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)

The Great Wall Versus Ghost in the Shell: Why Constance Wu is Wrong About Hollywood Whitewashing, And How to Fix It

Blog post by actress Constance Wu. Click to enlarge.

Blog post by actress Constance Wu. Click to enlarge.

Actress Constance Wu wrote a blog entry about whitewashing that seems to have struck a chord on social media. It’s almost too popular to ignore, as the text keeps popping up here and there.

Constance Wu’s blog entry bears similarities to AltSciFi’s reasons for creating an independent live-action Ghost in the Shell film, starring an all-Japanese cast. The main difference is that Wu’s argument doesn’t make any sense beyond self-righteously pleading/shouting for change.

What common mistakes does Constance Wu make, despite her good intentions? How would an all-Japanese live-action Ghost in the Shell take a different approach? Find out below.

Constance Wu writes:

On the Great Wall: We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that only a white man can save the world. It’s not based in actual fact.

Agreed. So far so good. We can fast-forward two sentences to the first problematic part.

Money is the lamest excuse in the history of being human.

Actually, money is the only reason why _anyone_ makes movies in Hollywood. If you’re going to finance a $135 million film “whose… budget makes it the most expensive film ever shot entirely in China“, yes, money really is the key factor.

By contrast, an independent film — one without a monstrous price tag — could more honestly make the claim that it was made for the fans rather than solely for the box office returns.

So is blaming the Chinese investors. (POC’s choices can be based on unconscious bias, too.)

It may be “lame” to blame Chinese investors, but yes, literally the only reason for investing in a business venture (such as a big-budget film) is to earn a return on the investment. Mind-reading investors’ motivations as “unconscious bias” is tantamount to calling them Asian Uncle Toms because you know them better than they know themselves. Constance Wu may have unconsciously used an underhanded rhetorical tactic (also known as “projection” in some forms of psychojargon), but we’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. Still wrong, though.

Remember it’s not about blaming individuals, which will only lead to soothing their lame “b-but I had good intentions! But… money!” microaggressive excuses.

Here Wu blames “individuals” for being “microaggressive” and making “lame excuses”, while admonishing the reader not to blame anyone for making lame microaggressive excuses. Note also that she completely misuses the word “microaggressive” here, but it sounds good, as unnecessary jargon often does.

Rather, it’s about pointing out the repeatedly implied racist notion that white people are superior to POC [People of Color] and that POC need salvation from our own color via white strength.

Well, yes, that is the end result, but the problem isn’t Matt Damon or inscrutably microaggressive Chinese investors. We’ll see more about what the problem actually is in a moment.

When you consistently make movies like this, you ARE saying that. YOU ARE. Yes, YOU ARE. YES YOU ARE. Yes dude, you fucking ARE.

Digression for unintentional humour? Flawlessly achieved. ;) Skipping a few sentences of repetition…

…we’re rrrreally starting to get sick of you telling us, explicitly or implicitly, that we do [need salvation via “white strength”].

Agreed. This is essentially the moral reason why whitewashing is a problem.

Think only a huge movie star can sell a movie? That has NEVER been a total guarantee.

It’s a question of probability, not guarantees. Anyone financing a $135 million dollar business venture is going to want the odds in their favor. So yes, it’s likely that only a huge movie star can reliably sell a film that needs to earn $135 million before even starting to turn a profit.

Why not TRY to be better?

Unless you can find anyone who wants to throw millions of dollars down the drain for a pop culture experiment, “better” doesn’t have anything to do with this issue at all.

If white actors are forgiven for having a box office failure once in a while, why can’t a POC sometimes have one?

Because the odds are astronomically higher that a white actor will succeed. If white actors were not seen as “heroes” — due to racism or any other reason — no one would cast them in hero roles.

In the case of Matt Damon’s casting for The Great Wall, the real question is, “why have Asian men been pushed aside for so long?” The answer is definitely not, “let’s give Asian actors more opportunities to fail in big box-office films, thereby confirming the fact that there’s widespread bias against Asian men in American cinema (and for some people, further confirming that Asian men are unfit to be major movie stars).”

For Ghost in the Shell, there’s an ironic twist at work. Japanese people in Japan generally don’t care that a white actress (Scarlett Johansson) has been cast as a Japanese character (Kusanagi Motoko). But Ghost in the Shell has a global fanbase, many thousands of whom are outraged that Kusanagi isn’t being played by a Japanese actress like Kikuchi Rinko or Fukushima Rila. in contrast to The Great Wall, then, there is a well-defined audience for Japanese actors to be chosen as cast members in a live-action Ghost in the Shell.

And how COOL would it be if you were the movie that took the “risk” to make a POC as your hero, and you sold the shit out of it?!

Film studios “sell the shit out of” all of their major blockbuster films. Many of them flop even when headlined by popular, well-known (not always white) actors like Matt Damon. The amount of risk for a studio to push films starring comparatively unknown Asian actors would simply make no financial sense at all.

The whole community would be celebrating!!

Sadly, no one cares unless they can dance their way to the bank.

If nothing else, you’d get some mad respect (which is WAY more valuable than money)

No. Credibility that builds reputation is more important than money, mainly because a strong reputation makes it easier to make money in the future. “Respect” only matters to people who feel disrespected, and in that case, those who are giving the disrespect already don’t care. In the real world, respect is an afterthought for anyone who needs to build a long-lasting reputation.

So MAKE that choice. I know that overcoming your own bias and doing something differently takes balls… well don’t you WANT balls?

The mind-reading psychojargon about “bias” returns here, as well as some cringe-worthy gender-baiting about “wanting balls”. Constance Wu might be trying to say “courage”, but her own gender bias creeps into her choice of words. We can score that as more unintentional humour, perhaps…

Wu then tries to take on the other Uncle-Tom “POCs” who don’t care by positioning herself as a True Believer Who Really, Really Cares. It’s a false dichotomy, of course, because it’s entirely possible to be Asian, to care and to disagree with Constance Wu — all at the same time.

Why do you think it was so nice to see a nerdy white kid have a girl fall in love with him? Because you WERE that nerdy white kid who felt unloved.

This unintentionally describes how marketing demographics work. It’s not based on building mountains of “respect” or possessing a plethora of “balls”. It’s about appealing to a large enough audience to turn a profit.

Hollywood is supposed to be about making great stories. So make them.

The core failure of Constance Wu’s argument comes full circle here. Did you notice it?

Yes — she started out by declaring a false statement as true (“money is a lame excuse” when in fact money is the only reason to make blockbuster films like The Great Wall).

The rest of her argument was an appeal to emotion (“don’t think about whether this makes any sense! Just keep reading and feeling more strongly that I’m right, because it feels right and probably confirms what you already believe!”).

At the end, Constance Wu asserts a starry-eyed ideology about Hollywood that has never been true. Hollywood has never been about making great stories. The purpose of investing millions of dollars into a film is to earn millions more in return. That’s all that Hollywood has ever been about. To believe anything else is nothing more than a pleasant lie. That lie has now gone viral in the form of Constance Wu’s well-intentioned blog post.

How Could an Independent, Live-Action Ghost in the Shell Film Be Different?

The way that an independent Ghost in the Shell film would differ is that we step outside the Hollywood machine entirely. There is an audience for an authentic Ghost in the Shell film, starring Japanese actors. The only question is whether that audience would be willing to pay enough to make the production a success.

White-washing will almost certainly never be solved by blaming, or mind-reading, or sort-of-blaming investors and movie studios. The real problem is that the general population reliably goes to see films starring white actors. So more films starring white actors continue to be made. Why are Asian people, and Asian men specifically, considered by society to be unfit for the role of “hero”? That’s not a problem that Hollywood can, or has any reason to, try to solve. Hollywood is not a morality engine — it’s a cash machine.

The proving ground for Asians and other ethnicities is not in blockbusters at all. Independent films are the only place where relatively modest budgets allow for experimentation. And that is exactly the niche that an indie live-action Ghost in the Shell can fulfill, if the audience is there and the price is right.

From Han Seoul-Oh To Digital Indie Film Revolution: Our Fast and Furious Sci-Fi Future

Between the illegal street racing scene and consumer-friendly car shows, anyone who’s spent time in either one knows a closely guarded trade secret: hidden deep beneath layers of sweet chrome, slick paint jobs and bad attitude, gearheads who truly love cars are garage-bound nerds at heart, tinkering with computer systems nestled between an engine and four wheels.

Fast and Furious. Daminick Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez).

Only a massive nerd would decide to ride _on_ the car rather than in it…

The juxtaposition of badass and mama’s boy is one of the thematic underpinnings of the original Fast and Furious (2001), starring a 1970 Dodge Charger and 1995 Toyota Supra. Human actors accompanying the roaring machines have become household names as well, led by Vin Diesel (real name Mark Sinclair) and the unfortunately deceased Paul Walker.

Fast and Furious takes much of its visual appeal from science fiction and cross-pollinates those cues into the racing genre. Racers prepare by running diagnostics on schematic-laden computer screens and dashboards full of esoteric switches and buttons. A chosen few characters expose tanks of an explosive compound that can grant high-performance cars the ability to “blast off” not unlike a rocket destined for outer space. Tailpipes breathe fire with every pump of the gas pedal at the starting line.

The race begins. We tour the engine from a fuel’s eye view, cam shafts, pistons and fan belts whining like jets initiating liftoff. As we enter stage two of the race, Brian (Paul Walker) jabs a button on his steering wheel to inject nitrous oxide into the engine. Attaining the first phase of hyperspeed, backgrounds warp and bleed together into a neon blur. A warning alarm appears in one computer’s display with a dire message that would be right at home in Star Wars’ often-malfunctioning Millenium Falcon: “Warning: Danger to Manifold”.

Warning: Danger to Manifold. Fast and Furious (2001), Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker).

Just a little error message, nothing to worry about…

Naturally, the warning is ignored in favor of adrenaline. Brian presses the second nitrous oxide release button and we enter phase two of hyperspeed, drivers in their cockpits grappling at the controls like pilots fighting supersonic g-forces while their technologically superpowered vehicles take off toward the finish line.

Air streaming past aerodynamic contours gives a breathless sense of high-speed flight. Sparks fly as the racers use dogfight manuevers worthy of Luke Skywalker, bringing the audience on an exhilarating ride that appears to bend space and time.

Who wins the race? The Supra or the Charger? O’Connor or Torretto? See, hear and feel it for yourself:

Sung Kang and the Mythology of Han

Fast and Furious continues its blend of street racing and sci-fi most notably in the character named Han, played by actor Sung Kang. You probably don’t have to guess the character’s last name; in case you do, it will be mentioned in full as you keep reading.

Sung Kang’s Han character broke through Asian “nerd”/”martial artist” stereotypes in several ways, perhaps best described by Kang himself:

Prior to “Tokyo Drift,” the iconic perception of Asians in Hollywood films has been either the Kung Fu guy, the Yakuza guy or some technical genius. It used to be such a joke, to be laughed at rather than with. I’ve gotten to travel and meet people all over the world who embrace Han. He’s the kind of guy that I would like to emulate in terms of his values. He’s just a guy you want to hang out with. The Asian thing totally disappears. When I started acting, I hoped I could make some kind of positive contribution to this world. When I get a letter from some kid in Nebraska saying that, prior to Han, nobody wanted to be his friend because Asians weren’t cool if they weren’t into martial arts — Now he’s accepted and recognized as a human being. That’s pretty awesome, right? That’s pretty awesome.

Acting teacher — and successful theater actor in his own right — Reginald Veneziano offers practical advice for aspiring young “ethnic” actors: your first roles may likely be stereotypical [his was the “Italian” stereotype]. Become known for playing one type of role very well and eventually, you will be given opportunities to play other characters based on the strength of past performances.

It’s solid advice that has worked quite well for him and many of his students.

What if we take the examples of both Vin Diesel (writer/director/actor), and actor Sung Kang in his longtime collaboration with director Justin Lin? If we combine them with the self-publishing power of the Internet, there may be alternative approaches that can benefit anyone with a story and a dream, regardless of ethnicity.

Multi-Facial, Steven Spielberg and Pitch Black

Vin Diesel [real name: Mark Sinclair] started out in 1990 as an “in-between” actor with movie-star aspirations, yet trapped in Off-Off-Off Broadway productions. Although biracial, he wasn’t black enough to fit “the Wesley type”, and not white enough to pass for a stereotypical Italian.

According to Hollywood lore, Sinclair took matters into his own hands by writing, directing, starring in and self-financing two of his own independent films, Multi-Facial (1995) and Strays (1997). He was contacted by Steven Spielberg, who was impressed by Multi-Facial, and this led to Sinclair being cast in Saving Private Ryan (1998).

Even in the science fiction cult phenomenon Pitch Black (2000), Sinclair’s character Richard B. Riddick embodied the ultimate expression of racial “otherness”, literally being a member of an alien species whose remaining diaspora were scattered across the cosmos after genocide against their kind.

The Asian Hunk Next Door

Sung Kang faced a dilemma endured by almost every aspiring Asian-American actor: playing the “Asian guy” who is either an asexual nerd or Bruce Lee clone.

Kang had the good fortune to connect with director Justin Lin for the independent film Better Luck Tomorrow (2002).

Better Luck Tomorrow was a provocative portrayal of Asian-American kids that reversed the traditional roleplay with results that shocked viewers, spurring controversy and meaningful conversations about what it means to construct your own identity in modern American society.

Below, you’ll see the 38-minute documentary on the creation of Better Luck Tomorrow featuring interviews with a very young Justin Lin and Sung Kang (note: the documentary actually begins near the 1min 16sec mark). It’s a story worth watching at least once for the passion and insight of its subjects, as well as timeless advice about making, distributing and marketing a hit indie film (as well as pitfalls and mistakes to avoid along the way):

Watch for the appearance of Roger Ebert and how he deals with a heckler at one of the film’s Sundance festival screenings.

During his rise to mainstream success, Justin Lin integrated Sung Kang’s “Han” character into the Fast and Furious universe. A freshly grown-up style came with a fitting new last name: the tough kid from BLT would now be known as smooth operator Han Seoul-Oh.

The silly-yet-perfect homophonic similarities — between “Han Seoul-Oh” (a somewhat Korean-ish name) and “Han Solo” of Star Wars fame — are strongly reflected in Sung Kang’s approach his character. Kang’s choices as an actor while portraying Han, in turn, have given younger generations a new template for what it can mean to be Asian-American.

Opening A New Universe of Independent Media

Mark Sinclair [a.k.a. Vin Diesel] and Sung Kang show that waiting for the “right” role or the mythical (and astronomically unlikely) “big break” isn’t the only way to find success in the acting world anymore.

Costs required for producing high-quality independent film continue to fall. The nearly superheroic feats of perseverance by Mark Sinclair and Justin Lin are far less daunting to pursue now that new paths are emerging. Our Internet-enabled independence is creating viable ways to begin or even sustain a career. Technological hurdles are dissolving, revealing the value of a creatively conceived and well-told story. At the core of such stories are characters who compel us to watch and care for them over the course of their journey.

Film itself is no longer the only medium for directors, writers and actors to get their start. The main barrier to entry now is not the creation of a finished work. The new challenge is how to get noticed by the intended audience, and in the age of a “free” Internet, how to find an audience who will pay for your independent work. Draining your life’s savings and running up five credit cards for the sake of making a movie may no longer be necessary, exemplified by crowdsourced films released in 2015 like Kung Fury and Sundays.

What sci-fi [or other] story have you always wanted to create on film, radio theatre or even a podcast? There’s never better been a better time to make it happen, and the odds will only continue to improve for independent artists if we continue to guide these new possibilities toward a even better future.

Further Reference:

1. Fast and Furious, race scene [3min 45sec].
2. Interview with actor Sung Kang.
3. Vin Diesel’s Beginnings: Multi-Facial, Steven Spielberg.
4. Better Luck Tomorrow: Genesis (documentary) [38min 3sec].
5. Kung Fury [31min 2 sec].
6. Sundays [14min, 50sec].
7. What’s The Best Medium For A Storyteller In 2015 And Beyond?
8. Do Podcasts Beat Film, Games And Comics As A Storytelling Medium?