Ghost in the Shell is finally in theaters, after months of backlash and even more backtracking from the movie’s cast and crew. The film has been accused of whitewashing the Major so they could cast a Caucasian actress, perpetuating decades of erasure for Asian Americans in film.
io9's Evan Narcisse, Katharine Trendacosta, James Whitbrook, and I sat down to chat about race and identity in Ghost in the Shell, and what the film’s major reveals meant for the movie itself, and Hollywood as a whole.
Beth Elderkin: Let’s start by talking about our history with Ghost in the Shell. Were you a fan of the manga or anime, did you come in blind?
Evan Narcisse: I first saw the 1995 anime movie years ago thanks to some friends. But I hadn’t watched it in years, until sitting down with it again earlier this week.
James Whitbrook: My sole interaction with Ghost in the Shell before the new movie was the original 1995 film. I’ve read snippets of the manga since, but I’ve stayed far away from things like Standalone Complex or the other series spinoffs. To me, it was always just Oshii’s original.
Katharine Trendacosta: I know the original movie, but I didn’t watch it before seeing this or anything. Mostly I know about through references made by others, it’s not something I knew very well.
Beth: I saw the 1995 anime about, well, 10 years ago I think. I was taking a college course called “What Does It Mean To Be Human?” looking at the blurring line between human and machine and its philosophical consequences. It was amidst a bunch of other movies and books, so it kind of blended into this overall “vibe.” So I knew the themes, but I definitely came into the movie with fresh eyes.
When you first heard that Scarlett Johansson was going to to be Major, what was your reaction? Did you think it would become such a big issue? I was definitely flustered, mainly because I thought Rinko Kikuchi was a dead ringer for the role, but it wasn’t until I started engaging with others that I really got a sense of what the issue was and how pervasive Asian-American erasure is in Hollywood.
Katharine: Sadly, I didn’t [think it would be a big issue]. Mostly because while some people don’t like this kind of thing, it’s never been a deal breaker.
James: The initial casting news sort of just floated by me—I didn’t pay much attention, because I just assumed it’d be another bad adaptation like Dragonball or the Avatar [The Last Airbender] movie. It didn’t really hit me just how weird it was until we saw that first image of her in costume. The blowback from that moment, all the anger around it, was so intense, like you Beth it took that moment to realize just how pervasive an issue like this is now.
Katharine: I was frustrated but I honestly wasn’t furious until I saw footage.
Beth: What changed when you saw footage?
Katharine: Because everything else was a dead ringer for the original. Except for the lead being white. And that’s deeply frustrating because it says that the Japanese original—written by Japanese people, set in Japan, and made with Japanese iconography—was ripe for the taking. Except for the part where the protagonist is Japanese. And that actually poisons any attempt to watch the movie.
Beth: But haven’t you heard? Robots are raceless!
Katharine: EXCEPT NOT. All the other robots (save the villain) in the movie have Asian faces. So to say that is so disingenuous it made me angry all over again.
James: Especially at that point, the creative team behind the movie had been out responding to that original groundswell of anger about the decision, defending it as the fact that this was an “international story,” it pulled from all cultures, and whatever. And then that first trailer is just a fastidious, fawning recreation of the style and aesthetic of Oshii’s world in the movie... except Scarlett Johansson’s there, and she looks alien standing there, and not because she’s meant to be a cyborg police officer.
Beth: So, I do want to dive further into this. In the movie, Johansson’s character is a clearly Caucasian-looking robot built largely by Caucasian scientists, in a distinctly Asian world populated by Asian-looking robots. And yet, defenders keep saying Major doesn’t have a race. Does Major have a race? Does that race reflect the company building her? And how does she fit in the story’s world?
Evan: You know, it’s hard to say if Major has a race. She’s living a constructed identity, one that she had no hand in shaping. But the original works definitely drew on cultural specificity and very little of that carries through to this new movie. Race, as we tend to think of it, is a complicated mish-mash of institutionally coded ideas about groups of people and personal decisions about how an individual wants to present themselves. The question of “Can a cyborg have that?” never gets explored here, in a place where it would have been great to do so.
Katharine: If the movie’s point had at all been these white people building white robots and experimenting on Japanese people, that might have been at least interesting, and justified the choice. But it wasn’t. And saying “she doesn’t have a race” and making her white implies that white is “raceless.” Fuck everything about that.
James: It felt like they tried to have their cake and eat it with the reveal of the Major’s true origins. If they hadn’t tried that, I felt there would’ve been at least a more interesting commentary about the fact she’s been reborn, if you will, in the eye of her new creator—that she’s been “othered” in this world by the will of this shadowy corporation. The movie itself would still be in that wheelhouse of “pretty but insubstantial,” but I’d feel a lot less annoyed about it than I do.
Katharine: Agreed, James. Race is a constructed thing, so an amnesiac in a mechanical body would have a lot of interesting avenues into discussing that, which never shows up.
Beth: What about the rest of Major’s storyline? One of the biggest criticisms seems to be that the plot kind of sucked. Which, to be fair, it did.
Katharine: The plot, especially at the end was ridiculous. I still don’t know what the motivation of the guy in charge of the company was. Why was he so upset with how Major turned out? YOU OWN THE PATENT ON IMMORTALITY. MAKE HER YOUR POSTER CHILD AND MAKE ALL THE MONEY.
James: Why do you need the world of Ghost in the Shell to tell a boilerplate revenge story!? Other than, I guess, to make it visually mind-boggling and exciting to look at, which at least they succeeded in.
Beth: See, James, I kind of disagree about the visuals. We’ve literally seen it all done before, and better, and most of them served no purpose other than to be shiny dangling keys for the audience. There’s one point where a giant hologram is running in place for minutes on end FOR NO REASON.
Moving on, let’s look at the “big twist”: The Major, Mira, is actually Motoko Kusanagi. Her whole story is about recovering memories of her former life as an Asian woman. Evan, you discussed this in your review, saying it could’ve been commentary on erasure, but it didn’t really go there. Since it fails to address it, does that make it actual erasure?
Evan: Well, it’s erasure in the fiction. She had a life that was taken from her and replaced with something else. In the real world, it feels more of an imitation?
Beth: How so?
Evan: They clearly tried to play homage to the source material but it felt they were tracing over it without capturing what made it so appealing. Like I said in my review, the 1995 movie very much feels like the work of Japanese creators grappling with all the fast change that their culture is going through. And that feeling doesn’t come through in the movie. Part of the reason it doesn’t is because they did this incredibly clumsy thing with the protagonist. You could have still told that story with an Asian/Asian-American actress. Nothing about it had to change.
Beth: Yeah, the “amnesia” thing really took the wind out of the philosophical sails. There’s little about amnesia that reflects a crisis between human and machine. She might as well have fallen off a boat, like she did in her fake memories.
James: Even without a minority lead, they ALMOST could’ve been clever about it. I would’ve been impressed if they weathered the storm over all the casting controversies just so that the reveal that she’s been robbed of her heritage and her identity—which is what a lot of the controversy ended up being about—could actually have an impact on her as a character. Instead, it plays out like a “gotcha!” moment. “Aha, she’s been Asian this WHOLE TIME!” They don’t say anything meaningful about what that twist really means.
A lot of what this movie takes from the original, at least for me, is very superficial. It never goes beyond skin deep. It gets that the fucked-up yet weirdly gorgeous world looks cool, but it doesn’t get why the world was like that in the original movie. It got that the original tackled questions of identity and what it means to be who you are, but it responded in turn by having Scarlett Johansson say “Who am I???” in a bazillion ways. And that lack of nuance really came across in the attempt to address the Major’s own identity and race.
Beth: One of my least favorite moments is when Major is looking at the dead Geisha robot and her partner has to point out, “You’re not like them.” We should be able to know that without them telling us. One of many examples of clunky expositional dialogue.
James: More importance was placed on the “shock” of that reveal than it was on actually thinking about what it means for the character, which makes it feel all the more disappointing that they went there.
Katharine: Even with the look, there’s no hint that Japanese culture is being invaded. So it’s just the twist that brings up the culture issue, which is so lazy. If one of the ideas was meant to be the taking of Japanese people by the white company, then it should have been reflected in more than just the twist. It wasn’t thought through.
Beth: Okay, so here’s the million-dollar question: Now that you’ve seen the new Ghost in the Shell, do you think the backlash leading up to it was warranted?
Katharine: I think it was worse than we thought. The twist undermines every argument in their defense.
James: I agree with Katharine. If anything, it justified the apprehension people felt about this film, ultimately.
Beth: Part of me wishes they’d just shelled out a couple hundred grand and changed the ending. Make it so that she doesn’t find out her past, and more so, she realizes it doesn’t matter. She is no longer human, she is something else entirely. Her past isn’t what defines her, it’s her actions moving forward. Plus, that would have fit in better with the whole “Major is raceless” argument.
James: Exactly—there would’ve been something interesting to say about how the Major sees herself now that this process has happened to her and how its changed her into this new person. Instead the twist embodied all the fears of erasure people had going into this directly into the film, for the sake of an unnecessarily clunky moment of shock.
Beth: So, what happens now? Did the backlash matter, did the movie do anything to abate it, and will it make a difference in the future?
Katharine: Look, outside the race issue, this movie’s plot was bad. And I don’t know if that or the backlash will hurt it more.
James: The movie only ultimately ended up making the backlash worse, I feel, right at the very end. Like I said earlier, I think if they hadn’t tried to bait people in right there, the argument over this movie would be more about the fact that it’s a largely soulless—and pretty clunky—impersonation of a classic that came before it.
Evan: Money talks. If the movie does well, there will be talk about how this creative decision didn’t matter or how it was a “vocal minority” that cared about the casting. If it doesn’t do well, then there might be some soul-searching but who knows if that will turn into any kind of change.
Katharine: I just have no faith whatsoever that the lesson the studios take from this will be about race.
James: If I were to be super pessimistic, I feel like if the movie underperforms, executives will see it as a reflection on Scarlett Johansson or on female-lead action movies in general, rather than the casting issue. I hope that at least somewhere down the line, people will see moments like this as a turning point toward looking for more diverse faces in these big tentpole movies. It’d at least give Ghost in the Shell 2k17 some meaning, a purpose for existing that the movie itself ultimately fails to achieve.