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.