We Need to Talk About Motoko

Confession time: I am a huge fan of Ghost in the Shell. The 1995 anime classic is a tightly-paced, visually-stunning, beautifully-scored masterpiece that blends big ideas with kickass action. No Ghost in the Shell, no Matrix, and to me that’s unthinkable. Major Motoko Kusanagi is a great protagonist, struggling to understand her own humanity as an artificial person with an organic brain. Her situation foreshadows issues we will all have to face before too long, as the technology that is already encroaching upon our lives becomes more integrated into our very beings. The announcement of a live-action Ghost in the Shell ought to have been cause for tentative celebration, an opportunity to see this story brought to a new generation. Instead, the whole enterprise has been overshadowed by a piece of highly questionable casting: Scarlett Johansson will play the Major.

The accusation of whitewashing, of casting a white actor in the role of a Japanese character, must be taken seriously. Though we may be largely beyond the kind of film-making that could allow a hideous buck-toothed caricature like Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Hollywood abounds with a less broadly stereotypical version of this phenomenon. One need only cite Dragonball: EvolutionThe Last Airbender or pretty much any movie about Jesus to see the truth of this. So casting Johansson is an issue that merits sober discussion. There are many possible responses to this, ranging from a stubborn denial that there is a problem to complete condemnation as malignant racism. The former is unworthy of much consideration, but I am uncertain that the latter is a fair assessment either. As a pasty white guy, I am acutely aware that what for me is an open question that can be discussed relatively dispassionately is for others an intensely personal issue with real consequences, and I don’t pretend to speak with any authority or special insight. Rather, I’m trying to feel out this dilemma and try to come to a considered conclusion, one that can only ultimately apply to myself.

Sam Mulvey of the Ask An Atheist podcast coined the term the “Card Line” for the theoretical threshold crossed when the personal awfulness of an artists makes enjoyment of their art impossible for a given person. The concept is named for Orson Scott Card, whose virulent homophobia has, for many, entirely negated whatever merit his science fiction novels have. While this is not exactly applicable to the new Ghost in the Shell, it is relevant to the discussion. There are those who are able to completely separate creation from creator, and appreciate it entirely based on its own merits. Go back just a few decades and nearly every author, painter, film-maker or musician will harbour opinions that would be utterly unacceptable today. This is for the simple reason that the small amount of tolerance that we have achieved by now is a relatively recent innovation. There are others who perform a kind of cost/benefit analysis, where a sufficiently high-quality piece of work can overrule the shortcomings of the artist as a human being. Roman Polanski is an obvious example; he is a superlative director who committed a heinous crime, and any engagement with his work necessitates a moral calculus. This list could be expanded to include the likes of Woody Allen, Mark Wahlberg, Mel Gibson, Casey Affleck, and many others. The problematic casting in Ghost in the Shell may seem petty in comparison to these considerations, but to dismiss them on these grounds is to commit the fallacy of relative privation. Personally speaking, I don’t believe that the two belong in the same ethical category, but the choice to see Ghost in the Shell involves a close relative of the Card Line calculation.

Indeed, in the present case, an artist’s view may hold sway in a different way. Mamoru Oshii, director of the original 1995 film, has reportedly signed off on Johansson as the Major, stating that she is the “best possible choice” for the role, and that “The name ‘Motoko Kusanagi’ and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray her.” This may seem to offer an excuse to those troubled or offended by accusations of whitewashing. Oshii raises salient points about artistic expression and the freedom of a director to adapt a story in his or her own way, and does so with an amount of authority on this particular property. While I think that there is merit to his viewpoint, I don’t think that he can simply dispel the controversy unilaterally. However, his opinion is worthy of respect and, assuming that he is speaking without duress, his blessing is a huge point in the remake’s favour. Additionally, the involvement of original voice actors Atsuko Tanaka (Major), Akio Otsuka (Batou) and Koichi Yamadera (Togusa) in the Japanese dub of the movie would seem to insinuate that they too do not consider the casting choice an outrage. The cynic in me wonders if their decision is purely financial, but the optimist hopes that it is not.

As Oshii states, the Major is an artificial person, and does not really possess an ethnicity. This is a pretty lame defence against the recriminations leveled at the film, and it is just as well that this is not Oshii’s entire argument, but it does suggest another point. Is it essential to the story that the characters be Japanese, or is it merely a function of the anime being a Japanese production? Remakes of foreign films abound both in the US and elsewhere, and usually involve a totally new cast of homegrown actors. Was it whitewashing when Martin Scorsese remade Infernal Affairs as The Departed, casting Leonardo di Caprio and Matt Damon in roles originally filled by Andy Lau and Tony Leung? I don’t think so, but then the comparison is not exact. Casting two white actors as the same Chinese characters would be a closer example, but transplanting the story to Boston removes this factor. A more exact comparison might be the American remake of Death at a Funeral. This new version of a British film replaces an entirely white cast with an almost wholly African-American one. The action is also relocated to America, but arguably the difference in setting is less drastic. So why the lack of controversy in this case?

To explain this lack, it is necessary to address one of the more tiresome gripes of internet man- and woman-children in recent years, namely the casting of non-white actors as traditionally white characters. This has been more prevalent concerning comic books, but also reared its ugly head particularly high in the film world when Michael B. Jordan was chosen to play Johnny Storm in Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four. It ought to be apparent why this is not an equivalent case to Johansson’s casting. Non-white (and, for that matter, non-male) protagonists are comparatively rare, particularly in the action genre, and so more diverse casting is valuable both as a means of better representation and for its own sake, and harms us not at all. The argument that a black Johnny Storm makes a white Motoko Kusanagi perfectly acceptable threatens to make the opposite point. An opportunity has been lost here for an Asian actor to headline a big-budget Hollywood movie, and that loss is lamentable.

The original Ghost in the Shell anime was not necessarily made to appeal to an international audience. This much is apparent from the fact that, while it ultimately became one of the first anime films to gain major notice outside of Japan, it was a pioneer because of its quality and not by design. Conversely, the new movie is intended to reach a global market. From this perspective Johansson is an obvious choice for the lead role. Given Hollywood’s dominance of the film industry, American actors are the most recognisable anywhere in the world, and Johansson is a huge star even by those standards. The same logic underpins the inclusion of a slightly baffled-looking Matt Damon in the Chinese mega-production The Great Wall. Thus, the likeliest explanation for her casting is not overt racism but a combination of her own talent and status, and a profit-focused need for the most marketable performer. The desire to maximise worldwide engagement can be seen from the rest of the cast as well. The cast contains American, Danish, Japanese, French, Singaporean, British, Australian and Romanian performers. This diversity, though it may stem from financial motives, seems to indicate a desire to make the story and the characters more international, and I think that this is preferable to a purely Japanese or Japanese-American cast. Once more, this is not a defeater for the whitewashing controversy, but certainly speaks in the film’s favour.

There is no simple resolution to this controversy. Indeed, the fact that this film has been so controversial is a good thing, as it has helped to force people to think about the implications behind casting decisions and the backlash will hopefully lead to a more serious consideration of this issue in the future. For now, Ghost in the Shell exists, and its casting would seem to be based more in cowardice than in malice. For my own part, I have opted to see the film, in awareness that doing so is not entirely clean. On balance, my decision was based partially upon my contention that the movie is ultimately well-intentioned, while acknowledging that it is a symptom of a continuing problem with how Hollywood functions. An adaptation must be allowed to deviate from the original, and while this is a missed opportunity to do more to address the problem of diversity in the film industry, I think that it is a small step in the right direction in other ways. Incremental progress is highly imperfect, but it is still progress, and Ghost in the Shell deserves some credit for being a female-led action film in a genre still drowning in testosterone, as well as for its relatively diverse wider cast. It would also be dishonest to deny that my own love for the original film has been an important factor in my desire to see the new movie. That may be ignoble, but it’s the truth. I cannot convincingly contest anyone’s conviction not to see this film, but I hope I have at least elucidated my own reasons for doing so. After having seen the film, I hope to return to this discussion with a more complete understanding of the implications of the new film, and how its execution might affect the matter.

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