The Matrix, Unloaded: Motoko Becomes Mira. Ghost in the Shell Becomes RoboCop. Hollywood Reboots into the Wrong Cyborg Body… Again.

2017 live-action Ghost in the Shell — a gender-switched RoboCop reboot starring whitewashed “Mira Killian” (not Motoko Kusanagi) with ethnically random cast, set in try-hard cyberpunk not-really-Japan?

After reading the reviews of Ghost in the Shell IMAX previews (here and here), the items mentioned in this article’s subtitle became clear.

Ghost in the Shell illustration by GUWEIZ. https://www.patreon.com/guweiz
Ghost in the Shell illustration by GUWEIZ. https://www.patreon.com/guweiz.

At least two different people have seen the first fifteen minutes of 2017 Ghost in the Shell and written in-depth reviews that are highly similar. Those fifteen minutes contain more than enough footage to glean a basic idea of the plot — or in this case, what the plot basically is, and definitely isn’t. Reviews confirm that Motoko Kusanagi (oops, “Mira Killian“) is intentionally whitewashed; her backstory is a gender-bent copy of RoboCop, not Kusanagi’s background drawn from 1996 anime Ghost in the Shell.

Known facts:

– the 2017 Hollywood version of Ghost in the Shell is designed as a big-budget blockbuster — not a mysterious indie noir thriller with some sort of complex, inscrutable concept and plot;
– the advance screening wasn’t a VFX exhibition; the footage was chosen to give people an idea of what the film is about;
– both reviewers independently agreed on the basic plot and the Motoko Kusanagi (oops, whitewashed “Mira Killian”) character’s strangely RoboCop-like backstory as shown in the footage.

Here is the newest trailer released on 01 March 2017:

This could have been a decent cyberpunk film without needing to:

– “prettify” the gritty Ghost in the Shell anime aesthetic with neon and giant holograms everywhere;
– blatantly whitewash a Japanese anime (Motoko is now “Mira”);
– or, as the reviews also suggest, dumb down and replace the real Ghost in the Shell concept with a blockbuster-friendly Hollywood plot.

Why not just create a female RoboCop starring Scarlett Johansson and the same ethnically random (“diverse”) cast, set in some imaginary future city?

Lessons Lost From The Way of the Matrix

They could have gone the way of the Matrix and lifted eighty percent of the plot from Ghost in the Shell itself, sprinkled in “deep” transhumanist philosophical moral dilemmas, and blended the other twenty percent with Dark City (or in this case, RoboCop).

People who hadn’t seen Ghost in the Shell or Dark City thought that the Matrix was brilliantly original. This 2017 Ghost in the Shell film could have followed a similar formula and at least tried to create something that seemed new.

Dark City Detour

We can’t definitively know what influence Dark City (1998) had on the Matrix (1999) during the intervening year after Dark City was released. It’s entirely possible that the Wachowskis took cues from Dark City in designing the style of the Matrix in post-production and maybe even reshoots. Three hundred and sixtyfive days is a long time, but it’s also true that today’s hype for virtual reality was already a trendy sci-fi trope back then.

All that’s clear is how many eery similarities exist between the two films’ style and subject matter, and the fact that the Matrix was released after Dark City.

The Matrix Was a Smart Blockbuster

It’s also useful to note that the Matrix wasn’t a small-budget indie film by any stretch of the imagination, especially for relative unknown directors as the Wachowskis were at that time.

From IMDB:

The Wachowskis approached Warner with the idea of the Matrix and Warner balked at the budget they had submitted, which was over $80 million. Warner instead agreed to give them $10 million. The Wachowskis took the money and filmed the first ten minutes of the movie (the opening scene with Carrie-Anne Moss) using the entire $10 million. They then showed the executives at Warner the opening scene. They were impressed, and green-lit the original asking budget.

USD$80 million in 1999 would equal $116,609,363.75 in 2017. That’s a fairly massive budget.

The Matrix proved that a sci-fi action blockbuster doesn’t need to dumb itself down in order to excite audiences and succeed at the box office.

How The Matrix Translated Philosophy Into Onscreen Action

What worked so well in the original Matrix (1999) was the abundance of symbolism from philosophy (“welcome to the desert of the real“), folklore (“buckle your seatbelt, Dorothy“) and religion (including Buddhism — “there is no spoon“).

This left the “true” meaning of the imagery up for interpretation.

The actual text itself (i.e. the script) was far less developed than the symbolism; that’s where the Wachowskis were at their weakest. The Matrix 2 and 3 often highlighted their inability to blend dialogue seamlessly with imagery. This culminated in the Architect’s plot-stopping speech, among several other “talking head” moments.

An unfortunate side-effect of “images above all” is that those images could be misinterpreted and twisted in any number of ways. The Wachowskis, two transgender women who (at least at time of writing) embody an inclusive mentality, created the “blue pill” and “red pill” symbol. And we know what happens on Reddit now when you talk about taking the red pill.

(The upside is that we got to see ahead-of-its-time moments like the Battle for Zion (Part 1 and Part 2), which showed us realistic combat exoskeletons over a decade before the Edge of Tomorrow (2014).)

There was literally a lot to see in the Matrix, philosophically speaking. The Architect’s speech was fine as a dramatic, theatrical monologue; it just didn’t work as part of a film script. The Neo-as-messiah myth is also an example of the “chosen one” archetype that you see in most Hollywood films; it’s easy to focus on and identify with a “hero’s journey” plot arc. Remember how ambiguous the ending of Matrix Revolutions was, though; there was more happening than just the sacrifice of Neo. It was a courageous way to end the series, particularly since it didn’t resolve to a typical “happily ever after” conclusion.

Neo Versus Motoko: Different Cultures, Different Challenges

None of this is intended to say that the Matrix was anywhere near as complex as Ghost in the Shell, because they operate in different media, designed to address and challenge different cultural expectations (1999 Hollywood film vs. 1996 Japanese anime).

Ultimately, the Matrix may have tried to do too much philosophically, rather than too little, whereas Ghost in the Shell infused the anime world with a near-perfect blend of non-glamorised futuristic Japan, cyberpunk, hardcore action and transhumanist adventure.

It seems clear now that 2017 live-action Ghost in the Shell won’t be the film that fans want, regardless of what Hollywood is trying to sell us. At least this leaves the door open for an indie production to create a faithful smaller-scale adaptation — without much fear of comparison to the big-budget “authenticity” of this one. Who could create such a faithful adaptation? Stay tuned.

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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.

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.

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.

Real Ghost in the Shell: Creating an Independent Live-Action Film That Stays True to the Original.

Fan reactions ranged from dismay to outrage as news broke that Hollywood would adapt the 1995 cyberpunk anime classic Ghost in the Shell.

Update: news has arrived that “beauty work” has been tested to make white actors look more Japanese (think of reversing-aging in a film — only whitewashing a Caucasian person to appear Asian instead).

A natural next thought arose in this nascent age of crowdfunding and Internet-based collaboration:

What if we could take matters into our own hands and create something better than anything Hollywood would ever dare to produce?

A name for this film could be “Ghost in the Shell: Alive” (shortened here to “GITS:Alive”).

Early discussions about the “GITS: Alive” idea often centered around the probable expense of producing a live-action Ghost in the Shell film. The film requires a strong element of special-effects expertise, as seen in the anime’s approach to technology in the year 2029.

In an ideal scenario, the effort could be fully funded from the start.

If not, there are other possibilities.

What if “GITS: Alive” begins life in the short-film format?

Here are a few options:

1. It could begin as pitches often do: with an idea, images and/or storyboards and a trailer. Shoot a dynamic and exciting few minutes’ worth to get fans and potential investors salivating to see the rest.

2. GITS:Alive could have the “best” scenes filmed and released first in order to woo the viewer into wanting more. Release each subsequent scene as a mini-feature that builds momentum for the next. A faithful adaptation needn’t worry about “spoilers”, since the fans have seen the 1996 anime original anyway. The crucial attributes are craftsmanship, smart-yet-faithful adaptation of source material, and believably acted characterization.

Each mini-feature would be the promotional vehicle for the ones to come, with a focus on tight budgeting in order to reach the ultimate goal of funding a completed feature-length film. The sooner that objective is reached, the sooner the film’s remaining scenes can be shot, edited and compiled into a finished product. Most films are lensed out of order regardless, so this way of building scenes could work equally well.

Another way to film in the “mini-feature” style would be to construct each part as its own small “episode” with beginning, middle and end (“to be continued…”). For the final work, editing and any necessary “in-between” filming can smooth the contiguous narrative arcs to manifest a single cohesive storyline.

3. GITS:Alive could be condensed into a single short-film version. The already-written full-length script could be refined into a five, ten, or even fifteen-minute piece. It would hint at what could be possible with a proper budget and creative latitude required for a true telling of the GITS story. Once further funding is procured, the production commences with either a series of short films (see option 2 above), or full-on from start to finish using the feature-length script.

Update: in fact, Ghost in the Shell: the New Movie took a similar approach in June of 2015, releasing the first twelve minutes to whet appetites for the full film.

Here are a few early nominations for a potential group of independent creators in the visual/film worlds who could bring a Ghost in the Shell to life.

Visual Design/Interface Design: Project 2501

Why? See Project 2501.

Project 2501. Homage to Ghost in the Shell.
Project 2501. Homage to Ghost in the Shell.

Director: Ash Thorp

Why? Thorp is the visionary behind Project 2501. His aesthetic sensibility captures the tone, beauty and style of the anime with the auteur’s impeccable attention to detail. Given that Project 2501 was a global collaboration, Thorp has also shown leadership skills and the ability to complete a complex visual project.

Director of Photography/Technical Director: BLR VFX

Why? See Keloid.

Watch the film. Now remember Ghost in the Shell. The style and subject matter are so similar, they could almost take place in the same fictional universe.

Caveat: BLR VFX may no longer exist. It’s likely that the original BLR members have heard of GITS — and would want to join the team for a live-action film.

Producer: PostPanic Pictures.

Watch SUNDAYS [2015].

Perhaps the team assembled by PostPanic would be able to fill the void left by the apparent dissolution of BLR VFX. Given the scope and detail of SUNDAYS, PostPanic Pictures could be the ideal entity to give life to an independent Ghost in the Shell.

Cast:

This is the next question.

A few names have already been mentioned.

There are undoubtedly many more unknown Asian actresses who would be capable of playing the lead role.

The next major question would be: how can we get a film like this made?

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How can we make real a “sleek, hauntingly resonant feature-length homage” to genre-defining Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell?

Don’t Hold Your Breath… Waiting For Hollywood

Project 2501. Ghost In The Shell.

First: don’t hold your breath waiting for Hollywood. From Dragonball to Akira, the major movie studios are experts in mangling manga and anime.

A petition exists with over 27,000 signatures, but that won’t get a better movie made.

Instead, one goal may be to involve members of the Asian film community who are experienced with American independent film. Examples: Russell Wong, Kelly Hu, Dustin Nguyen and even popular younger actors like Sung Kang. See the 2006 indie film “Undoing” to enjoy Wong, Hu and Kang working together, under the direction of Chris Chan Lee. Ever since his role coolly upstaging Johnny Depp as a heartthrob undercover detective on the show 21 Jumpstreet, Dustin Nguyen has also learned hard, valuable lessons in navigating the landscape as an Asian-American actor.

Perhaps we could even attain the blessings of luminaries in the Asian film and social activism communities such as George Takei, the original Sulu from Star Trek. Keep reading below in the “Questions” section for more directly from Mr. Takei himself.

Finding The Funds: Chinafication of Ghost in the Shell?

In a conversation about how to quickly get moving on this project, someone mentioned appeasing a Chinese sensibility in order to secure funds.

Ever since Iron Man 3 and the innumerable recent Transformers films, Hollywood has built trend of “Chinafying” summer blockbusters for the sake of following the money. The Chinafication of Hollywood is an unfortunate acquiescence, not to Chinese culture, but to the dominance of greed in light of the mainland government’s inexcusable human rights abuses against artist-activists such as Ai Wei Wei.

A fascinating point to note, however, is to see the city in which Ghost in the Shell was visually set. The “city of the future” that plays such an integral role in embodying the spirit of the film is none other than Hong Kong. Considering Hong Kong’s historical and current fight against mainland government control, this setting for GITS may be even more spot-on than a “pure” Japanese location. As China grows in economic power and global influence, much of Asia (perhaps even including Japan) has a stake in the outcome of Hong Kong’s struggle to maintain autonomy while situated in the jaws of the voracious red giant.

This live-action Hong Kong walkthrough reveals its eery shot-for-shot relationship with the landmarks, objects, locations, and visual sensibilities of Ghost in the Shell:

In a sense, Ghost in the Shell was not a stylistic blend of China and Japan. It was an ingenious combination of Hong Kong and Japan. As long as Hong Kong retains its cultural identity, it will never be absorbed into China. Likewise, if Ghost in the Shell is to retain its identity, it must similarly defy Hollywood’s destructive magnetism (although the stakes are not quite so high for a live-action anime… or are they?).

Questions and Thoughts

Project 2501. Ghost In The Shell.

Q: “Motoko Kusanagi is a cyborg. She could take any form. She could be an old woman in a young mecha-body, or be played by a young woman inhabiting an aged cyborg. Why not make her a pretty young American like Ms. Johannsen?”

Why not, you ask? Because there are plenty of alternatives. It would be great to cast a GITS film with unexpected actors — after there exists at least one adaptation that’s faithful to the original.

Q: “But the characters in the anime look white to me. Why does it matter to cast Asian actors?”

Japanese actress Kikuchi Rinko.
Japanese actress Kikuchi Rinko.

For Hollywood to cast a white American woman when there is a multitude of capable Asian actors (American and otherwise) is yet another example of the pervasive phenomenon known as whitewashing in the U.S. film industry.

One major purpose of an independent Ghost in the Shell film is to enable Asian actors to play undeniably Asian roles. Although African-Americans have managed at least to play (largely stereotypical) roles involving black characters, Asian people are still largely ignored. One example, oddly enough, came from the Wachowski siblings’ Cloud Atlas, in which the city of Neo Seoul (South Korea) was populated almost entirely by everyone but Asian people. Worse, the non-Asians wore insultingly silly-looking prosthetics that gave the actors an appearance of being… non-Asian actors wearing insultingly silly-looking prosthetics.

It’s long past the moment for films to start casting real Asian people in Asian roles. If a film would go to the extent of making its characters look “sort of” Asian, they might as well use Asian actors — they’re not fooling anyone with Vaudevillian eye prosthetics and stilted “trying to be Asian-ish” performances, anyway.

Specifically for Ghost in Shell, the characters’ ethnicity matters because the story is Japanese, takes place in Japan (a fictional Hong Kong-like Japanese city), is designed within the context of Japanese culture and yes, the characters are Japanese people. The round-eyed anime style does nothing to change the fact that this is a modern Japanese story. A faithful live-action adaptation would be immersed in the cultural nuances that made the original film unique.

There’s already an American Ghost in the Shell. Its name is The Matrix, and it’s nothing like Ghost in the Shell.

The Wachowskis may have pitched the first Matrix film to producer Joel Silver as a “live-action Ghost in the Shell”:

Even though lead actor Keanu Reeves’ grandmother is Chinese Hawaiian, the film itself is American (some might even say, Chicagoan).

Enter Project 2501

Project 2501. Ghost In The Shell.

At the same time, it’s a pleasure to note that the lead actor/model in Project 2501’s homage, Christine Adams, is in fact hapa — of both Japanese and American ancestry. Mixed-ethnicity actors are an indication of the future of our world.

More than the mythology of race (there is only one human race, and we all belong to it), culture does matter. A Japanese story cannot simply be re-scripted as an American one without becoming a different story. The universal themes will still be there; you don’t need to be Asian to appreciate the impact of Ghost in the Shell and enjoy the original anime. It might even be interesting to see a Japanese version of the Matrix. In any case, a live-action Ghost in the Shell would inevitably be a Japanese story first and foremost, as Japanese culture was the foundation for both the manga and the 1995 anime.

It is, of course, ironic that the closest we have (2015) to a live-action GITS is Project 2501, a global collaboration spearheaded by American visual designer Ash Thorp. This note would be incomplete without a quote from Kusanagi Motoko herself: “the Net is vast and infinite”. Such an Internet-connected, worldwide collab of gifted and dedicated artists may hold the key to unleashing the true spirit of Ghost in the Shell. And Ash Thorp has shown the vision, willingness and ability to lead that collaboration. Film is a different animal, but the ability to marshal a group of individually-minded creatives is a skill that not everyone can claim to possess.

Q: “Movies are all about the money. That’s why Hollywood chose Scarlett Johanssen. You can’t blame Hollywood for wanting to make a profit.”

I’ll invite George Takei to tackle this one.

[ Transcript ]

Q: “Japanese people wouldn’t want a live-action Ghost in the Shell. Look at the lack of action movies in Japanese cinema, for example.”

For counterexamples, see the manga-turned-film series Gantz and Gantz: Perfect Answer. These films not only showcase brilliant special effects, they are also identifiably Japanese through the actors’ choices in portraying their roles. Hollywood could not have done a better job unless they re-wrote the story to take place in the United States. If they were to do so (as Mr. Takei noted in the video above) they might as well make a completely different movie. The same is true of Ghost in the Shell.

If we want the world to see a faithful, high-quality live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, there is no point in waiting for Hollywood. We’ll have to assemble a team of skilled professionals (I nominate Ash Thorp’s Project 2501 as the nucleus of that team), and create a production that is true to the vision of the original anime.

The passion is real. The vision exists. The anime is our blueprint. We even have a reference for the visual design of the film (see Project 2501). And the time is now.

Project 2501. Ghost In The Shell.