|A Shell Without A Ghost: Ghost in the Shell (2017)
By Himali Thakur -
April 18, 2017
Himali Thakur, Class of 2019
Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell is the anime movie in the cyberpunk genre. The movie became a landmark in 1995, upon its release, for several reasons—the fantastic animation despite a low budget, haunting soundtracks, and an arguably feminist stand. It is also a rich philosophical text, posing questions on the nature of human identity while straddling the line between the ‘human’ and the ‘artificial’. Oshii’s movie is part of a long-running anime and manga franchise that began in 1989 with Masamune Shirow’s Koukaku Kidoutai za Gousuto in za Sheru (Mobile Armoured Police Riot: The Ghost in the Shell). It is set in the 21st century, in a world where cybernetic enhancement is the norm. In fact, the protagonist, Major Motoko Kusanagi, a completely cybernetic human. The only thing that seems to set her apart from sentient AI forms is her “ghost”, which can be crudely conceptualized as the soul.
Personally, Ghost in the Shell is my favourite anime movie for all of the above reasons—and some more. So, when there were rumours of a Hollywood live-action, I was quite dismayed; Hollywood is notorious for whitewashing the cast and dumbing down plot-lines. Movies like Avatar: The Last Airbender and Dragonball Evolution stand testament to this fact. Despite the cast’s almost complete whitewashing and bad reviews, I decided to give the movie a chance. After all, how bad could it be?
L: Oshii’s poster | R: The Hollywood poster
Rupert Sander’s adaptation of Ghost in the Shell is a visual spectacle. The animation is smooth and seamless with some brilliant reinterpretations of original scenes. One such scene involves Scarlett Johansson’s character—Major Mira Killian—“deep diving” into the memories of a Geisha bot. The usual collection of zeros and ones that represent data in cyberpunk movies is re-imagined here as a mire of crumbling, organic memories. The Major finds herself in a dark, hazy memory of a nightclub, where everything is frozen at one moment of time. Bodies erode into waterfalls of papery data-dust that floats through the air as the Major peruses the scene. Towards the end of the scene, Kuze, the villain, attempts to hack the Major’s ghost. This is shot as a swarm of fifty, tar-covered human bodies trying to suffocate the Major as she struggles to escape.
The movie also faithfully recreates some of the most iconic scenes of its classic source, starting from the Major’s ‘birth’—the creation of her cybernetic body. The water fight scene is another favourite from Oshii’s version that makes it into the Hollywood live-action. It features hand-to-hand combat between a “ghost-hacked” man and the Major, camouflaged in her signature thermo-optic body suit that renders her invisible. The climactic battle between a massive spider tank (a tank with four or more legs that allow better movement) and the Major also remains unaltered, with the Major’s cybernetic limbs tearing apart as graphically as they do in the original.
On other fronts, however, the live-action falls flat. The plot of the movie is dumbed-down from a philosophical text that ponders on human identity, to just another action movie that recycles the government vs. individual, and human vs. AI themes. While the Major does spend much time puzzling over her identity, it is only because she cannot remember her ‘true’ identity—which is later revealed to be a rebel named Motoko Kusanagi (an attempt to pay homage to the original heroine). Once the Major’s ‘true’ identity is revealed, her identity crisis is abruptly resolved. She stops pondering on the deeper questions that the original movie posits: what makes human consciousness? Is there any difference between human beings and the sentient AI forms? Cybernetised as she is, is the Major even human anymore?
In an almost sacrilegious move, the writers even thrust a moral evaluation on the movie—they describe humanity as their“virtue”. A voiceover by the Major declares her intention to be the last of the cybernetic humans. Oshii’s movie, however, refuses to take this stance. Rather, it gives us a disturbing ending where the Major merges with a sentient entity called the Puppet Master, (which was born in a stream of data, hence, lacking a ‘human’ identity) to take on identity that belongs to neither to the Puppet Master nor the Major. It, therefore, continues to push the limits of what one may define as ‘human’ or a ‘non-human’ identities.
Then, there is the issue of Johansson’s casting, which has been the centre of the live action’s whitewashing controversy since 2014. Stars of Asian-American descent like Constance Wu and fans have questioned the need to cast a white actress. Ghost in the Shell has become a part of the trend of whitewashing characters of non-white ethnicities.
The whitewashing has clear consequences for the movie itself. Though Scarlett Johansson is a fantastic actress, she fails to invest the audience in the Major’s character. She loses out on opportunities that call for emotional depth in acting, such as the Major’s reunion with her birth mother, Hairi Kusanagi (played by veteran Japanese actress, Kaori Momoi). Here, the Major is also struggling with the fact that she was a person of a completely different ethnicity! This would leave one utterly bewildered. Johannson, however, has a poker face that takes away from the poignant and complex moment. The whitewashing comes in here because Johansson’s body is merely a white ‘shell’ that is trying to appeal to the ‘ghost’ of a coloured body. It is hardly Johansson’s fault that she comes across as flat; she cannot enact the Japanese “ghost” of Motoko Kusanagi that the producers thrust upon her.
According to a UCLA report, in 2014-15, only 3 – 4% of roles in scripted TV shows were Asian characters. The University of South California (USC) conducted a similar study and found that out of the top-grossing movies of 2015, only 49 of them had Asian characters and no Asians in leading roles.
Movies like Ghost in the Shell that are inspired from non-white sources become important here. They demand a non-white representation, and they are roles that create future movie stars. Allowing non-white performers to take up that spotlight would mean creating a generation of diverse movie stars. When a star-creating movie such as Ghost in the Shell—that so easily allows a launch for performers of Asian descent—refuses to cast an Asian actor/actress where, then, does the representation begin?
This is where the rise of whitewashing controversies gains significance. Such controversies mean that members of the audience are willing to stand up against the propagation of white as the default. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Keiko Agena (Gilmore Girls)said, “That’s what’s so exciting about these times,” citing TV shows like 13 Reasons Why and Fresh Off the Boat that bring in diversity without stereotyping. There is a wave of movement towards inclusive and realistic representation—and what is most exciting is that the movement is emerging from the grassroots. Proof exists in the numbers: Ghost in the Shell had a weak $19 million dollar domestic opening in the Box Office, despite Paramount Picture’s aggressive marketing. It also follows a long line of whitewashed poorly-performing Hollywood films like Matt Damon’s The Great Wall, Emma Stone-starrer Aloha and anime-inspired Avatar: The Last Airbender.
L-R: Emma Stone’s lead role as a Hawaiian woman; Matt Damon in Mandarin film The Great Wall; Noah Ringer playing the lead role of Aang, the Last Airbender
Even though big movies like Ghost in the Shell may not respond to this wave immediately, there will soon come a time when filmmakers realize how hollow white bodies are when they try to play characters of colour—especially when they can’t rake in big bucks anymore. Only then will we get non-white bodies that are not haunted by the ghosts of a whitewashed inheritance.