A couple of weeks ago, two new film trailers for live-action adaptations were dropped online that set audiences worldwide into a frenzy. The first was for "Beauty and the Beast," set to release in March 2017, and the second trailer for the upcoming "Ghost in the Shell." The second trailer for the upcoming "Ghost in the Shell" incites a great deal of controversy.
On the outset it appears like your typical blockbuster blunder that further validates the #HollywoodSoWhite brand: an iconic Japanese 1995 anime adapted to the silver screen with the lead heroine, Major Motoko Kusanagi, portrayed by American actress Scarlett Johansson. The entertainment industry has consistently shown the public its penchant for celebrity-name power, standing by the tactic that attaching well-known actors works as a powerful magnet to draw in a tremendous financial benefit for the production. This emphasis inevitably surpasses their desire to cast more culturally appropriate actor for the role, leaving the impression that they have learned little from the consequences after the 2016 Academy Awards fiasco.
For those who are not acquainted with the original animated film, directed by Mamoru Oshii, Ghost in the Shell takes place in a post-cyberpunk world, following the members of Public Security Section 9, a task force lead by Motoko, who work to thwart incidents of corporate corruption, crooked officials, and malicious cyber criminals in the fictional Japanese city of Niihama. At this point in time, computer technology has advanced to such a point that a vast network permeates every aspect of life. Humans can uplink their minds to technology and directly interface with the internet via a cyberbrain. People can also upgrade parts of their body with more advanced prostheses and, in some instances, get a full prosthetic body or “shell” making them more cyborg than human. This is the case of Motoko, who had to undergo this severe transformation after a traumatic accident as a child.
Now don’t get me wrong, I personally think Johansson is a walk-on-water goddess who can do no wrong on screen and will forever be the pinnacle performance of Black Widow. Yet I completely empathize with those who feel that this choice in casting tarnishes the legacy of this story, or even believe that the live-action adaptation shouldn’t have been an American production at the onset. I can think of a long list of exceptional Japanese actresses such as Rila Fukushima (who in fact is actually in the movie as a supporting role), Rinko Kikuchi, and Karen Fukuhara (who recently starred as Katana in Suicide Squad), all of whom more than qualified to do the character justice. Naturally, social media outrage ignited when a side-by-side picture comparing Motoko with Johannson in costume was released, even prompting a move to boycott the film in its entirety. Yet with all these rebukes of racism, whitewashing, and cultural appropriation, there might be another crucial side to the issue that we are missing.
After World War II, Japan was a completely decimated and impoverished shell, still recovering from the devastation of the nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The United States loomed as a constant presence in its national affairs, mandating total demilitarization while simultaneously working to reshape the government into a more democratic system. At this point Japan poured what little resources remained into its manufacturing industry in an attempt to jump-start the economy – specifically making products that targeted American markets. For example, Japanese toymakers began designing new toys that incorporated features from Disney-style cartoons. It was during this period that comic artist Osamu Tezuka used the drawing techniques of both Walt Disney and Max Fleischer in developing the “anime eye," the rounder eye shape you see in the majority of Japanese manga (comics) and anime characters that makes them look more gaijin (foreign, foreigner). Using this cross-cultural art form he created the series Astro Boy, the first Japanese animated show that received translation and distribution in America. In essence, Japan culturally appropriated from the nation that had asserted its authority over it in order to rebuild itself. It never abandoned its identity; instead it fused it with foreign elements, morphing it into something both familiar and dissimilar.
When "Ghost in the Shell" was made in the nineties, Japan was poised as an economic powerhouse. The nation was defining itself in new ways through images, information, and designer items. Computers, cars, walk-mans -- everything trendy and hip emerged from this nation. Its prowess in advanced robotics and advanced communications propelled the nation once again into a world leader status. This fundamentally unique relationship between man and technology combined with themes of globalization and individuality strikes at the very core of the storyline in Ghost in the Shell, making it an intrinsically Japanese story. Even the Japanese word ゴースト(gosuto, i.e. “ghost”) is colloquial slang referring to a person’s own consciousness. More specifically, Motoko’s last name, “Kusanagi,” references a legendary sword of the Imperial Japanese Regalia.
At the same time the movie is just as connected to Western culture. In fact the title "Ghost in the Shell" was a theoretical concept about the human cognizance originally coined by Gilbert Ryle and further investigated by Arthur Koestler in “Ghost in the Machine” and Rene Descartes in “Evil Demon” – all three of which were well known European philosophers. Many filmmakers have commented that Mamoru Oshii incorporated cinematography techniques taken directly from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner released in the late eighties. Even Andy Fain, the head executive of the British production company that financed the original film, stated in the nineties that the story was meant to “create a seamless blend between East and West." If that was its original intention, some might argue that Scarlett Johansson would be a suitable fit as the cyborg heroine.
There are plenty of instances where you can note Hollywood’s blatant disregard for cultural and ethnic diversity (Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Tonto in "The Lone Ranger," Tilda Swinton as a Buddhist monk in "Doctor Strange," Emma Stone as a half Hawaiian, half Chinese American in "Aloha" to name a few) which is why greater steps need to be made to hold directors and casting agents accountable for their decision making process with regards to films of a different cultural or ethnic subject matter so that due respect is given. More often than not, people who saw the side-by-side image of Johansson and Motoko immediately launched into outrage-mode without first exploring the context or scope of the story itself. Consequently amongst this knee-jerk reaction online to whitewashing and cultural appropriation, people missed the bigger picture: "Ghost in the Shell" presents a unique, hybridized perspective on the search for identity, individuality, and what makes us truly human. Yes, it is important to understand that a film adaptation is based on a different interpretation of the story, but it is also important to remember that this powerful multidimensional story's impact extends far beyond the surface of the skin. Should any of it become lost in translation – you are really left with nothing more than aesthetic shell of a copy.