In the Face of Reality: An Overlooked-Yet-Obvious Reason Why Ghost in the Shell’s Motoko Kusanagi Should Be Played by a Japanese Actress — not Scarlett Johansson

Ghost in the Shell (1995). Motoko Kusanagi.
Ghost in the Shell (1995). Motoko Kusanagi.

A peculiar idea has been floating around the World Wide Web recently. The idea is that Scarlett Johansson, an American actress of Danish/Ashkenazi descent, should play a Japanese woman named Motoko Kusanagi in a live-action adaptation of 1995 anime film Ghost in the Shell.

Some people seem to genuinely not realize that Motoko Kusanagi is Japanese.

The Only Plausible Reason

If we’re honest, Johansson is playing Kusanagi because her brand is stronger than any Japanese actress in Hollywood as of 2016.

The only semi-plausible argument is that Hollywood wanted ScarJo’s name recognition, so they whitewashed the character. That still doesn’t sound politically correct, however (because of obvious racism), so they try to brush ethnicity under the table completely.

Here’s Where It Gets Weird

Anime characters are designed to have anatomically impossible features and abilities that are equally implausible. For example, a human cranium is not anatomically designed to house typically huge anime-like eyeballs, tiny noses and miniscule mouths.

Anime is a stylistic choice suited for Japanese cartoons. It’s not a depiction of real people as they would appear. Ghost in the Shell is relatively realistic, but still not “real”…

…unless you really think that Japanese people would ever, en masse, decide that they’d suddenly rather have the android bodies of white people. In that case, the “Kusanagi is Caucasian” idea would make perfect sense since the whole idea of being Japanese would, for no apparent reason, be the same as being white. Or Japanese people so deeply hate looking Asian that they’d rather body-swap with white people if at all possible.

Fortunately, though, that makes no sense whatsoever in reality.

So Obvious That No One’s Mentioned It Yet

Why are anime characters depicted as Caucasoid? There are various theories. The fact is that Ghost in the Shell’s characters are in Japan, from Japan, portraying a Japanese story. They are Japanese people. In the real world, they would almost certainly not choose to look white, just as most white people would probably not select Japanese bodies. In any case, that’s not explained in the story world, so it’s irrelevant.

Japanese people, as a group who are nationalistic to the point of xenophobia, have no particular fetish for transforming into white people.

Kusanagi and the rest of the cast of Ghost in the Shell are Japanese, so in an authentic live-action film, they should be portrayed by Japanese actors. Japanese people look Japanese (or more honestly, not only Japanese people look that way, since the stereotypical “Japanese” appearance may be strongly descended from Han Chinese ancestry).

One fact is certain: Japanese people definitely don’t look like Scarlett Johansson.

Japan Isn’t White, and Live-Action Isn’t Anime

A real Japanese Motoko Kusanagi would not look like Robot Scarlett Johansson.
A real Japanese Motoko Kusanagi would not look like Robot Scarlett Johansson.

Another aspect of the “Kusanagi isn’t really Japanese” argument states that the Japan of Ghost in the Shell is no longer exclusively Japanese. Kusanagi’s cybernetic body could be white, or any other ethnicity, because ethnicity itself no longer matters.

Here are the facts of real-life Japan that matter for Ghost in the Shell:

Postwar Japan has officially maintained (justified in part by the feel-good pseudoscience of nihonjinron) that Japan is a monocultural, monoethnic and homogeneous society.

It wasn’t until 1997 that the government officially recognized that any kind of minority even exists in Japan (the Ainu), and it took until 2008 before the Diet passed a resolution recognizing the Ainu as an indigenous people “with a distinct language, religion and culture.” [1]

Translation: the Japanese government barely even recognizes that there is such a thing as diversity in Japan.

Ethnicity in Japan [2]:
Japanese 98.5%, Koreans 0.5%, Chinese 0.4%, other 0.6%

Translation: there are practically no non-Japanese living in Japan (~1.5 percent), mainly because of deeply discriminatory immigration policies. It’s not only that Japanese people like being Japanese — Japan actively excludes non-Japanese.

This is where the “white is equivalent to Japanese” logic keeps failing: Japanese people are not white people, do not want to become white, and actively exclude everyone who is not ethnically Japanese (including white people) from participating in Japanese society. That is extremely unlikely to change.

Ironically, Japan spends billions of yen creating robots (that look like Japanese people [3][4] or non-human anime characters — not realistic-looking white people) rather than simply open their doors to immigration.

At no point in time does Ghost in the Shell mention creating a magical “post-racial” society. It’s likely that real Japanese androids would look like Japanese people, extrapolating from the ethnic composition of Japanese society and current developments in robotics. (By the way, the guy who built a Scarlett Johansson robot [5] in 2016 is named Ricky Ma. He’s from Hong Kong, not Japan.)

Ethnicity is a fundamental aspect of Japanese culture. ScarJo apologists mistake “white” for “everybody”. What they’re saying is that “not constrained to ethnicity” actually means “everyone has permission to turn themselves white” — which is racist, wrong, and in light of basic facts about Japanese culture and identity, completely clueless.

Racial bias is made even more obvious by the fact that if “no one was constrained by ethnicity”, there would be people of all ethnicities in Ghost in the Shell — not just white people. The bias for white appearance is a convention of anime, not an idealistically racist appeal for an “ethnically unconstrained future” that has magically turned white. This is compounded by the fact that the world’s population will become less white and more black/yellow/brown (Africa, Asia, Latin America) until at least 2050 [6].

Solution for White-Washing: Open Your Eyes

What if you’re one of the many people afflicted by the “Motoko Kusanagi is white” bias?

Try re-watching Ghost in the Shell as if the characters were actually in Japan, rather than some generic-yet-exotic, futuristic cyberpunk locale.

Or, Ghost in the Shell fans could do something amazingly rare and actually educate themselves about the culture that creates their entertainment.

And here’s another crazy idea: watch the original anime with English subtitles. Beware the ultimate revelation: No one is speaking English in Ghost in the Shell. They’re all speaking Japanese.

Learn More

1. Arudou, Debito. 2010. Census blind to Japan’s true diversity. Japan Times. Retrieved from http://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2010/10/05/issues/census-blind-to-japans-true-diversity/#.Umt_AflmhcZ.
2. The World Factbook: Ethnic Groups. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Retrieved from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2075.html.
3. Ulanoff, Lance. March 13, 2016. Eerie Geminoid robot can now carry on a conversation. Mashable. Retrieved from http://mashable.com/2016/03/13/geminoid-robot-conversation/#XysVBzP9JSqS.
4. Guizzo, Erico. 23 April 2010. Hiroshi Ishiguro: The Man Who Made a Copy of Himself. Retrieved from http://spectrum.ieee.org/robotics/humanoids/hiroshi-ishiguro-the-man-who-made-a-copy-of-himself.
5. Kaminski, Margot E. April 2016. What the Scarlett Johansson Robot Says About the Future. Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2016/04/what_the_scarlett_johansson_robot_says_about_the_future.html.
6. World Population Growth, 1950–2050. Population Reference Bureau. Retrieved from http://www.prb.org/Publications/Lesson-Plans/HumanPopulation/PopulationGrowth.aspx.

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