10 Telling Details From ‘Ghost In The Shell’ Comics That Reveal Motoko Was Actually Whitewashed
And believe it or not, it actually happened before she got to Hollywood.
In the acclaimed 2003 film Lost in Translation (stick with me here), Bill Murray plays Bob Harris, a lonely, middle-aged actor who’s traveled to Japan to star in a Suntory brand whiskey ad campaign. During his trip, he meets and develops a semi-intimate relationship with Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a directionless, twenty-something American newlywed meandering toward an incredibly early pre-midlife crisis.
Hours before first meeting Charlotte, Bob is on the set of the Suntory Whiskey shoot, dressed in a black tuxedo jacket and bowtie. The director gives detailed instructions to Bob through a sweet but dippy interpreter whose English translation skills leave a helluva lot to be desired. And her failure to accurately interpret everything being said between the men creates an amusingly tense situation for the veteran actor from America.
Looking now to the 2017 film Ghost in the Shell, also starring Scartlett Johansson (see?), it seems as though a similar breakdown in communication played out. But here, DreamWorks failed to translate even a smidgeon of the success of the acclaimed 1995 Ghost in the Shell animated film from out of the guardedly territorial domain of Japanese manga and anime geek culture to that of general audiences in the West.
The attempt was, in fact, a tragic comedy of errors.
Controversy was sparked from the start when Johannson was named as the actress cast to play the role of Major Motoko Kusanagi, the franchise’s lead character. The announcement created a justifiably tense climate for both DreamWorks and Johannson.
Longtime GITS fans (this forty-something fanboy included) made it known via Facebook, Twitter, online petitions, and — much later — a shunned US box office that they/we weren’t in the least bit amused.
Accusations of whitewashing the story’s protagonist were leveled directly at DreamWorks, but the studio — shocking as it may sound — was actually only partly to blame. The studio’s poorly made decision to blur the lines of Motoko’s Japanese racial identity followed an earlier approach taken by Mamoru Oshii, the director of the acclaimed animated film upon which DreamWorks’ live-action remake was based.
Oshii took creative liberties with Motoko in his adaptation of the Ghost in the Shell manga originally written and drawn by series creator Masamune Shirow. According to Oshii, Motoko in his animated film was “race neutral.”
In other words she was…Caucasian-esque, meaning given a physical appearance that underscores a pernicious truth about how images of whiteness have long been admired or even fetishized in Japanese culture — especially within its underground “otaku” or geek subcultures.
From the space opera comic books and the anime of creators like Leiji Matsumoto (Space Pirate Captain Harlock) and Buichi Terasawa (Cobra), to the airbrushed cyborg babes of Hajime Sorayama, and the retro-styled lowbrow art posters of Rockin’ JellyBean, the female figures in the 2-dimensional pop culture of Japan are quite often given the complexions, facial features and measurements of Caucasian centerfolds from America.
Motoko’s blue eyes and Playboy pinup proportions in Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell adaptation approximate the aforementioned mold. But in spite of the Europeanizing “mods” to Motoko’s high-tech cyborg bod, longtime fans — particularly those who read the manga series translated into English in 1995 by Dark Horse Comics––still rightly saw Motoko as a Japanese woman.
That isn’t to say that this perception has been universal, though, as some fans are still justifiably confused. So we’re going now to the source to consider 10 telling details from the Ghost in the Shell comics that suggest that the twice whitewashed Major was once unambiguously Japanese.
10. Made in Japan (and set in Japan, too)
Though Mamoru Oshii’s adaptation was relocated to the neon lit streets of Hong Kong, the original story, written and drawn by Masamune Shirow — and which first appeared in manga or comic book form, not anime — took place in Japan. Shirow’s tale was set primarily in the fictional Japanese capital of New Port City, a futuristic metropolis situated in Japan’s Niihama prefecture. It’s there that Motoko Kusanagi serves as a leader in the law enforcement agency called Public Security Section 9, a special-operations task force comprised of former police detectives and former military officers like “the Major.”
As an aside, in the real world in 2018, the population of Japan is considered by the Japanese government to be 90% or more ethnically homogenous. In 2029AD, the time in which Masamune Shirow’s futuristic cyberpunk tale was set (a mere 11 years from now), the mostly homogenous Japanese population will still be the ethnic majority in Japan, even if Hollywood makes ten more box office flops suggesting otherwise.
9. What’s in a name?
Well, if the name in question is a one like Motoko Kusanagi, quite a bit, actually.
The surname/family name Kusanagi might have originated with a legendary sword recorded in Japanese mythology as being used to kill a dragon by Susanoo, the Shinto god of the sea and storms. The blade was later presented to Susanoo’s sister Amaterasu, the great sun goddess. The weapon’s formal name was Ame no Murakumo, which translates literally as “Gathering Clouds of Heaven.” But it was also known as Kusanagi no Tsurugi, meaning Grass-Cutting Sword. Later, the latter was shortened to Kusanagi, the name by which the sword is best known today.
And believe it or not, True Believer, the Kusanagi blade is recorded IRL Japan as being one of its imperial dynasty’s Three Sacred Treasures. The blade itself is actually believed by many to be in safekeeping at the Atsuta Shinto Shrine in Nagoya. But this can’t be officially confirmed, as the location of the sacred artifact is supposed to be a secret.
While on the subject of names, Motoko is a feminine first or given name. Another famous person with this traditional name — other than the fictional Major — is Motoko Hani, who is considered to be Japan’s first female journalist.
Now, call me cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs™, but Motoko Kusanagi is a name that one would expect a person of Japanese heritage to have; although, to be fair, in the story the name is apparently an alias. Still, Motoko could very well have chosen a name like Becky Beckerson. But why would someone from Japan do that? Exactly, they wouldn’t.
8. Sippin’ on some saké, si-si-sippin’ on some sake
In the early pages of Ghost in the Shell, we find Motoko sitting cross-legged like the Buddha on a rock outside an establishment somewhere in the quiet Japanese countryside. I don’t know about you, True Believer, but I don’t happen to know any women of Western heritage who will sit cross-legged like Buddha watchin’ cherry blossoms spiral to the ground as she drinks Junmai Ginjo saké. I mean, sure, they could. But that manga hasn’t been written yet. Therefore, culturally speaking, this just seems like a very Japanese thing.
7. Cardcaptor Sakura
On the page that follows the one discussed previously, our protagonist yells to her unit (Section 9) that their “round the clock cherry blossom viewing party’s over,” and that she’s taking them all to the strip club! The proclamation smacks of sarcasm, yes (and the fantasies of many an otaku), but who else but someone that grew up culturally Japanese would even partake of something like that? No, no, not the strip club, you silly goose. I mean drinking sake while watching cherry blossoms fall. Okay, sure, may-be the character played by Brittney Murphy (RIP) in Ramen Girl may have tried to emulate the quaintness of it all. But, come on. That just seems Japanese AF!
By the way, the cherry blossom, or “sakura” in Japanese, is the flowering part of any of several trees of genus Prunus, particularly the Japanese Flowering Cherry, whose scientific name is Prunus serrulata. (Take notes, kids, there may be a quiz later…)
6. Having a blonde moment
The panel above shows something in the way of a racial contrast between the Major and yet another another cyborg that works for Section 9. Maybe it’s me, but she sure looks like a Caucasian woman to me. Or…maybe she’s actually a *gasp* Japanese woman who’s just trapped in a white woman’s cyborg body…like the character played by Scartlett Johannson in the Hollywood version of Ghost in the Shell. (Yes, that was weapons-grade plutonium shade.)
5. “A Caucasian standard”
In the panel above, a cyborg tech converses with Motoko while in the process of producing a cyborg body, and makes mention of how Motoko’s particular cyborg body was made. As was the case with the Section 9 agent seen in the previous entry, the tech is also a blonde.
It’s worth mentioning that the artwork in Ghost in the Shell, as is common in the comic books published in Japan, is mostly black and white like in the panel shown above. But Masamune Shirow decided to break up each chapter by opening each with a few pages that were fleshed out in watercolor. So as it happens, it just worked out that many of the color sections offered panels that were useful for this post.
Anywho, in the left panel, the cyborg tech points out to Motoko that her body was a mass-production model — in contrast to the one currently going through production in the panel to the right. When the production pod opens, a custom body suggesting the phenotypical markers of a woman of European ancestry (similar to the tech) is revealed.
It shouldn’t have to be spelled out, but the white complexion and blonde hair does suggest a Caucasian phenotype.
phe·no·type: 1. the set of observable characteristics of an individual that has resulted from the interaction of its genotype with the environment.
As a related aside, when the Ghost in the Shell movie came out, some new school fanboy tried to debate yours truly in a Facebook thread with the undercooked idea that cyborg bodies in the story were made using, and I quote: “a Caucasian standard in order to help everyone fit in.”
“Talk about cultural erasure,” I replied. “A Caucasian standard…to help everybody fit in…in East Asia.”
I then asked the gentleman — seeing as how European-ness somehow becomes the key to inclusivity in fictional Future Asia™ — why would Motoko Kusanagi not have also chosen a European name, instead of one that’s so authentically Japanese? I mean, since we’re going for full on European assimilation and all.
Not surprisingly, he didn’t respond. I then drove a final nail into the discussion by pointing out how his views must have been based on Oshii’s animated movie and not the original manga.
Veteran comic book geeks know only too well how impossible it is to have a worthwhile NerdVersation® with some newbie who hasn’t read the comic books that both animated and live-action film adaptations are based on. It’s like bringing a pocketknife to a light saber fight. But they do it all the time.
4. And WTF is “race neutral” anyway?
As previously mentioned, director Mamoru Oshii described the Motoko Kusanagi in his animated adaptation of Ghost in the Shell as “race neutral.” But one must ask how race neutral could she have been if the producers at DreamWorks could so easily interpret a white actress as being more right for the role of Motoko than an actress of Asian or, specifically, Japanese heritage.
Is race neutral actually coded language suggesting an approximation to whiteness?
Despite the concept of race being wholly unscientific (there is only one actual race), race as a social construct is a very real thing. Humans have learned to recognize and to differentiate the varied physical characteristics that occur within our species. Throughout the varied cultures, arbitrary values have been applied to these physical traits. And race — as we’ve come to apply it worldwide — plays a large part in our cultural identities.
Ironically, questions about identity are central themes in both the original Ghost in the Shell comic book and Oshii’s animated adaptation. It’s a theme that is also commonly found running through a variety of manga and anime stories of Japan: the struggle of the individual to clearly define the self.
3. White Russian
The tall, pale, and beautiful woman talking to Section 9 Chief Aramaki in the panels featured above is Russian diplomat. Compared to the more tanned-looking complexion of the blonde-haired “nurse” in a panel posted with the previous entry, the Russian woman is white to the extreme. Her bleached buzz cut, blue eyes and blank paper complexion all suggest the near complete absence of pigment, perhaps as a way to symbolize someone from the cold regions of Russia, located geographically to the north of Japan.
2. Don’t it make my brown eyes blue…
Speaking of blue-eyes, another newjack fanboy on Facebook chimed in to the previously mentioned online discussion and tried to use Mamoru Oshii’s approach to Motoko as leverage to justify the casting of Johannason by saying that Motoko’s cyborg body had blue eyes. I pointed out to him that while that may have been true in Oshii’s animated adaptation, in the original manga by Masamune Shirow, Motoko’s eyes are brown — just like, oh, 99.9% of the Japanese population.
1. Blondes have more… manga
If DreamWorks wanted a white-ish character from a popular media franchise also created by Masamune Shirow, maybe they should have considered Deunan Knute from the ever-popular Appleseed. Hell, she’s even a blonde for cris’sake. And four animated films have also been made since the late 1980s depicting her as a white woman — which she is.
In the original manga, Deunan reveals to a group of friends that she’s actually one-quarter African. But most of the fans of Appleseed in America probably don’t know that because they’ve only watched the anime…
With such a small percentage of mixed ancestry, though, nobody would cry foul if Deunan got played by a white actress. Deunan’s “cafe au lait” lineage (as described in the book) wouldn’t even have to have been acknowledged on screen. But it would also be kinda cool if it were, because: Diversity.
Then again, if DreamWorks really wanted to court controversy (you know, like they did by casting ScarJo), they could’ve picked a person of mixed ancestry to play Deunan Knute and then defended the decision like the nerds on Big Bang Theory: “You must not have read the comic. You should read the comics that these films based on. You’ll be so much more informed.”
Paco Taylor is a writer from Chicago. He loves old history books, Japanese giant monster movies, hip-hop, anime, comics, Kit Kats, and kung fu flicks.