3 Idiotic Defenses of Whitewashing in Ghost in the Shell (2017)

I’ll be honest, I don’t think there is a defense for the racial insensitivity of this project that isn’t stupid, but I try to keep an open mind. I’d love to hear one, frankly. But I’m done entertaining any version of the following:

1. “She’s a cyborg, cyborgs have no race. Why does she have to be Japanese?”

She’s not a robot, you idiot, she’s a human being. Her backstory changes depending on what you’re reading/watching, but the one thing that has remained consistent is her identity as a 1) Japanese 2) woman. She was born that way, and she chose/was given a cybernetic body that matched her identity, and has never in any official media decided to alter that identity. Motoko Kusanagi is not Rachel Dolezal.

For all the philosophical musing in Mamoru Oshii’s film duology regarding the nature of consciousness and the capacity for a soul to be transferred from an organic body to a mechanical one, when it came to identity, the films were quite circumspect about what they were interested in exploring. The importance of memory and body in creating and maintaining an identity was central to the concerns of the films. And while the Major (SPOILERS) seems like she might have transcended her body, we don’t see her, say, choosing to inhabit the body of a Black man. Or a dog. The voice we recognize as the Major remains, suggesting she still holds on to her identity as a Japanese female.

That’s the closest we get. The Stand Alone Complex and Arise series aren’t interested in the high-mindedness of Oshii’s films, preferring a more straightforward hard cyberpunk approach to the material. The franchise has completely avoided broaching the topic of “transracial” and transgender identities (which is remarkable given that its fictional world makes modifying or switching bodies easy and commonplace). Why? Who knows. Maybe the creators think that the responsibility to thoughtfully deconstruct race and gender and confront our attachments to and persecutions of those constructs is beyond their ability and would rather not open that can of worms. Or maybe they just don’t care. It doesn’t matter.

Rupert Sanders’ film is the first to feature a “transracial” Major, although even that categorization is flimsy at best given that (SPOILERS) she doesn’t choose to be white, she’s forced into a white body. Inside, she’s still Japanese. Which is fucked up enough as it is, but it’s made worse by the fact the film doesn’t seem interested in exploring what any of this means. It’s simply a plot point, nothing more. The film does not do anything to justify the “cyborgs have no race” argument in any way.

2. “But people in Japan are fine with it! Why should anybody else be offended?”

Because, you colossal dingus, those people live in Japan. They have their own massive entertainment industry, turning out films, anime, TV, manga, and literature that caters to them. They are comfortably swaddled in positive representations of themselves, while living in a country where over 98% of the population are ethnic Japanese. It isn’t surprising that they don’t really care about ScarJo’s casting.

The people who are mad are Asian Americans. They live in a country where the Asian population is a mere 5.6% of the total population and where speaking roles for Asians are roughly 5% of the speaking roles in film and television, with the percentages for leading roles hovering around 1%-2%. Which is to say, they’re a minority in this country. Hollywood simply doesn’t tell very many stories about them.

So when Hollywood does make a movie about them, an expensive tentpole movie set in futuristic Japan with a Japanese woman as the lead, and decides not only to take that precious lead role (remember, 1%-2%) and give it to a white woman and on top of that change the character’s name from Motoko Kusanagi to Mira Killian, don’t you think that maybe Asian Americans would feel just a little bit excluded from our society? Maybe even unwanted?

3. “This is a universal story set in a multicultural world. It has a diverse cast.”

First of all, you need to get this through the cavernous abyss of your skull: Ghost in the Shell has never been “universal.” It is a product of Japanese culture that examines Japanese culture. It was created in the late 80’s and early 90’s, at the height of Japan’s dizzying technological ascendancy. It’s set in a fictional Japan that embraced cybernetics as an avenue toward regaining relevance and even dominance on the global stage after being forced to forever stunt its military power as a punishment for its imperialist aggression in WWII. It makes a point to show that other countries chose to reject cybernetics, suggesting there’s something unique about Japanese society that would lead to this. Certainly, a cursory examination of Japanese obsession with outlandish technology in anime would support the idea that this techno-fetish is definitely a thing.

Secondly, Japan is one of the most ethnically homogenous countries on the planet. The idea of any Japanese city being portrayed as a multicultural melting pot like New York City or London just so they can fit in more white people on the screen is pretty offensive on its own, erasing the very qualities that make Japan Japan.

Third, unlike cinema as a whole, anime is an art form specific to Japan. The Japanese film industry was essentially destroyed during WWII, and in the aftermath a new art form rose to fill the need for visual art, one inspired by American comics. Manga quickly gave rise to anime, and its artists were keenly aware of the history of their medium’s birth. So many classics of Japanese animation deal directly or indirectly with the scars and consequences of the war, and Ghost in the Shell is clearly indebted to that legacy to anyone who cares to notice.

Arguing that Ghost in the Shell is a universal story is like arguing that Get Out is a universal story. Get Out is a film specifically about American racism. So much of what makes that film work is its attention to the details of the racial landscape in this country that don’t exist in other places in the world. Delete the references to Obama’s third term, the TSA, the police officer, the fist bump, etc. and replace them with “universal” alternatives and you’ve successfully killed everything that made that film special. It would become just another ordinary genre movie.

Hmm. That sounds familiar.