My Name is Motoko, and I’m From Japan: Cybernetic Body, Japanese Mind, and Hidden Glitches in Human Thinking.

Image of Motoko Kusanagi from 1995 anime 'Ghost in the Shell'.
  Image of Motoko Kusanagi from 1995 anime ‘Ghost in the Shell’.

An amusing glitch bedevils the minds of many who decry Hollywood’s whitewashing of Ghost in the Shell.

There are, in fact, two such cognitive illusions. You can see one of them for yourself right now. Look at the image above. What do you see?

Glitch #1: I (Wasn’t) Born This Way

Yes. The illustration above is Motoko Kusanagi, captured in a frame of 1995 Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell. Look again.

Yes! Motoko Kusanagi has stunningly European features. She wasn’t born that way — she was intentionally designed by her Japanese creator, Mamoru Oshii. Ukrainian actress Olga Kurylenko, pictured below, could be her real-life twin.

Image of actress Olga Kurylenko.
  Image of actress Olga Kurylenko.

Seeing the Glitch

Questions:

  • Is Motoko Kusanagi depicted as white in the anime? Yes.
  • Is white-washing wrong? Yes.

Both are true.

Many who most loudly protest the character’s whitewashing seem unable to acknowledge both at the same time. They seem to literally _see_ Kusanagi as Asian, as if acknowledging her Caucasian appearance would somehow render their complaints illegitimate.

Such illusion-riddled thinking demonstrates the axiom, “who don’t believe what we see — we see what we believe.” There is often rampant-yet-hidden racial bias on the side of those who fight racism itself, and Ghost in the Shell is no exception. This is more clearly visible in the next cognitive illusion.

Glitch #2: Racial Territoriality

“If you don’t look like me, you can’t write about my culture”. This may seem sensible, if you’re of the school that believes in experience as the only true form of learning.

In the case of creativity, that school of thought also leads down the rabbit hole of racism and exclusion. It’s a cognitive trap that leads to a sewer of mislaid assumptions. The problem with “whitewashing” is not that white creators tell non-white stories. The problem is that non-white voices are so often ignored.

Seeing the Glitch

The conversation that brought this question to mind can be read here (click here):

Author JY Yang: “If we don’t accept whitewashed [films], why do we accept white authors writing Asian chars/culture as diversity?”

She then went on to defend the position expressed in the question. Devil’s Advocate can be a useful game to play with racist/sexist opinions. It’s unfortunate when a person apparently believes those same opinions.

Racial territoriality is a facet of racial pride. Racial pride is a “positive” reframe of racism itself. Any decently creative mind can empathize and learn to use emotionally authentic voices from any race, culture or ethnicity.

Ethnicities are not alien species. Even aliens are often used as metaphors for our own shared humanity. If you can write convincing aliens, you can write authentic humans. It’s as simple as that.

Ignore the asinine bloviating of close-minded writers (or other “artists”) with weak imaginations. As we saw in the previous cognitive illusion, membership in a minority group doesn’t prevent racially biased (or in this second case, outright racist) opinions.

Racial territoriality is a prison for creative minds. Anyone who strives to abort the imaginative process has already last the plot and purpose of creativity itself.

Envisioning Real Ghosts

It would be brilliant to finally see (or create) a faithful live-action Ghost in the Shell film, starring Japanese actors. It could be equally amazing to see a fluently, culturally Japanese Motoko Kusanagi who looks as European as she was drawn in the manga and original anime. Even better if the film was given its blessing by Mamoru Oshii himself.

Science fiction exists as a means to examine social issues, as noted above regarding metaphorical extraterrestrials. If anyone tells you that your skin color or cultural background should determine what you can and can’t do, realize that you have nothing to prove to a racist. They are simply inviting you to ignore them, immerse yourself in cultural research, and create new works as your imagination sees fit. The boundaries of creativity are, as always, up to you — and no one else.

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One thought on “My Name is Motoko, and I’m From Japan: Cybernetic Body, Japanese Mind, and Hidden Glitches in Human Thinking.

  1. Francesco says:

    Questions:
    Is the creator Mamoru Oshii? No, the actual creator is Masamune Shirow. Mamoru Oshii is the director of the anime adaptation.
    Was Major Motoko Kusanagi Japanese? Yes, in the original manga she was born Japanese.
    Did Major Motoko Kusanaki’s cybernetic body look Japanese? Yes, in the original manga her cybernetic body has Asian features.
    Is the live action movie adaptation subject to white-washing? Yes, the live action movie adaptation is based on the anime, NOT the original manga, therefore the casting was based on the distorted idea that her body looked Caucasian.

    The live action movie adaptation is an American version of what was originally intended as a Japanese setting.
    Glitch solved.

    Like

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