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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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.