For months now, Ghost in the Shell has been heavily criticized for casting Scarlett Johansson as a protagonist who was Japanese in the original source material.
And for months now, those involved with the movie have pleaded with audiences to see the film for themselves before they judge.
Well, we’ve seen the movie now. And it turns out the film’s race problem is, if anything, even worse than it had appeared.
The Ghost in the Shell controversy
To back up a bit: the Ghost in the Shell whitewashing controversy began brewing in 2015, when Johansson was first cast. But it really heated up last year, when Paramount released the first photo of Johansson as the Major, then further intensified when word got out that Paramount and DreamWorks had experimented with VFX to make Johansson look more Asian. And it hasn’t really gone away since then. In recent weeks, fans even turned Ghost in the Shell‘s own marketing campaign against it.
While Johansson isn’t the only one at fault, she’s the most public face of the project, and as such has been on the defensive all throughout the press tour. She insisted to Marie Claire that she “would never presume to play another race of a person,” and to Good Morning America that the Major is “essentially identity-less.”
As it turns out, neither statement is true.
Ghost in the Shell revolves around the Major’s search for the truth about her past. At the start of the film, she believes herself to be “Mira Killian,” a young woman whose body was destroyed in an accident that killed her parents as they were trying to enter the country. She’s told that the doctors were able to salvage her brain and implant it into a fully cybernetic body, in the first successful operation of its kind.
It seems bad enough that the Major, who was called Motoko Kusanagi in the source material, has been refashioned in the American remake as Mira Killian. It’s whitewashing, plain and simple swapping out a Japanese character and replacing her with a white one.
But just wait. It gets worse.
As the Major begins to dig into her history, she learns that her entire backstory was a lie. She meets her real mother, a Japanese woman played by Kaori Momoi, and learns that “Mira Killian” is a fake name. Her true name is actually Motoko Kusanagi after all.
In other words, all along, the Major has been an Asian person in a white woman’s body. Whitewashing isn’t incidental to this movie; it’s the actual premise. For fans already unhappy with the Major’s change into a white person, this is an extra slap in the face. This is Hollywood saying they don’t want to hire Asian actors even to play Asian people. This is Johansson, as she put it, “presuming to play another race of a person.”
Oh, and just to twist the knife a little bit further, Ghost in the Shell repeats this exact same twist with the villain, Kuze. He’s played by Michael Pitt. His real name turns out to be Hideko, suggesting that he’s secretly Japanese, too.
The “twist” that Mira is actually Motoko becomes even more tone-deaf when you consider the details. We learn that until relatively recently, Motoko was living with her mother in a cramped apartment. (It’s not clear whether the Kusanagis would be considered poor in this society, but they definitely aren’t rich.) Motoko was an anti-technology activist who pissed off the wrong people, so she ran away and went into hiding with other like-minded folks.
But she’s eventually found by a corporation named Hanka. In the movie, they’re primarily represented by Cutter (Peter Ferdinando), the CEO; and Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), the doctor who created Mira and has served as a sort of mother figure ever since. Anyway, Hanka takes Motoko against her will, wipes her mind clean, and drops it into a synthetic “shell.” Hence, Mira is born.
To step back for a second, this makes Ghost in the Shell a story about a bunch of white people who forcibly kidnap a POC activist and turn her into a white person. Making matters worse, Ouelet constantly reassure Mira, who’s lonely, that she’s just more “evolved” than everyone else.
To be fair, the filmmakers probably didn’t intend to say that white bodies are more evolved than Asian ones. But since the only two “evolved” characters we know of are both Asian people who were transformed into white ones, that becomes the troubling implication.
Perhaps it’s fitting that, in its own clueless way, Ghost in the Shell serves as a imperfect metaphor for the way Hollywood treats Asians. Just as Hanka took a Japanese person and put her inside a white person’s body, films like Ghost in the Shell strip-mine Asian culture for parts and repackage them inside pretty white shells.