Japanese Geisha, American Heroine: Ghost in the Shell Meets Hollywood Mythology

Model and actress Fukushima Rila, cast as a gynoid geisha in Ghost in the Shell (2017), starring Scarlett Johansson.

Model and actress Fukushima Rila, cast as a gynoid geisha in Ghost in the Shell (2017).

On September 21st 2016, five ten-second teaser trailers for the new Ghost in the Shell film debuted as part of prime-time television show Mr. Robot. The teasers can be viewed here.

AltSciFi has focused several blog entries on the spectacle of how Hollywood has systematically whitewashed this classic Japanese cyberpunk anime. We do this partly to highlight an equally perplexing issue: why do so many people in Hollywood’s potential target audience seem to condone and make excuses for it?

Main protagonist Motoko Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell.

Main protagonist Motoko Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell. (+ link)
Sidebar: white ninja in medieval Japan? Ninja Scroll as ethnic comparison for Ghost in the Shell.

Anime characters depicting Japanese people have always been illustrated with stereotypical “gaijin” features. Everyone has their own pet theory as to why, but ultimately none of those theories matter.

Take another seminal anime from the 1990s, Ninja Scroll. All of the main characters are either ninja warriors or samurai. The story is set in medieval Japan. And nearly all of the characters look like they come from somewhere in Europe. (In fact, the few “Japanese-looking” characters appear as exceptions to the rule, much like Ghost in the Shell’s Chief Aramaki.)

Does a cast of nearly all-white ninja and samurai make any sense at all in medieval Japan? No, of course not, and it doesn’t make any more sense in a future Japan. Japan would rather spend billions to construct robots (that look like photorealistic Japanese people) than invite immigration to ease the looming population crisis.

Roboticist Ishiguro Kazuo poses with lifelike female Kodomoroid android (gynoid) robots in 2014.
Roboticist Ishiguro Kazuo poses with lifelike female Kodomoroid android (gynoid) robots in 2014.

Conveniently, that target audience is also quite vocal on social media sites like Reddit. Below you’ll find the most common excuses for whitewashing Ghost in the Shell, recited ad infinitum on Reddit and decisively refuted here. The real question of this entry is whether or not your own biases are visible to you. Read more and find out.

1. Hollywood is all about money, so of course they cast a popular white actress (Scarlett Johansson) as Motoko Kusanagi. No point complaining about it.

This is like saying “discrimination exists, so it’s fine”. The fundamental attribute of bias is that the biased thinker cannot see their own flawed thinking, and therefore ignores the damage caused by it.

In the case of Ghost in the Shell, the bias simply reinforces Hollywood’s tendency to whitewash as many roles as possible. This leads to a situation where inequality in Hollywood has remained unchanged for almost a decade.

2. All I care about is if it’s a cool action flick.

Congratulations, your bias is showing! Now imagine being Japanese-American. Watch yet another Japanese story appropriated by Hollywood executives as an excuse to cast the hottest white starlet in a “cool action flick”. You would see things a bit differently, because the racial/ethnic bias of being non-Japanese would no longer distort your thinking.

Ghost in the Shell gives Hollywood a perfect excuse to cast within ethnic boundaries. They could have said, “hey, we have this young Japanese actress named Fukushima Rila. She proved herself capable of action in The Wolverine (2013) and she speaks perfect American English. We also have Kikuchi Rinko, who starred in Pacific Rim (2013) and was also great in that action role.” Instead of offering a Japanese actress — already available and accessible to Hollywood — the role, they gave it to yet another white actress.

If you don’t care, then congratulations. Your bias is showing, and you are the reason why Hollywood keeps giving lip service to diversity without taking any real action to change.

3. Kusanagi isn’t really supposed to be Japanese, anyway. Look at her. She’s obviously white (or “non-ethnic”).

Ghost in the Shell is set in Niihama City, Japan. All of the characters are Japanese — particularly Kusanagi (hint: her real name is 草薙素子). Given that the characters are intentionally named, the only white main character in the anime could be Batou (“bateau”, French for “boat”). If anything, GITS should be set in Hong Kong, as that was the model for Niihama City. Considering the characters’ fondness for San Miguel Beer (see images below), the story might even be set in the Philippines.

Image of Ghost in the Shell's Motoko Kusanagi drinking San Miguel Beer, popular in Hong Kong and the Philippines.
Image of Ghost in the Shell's  Batou drinking San Miguel Beer, popular in Hong Kong and the Philippines.

Images of Ghost in the Shell’s Motoko Kusanagi and Batou drinking San Miguel Beer, popular in Hong Kong and the Philippines.

Japan is an extremely ethnocentric place, and that it is unlikely to change. For example, the police blatantly profile members of the Japanese Muslim community of 100,000 people, in some cases following them in plain sight. When confronted, the police simply say that they’re “acting in service of national security” and continue as if nothing is wrong. Police and government surveillance of Muslims has been defended and upheld as constitutional in Japanese court.

Hayashi Junko, Japanese Muslim woman and lawyer.

Hayashi Junko, Japanese Muslim woman and lawyer.

Now ask yourself: is there any likelihood that Japan’s elite anti-terrorism commandos, such as those from Ghost in the Shell, would ever be assigned cybernetic bodies that look like white people? They would stand out like, well, white people in Japan. That would make their jobs (especially for Kusanagi, as she frequently operates undercover) vastly more difficult, if not impossible. Unless you accept the “whiteness” of anime characters as a stylistic quirk and nothing else, it literally makes no sense to cast white people in a Ghost in the Shell film.

4. It’s just fiction! Enjoy it as summer blockbuster escapism.

Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell (2017).

Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell (2017).

This is undeniably true, and is also the last refuge of someone who couldn’t be bothered to think about racism in popular culture. “It’s just fiction” completely and deliberately misses the point of there being different human cultures around the world, all of whom use fictional stories (religion, mythology) to communicate their historical and cultural values. There is no such thing as “it’s just fiction”, just as there’s no such thing as a human being without culture.

How could Hollywood (or an independent film) accomplish a “real”, non-exploitative live-action Ghost in the Shell?

The only way that Hollywood could have “whitened” Ghost in the Shell in a non-racist way is by setting the story somewhere else entirely. For example, they could have shifted the location to Belgium as a new hub for anti-terror activity around the world, then brought in a few Japanese agents from the NAICHO [2]), the new “Japanese MI6 (or CIA)” agency. In a European context, a predominantly white cast would have made sense.

Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell (2017).

Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell (2017).

An even better option would be to simply find Japanese actors and create a legitimately Japanese film — or an international production set in Niihama City (i.e. futuristic Japan) that at the very least stars a Japanese actress as Motoko Kusanagi.

With every successive announcement of new images and trailers for Ghost in the Shell (2017), the racial biases of Hollywood become harder to ignore. What is less apparent, however, is the bias of audiences who cheer for whitewashing, or naively make excuses for it. Ghost in the Shell is a perfect opportunity to highlight both Hollywood’s cultural cynicism and the casual blindness of those who endorse such cynicism, paying millions at the box office for yet another whitewashed story appropriated from another culture.

Main protagonist Motoko Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell.

草薙素子. (+ link)

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.