especially this story) is the ideas and themes, things like how the character looks, how we identify with their similarities to us and sci-fi technology are all secondary. I think you might be shooting yourself in the foot but implying (intentionally or otherwise) that the casting is more important than getting the story right. I agree with Madeline that getting the story right is going to be the hardest part and the area they are most likely to fail.

    1. How can textual accuracy be the most important part of a story that has been adapted in multiple formats with significant changes each time since 1989? Or did you miss the contradictions between the manga, the film, the two television series, the videogame, the miniseries films, and the novels? Which of those stories is authentic? How do you know?

      1. I see now where we are reading the same comment with two different meanings. I was understanding your comment to mean essentially: It’s more important to get ethnically correct casting than to be true to the concepts and thematic elements in the various incarnations of ghost in the shell. I am now assuming this is not what you meant.

        That all said….I would still strongly take the position that it is more important to either match one of the great adaptations of of the past or to write a new adaptation that still honors the ideals, thematic elements and sense of technical inevitability that the best incarnations of GITS present. I think the bigger problem than if the actress should have been partially or fully of asian descent is whether than kind stay true to this very complex and thought provoking themes. As with other commenters I don’t have faith in this creative team. I believe it would take someone who takes a smarter tack and can inoculate themselves against studio control and mindless action (Chris Nolan for example). That is what I personally loved about the 95 movie. It had a few brief bursts of excitement but they were in service of the story and immersion into this world that shaped the ideas being presented. It was the ideas that always took center stage. I agree that casting is very important and Scarlet is not the best choice by a long shot but she is also not the worst by a long shot. And I’m sorry but Rinko Kikuch is a nice visual match but she cannot carry the dialogue required by these movies. She has a high voice (which admittedly she may be able to change somewhat) and a very thick accent. Someone who is authortative in how they speak and confident in their manner is what we need. Since we are all just passionately talking about a story that we love here, my vote would be for Mary Elizabeth Winstead. I feel she has the acting chops, the voice, the manner, the right age and definitely the look to make a great major. She almost strangely appears to be multi-ethnic evening though she is apparently entirely anglo-european from both sides. The major has always kind of been presented by Shirow Masamune as looking more like her in my opinion. By the Oshii films as well.

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