The Ghost in the Shell whitewashing is worse than you think

Hollywood has a fraught relationship with anime. The difficulties of pulling a movie together compound with the slightly boom-and-bust cycle of interest in Japanese animation properties, such that even if a movie gets made, is it in any way relevant to the interest of any potential audience?

A Dragonball movie in 1999 would have been a pretty keen bit of timing. One in 2009 is just asking “why bother?” even before you get to the casting decisions. It’s not that there weren’t Dragonball fans, but many of them were considerably older and had probably moved on to other things. Naruto or something.

So there’s a desire to strike when the iron is hot that’s completely missed. Is there an interest in making a Sailor Moon movie? Probably. Would it be worthwhile to do so? Or is Evangelion still a viable product? It seems that production companies aren’t asking about what’s really big RIGHT NOW that they could get started working on so that it might be relevant to the audience when it hits, but rather are asking about things that were hot five, ten, or twenty years ago, as if that’s the same thing.

But, whatever. Ghost in the Shell is the latest foray, and arguably the most ambitious yet. (The aborted attempts at Akira with Leonardo DiCaprio or whoever might have been bigger, but that pretty much entered development hell from the getgo so here we are.)

To say that GitS has been courting controversy since the initial casting announcement of Scarlett Johansson is to put it lightly. The movie has become something of a flashpoint of the whitewashing nature of Hollywood casting. And that’s perfectly justified criticism. There are a vast number of Asian actresses who could have played the role of Major Kusanagi. It looks especially bad because Johansson already effectively played a role that should have gone to an Asian actress in Lucy.

For a while, I was in the camp that besides the racism of the casting, it was a problem because it undermined the very Japanese-ness of GitS’ story. It was conceived and developed in light of the collapse of the bubble economy in the 80s, and reflects a lot of the economic and political climate of Japan at the time. The strange nature of how Japan had (and has) one of the large military budgets in the world while not, technically speaking, having a military in the sense we’d expect. Or how because of that Japan engaged in militarizing its economy so that it could be a dominant force on the world stage. And further what effects the rapid technological advancement on the Japanese industry had on its culture, with questions of identity and human relationship. While some of these things could be stretched to reflect other societies, taken in whole they are very Japanese at the core. If you start to shift that to another setting, or remove the Japanese people from the story, it doesn’t mean the same thing.

But it’s actually worse than that. Because I didn’t realize until recently what GitS was a literary work. And whitewashing it completely undoes.

I’ve been reading William Gibson recently. Despite being rather into cyberpunk as a genre (Shadowrun has been my RPG jam off and on for 25 years, now), I actually hadn’t sat down and read the godfather of the genre before. So in the past year or so I’ve read Neuromancer, Count Zero, and (just in the past week) Mona Lisa Overdrive, his original Sprawl trilogy that set the stage of almost all our cyberpunk expectations.

And, while I’ve enjoyed all three books, I have some reservations. They’re very well written, no doubt. Gibson has an economy of language that gets across a ton of setting and ideas in a few words, and it’s no surprise that he managed to create a sub-genre with his presentation of the Sprawl. Plus, you know, fun characters and some really neat surprises in plot advancement that would never fly today if you were trying to write a cyberpunk novel.

But at the same time, holy shit is the depiction of Japan really narrow and pretty damn racist. Except for a few scenes here and there, it’s mostly by inference, but you get Japan as this sort of faceless economic superpower that’s a weird conglomeration of business monoliths and yakuza corruption.

In a way, this makes sense. Gibson was writing in the 80s, when Japan’s economy was ascendant. There was a sense that, eventually, everything would be made in Japan. America, at the time, had a sort of love/hate relationship with Japan. There was respect that they managed to make things more efficiently that were cheaper and better than American products of the time, but also this distaste that Japan was going to eventually buy out everything.

This idea that Japan had militarized its economy was inherent in the construction of cyberpunk worlds. So Gibson can be perhaps forgiven for not being precognitive about the eventual bubble crash.

However, the language of the novels is still grating. Several characters, casually refer to Japanese people as “Japs” a cringe-worthy epithet decades before Gibson was writing. (It’s not as bad as Neal Stephenson’s use of Nips in his novels.)

And the use of actual Japanese is of questionable value. At times it feels like Gibson caught on to a few choice Japanese words and decided to run with them as if that gave him complete understanding of the language and people who spoke it. There’s a sequence where one Japanese character recites gomi (trash or garbage) and postulates about how Japan and England differ regarding it. It’s a, frankly, limiting view that doesn’t give the character a sense of being a real person, but rather a caricature, a collection of cultural memes.

So, what does this have to do with Ghost in the Shell?

Well, I think that in terms of cyberpunk, it’s very much an attempt (probably unconscious) to reverse the appropriation of Japanese society that had happened in cyberpunk stories from western writers. By making it a cyberpunk story that is in and about Japan, Shirow (in the manga) and Oshii (in the films) are giving  much more honest and personal take on the concepts of the genre. If the original cyberpunk ideas grew out of this westernized view of Japan’s ascendency, Ghost in the Shell is an attempt to say “hey, now, here’s what you’re really talking about.”

And that’s why the Japan of Ghost in the Shell feels more authentic and real than the Japan of Gibson and so forth: it actually is. It’s not a collection of westernized views on Japanese culture, but a logical projection from people in Japan about how their culture would develop. (Not, perhaps, a correct projection, but a believable one.)

So, the Ghost in the Shell film is pretty much failing on three levels. It took a high profile acting gig away from an Asian woman and gave it to a white woman. By doing so it’s undermined the very nature of the story itself. And it’s subjugated the rather revolutionary cultural reappropriation that happened by Ghost in the Shell’s creation.

So what are we going to get? A nuanced take on Japanese society in an increasingly technical world? Probably not. At best we’re going to get a generic actioner that’s regressed back to the dodgy cultural politics of Gibson’s Sprawl.

If it was 30 years ago, it might be a lot of fun. Today, it just feels tired, lazy, backwards, and racist.

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