[Editorial Tuesday] Ghost in the Shell’s Live Action Adaptation: Whitewashing Won't Be the Only Problem

Waves of criticism swelled in and out whenever news of the new Ghost in the Shell live action adaptation hit the surface. There was a great deal of controversy when it was announced that the role of Motoko Kusanagi was given to Scarlett Johansson. Anime fans were worried whether or not the adaptation would stay true to the roots of the manga/anime, while many more were simply critical that the film had given an Japanese role to a white actress, without any special connection to the original work. The long and short of it was that no one was particularly happy with this news in the west.

Now it's worth noting that some in Japan have said that they're simply happy with any live-action adaptation, and saying they weren't expecting a Japanese or Asian actress to begin with. While, from a Japanese perspective, it's a point of pride when one of your works get adapted abroad, as a western anime fan, my perspective is much more negative. I think that, aside from casting ScarJo, the fact that they're mixing Hideo Kuze and the Laughing man into one character, they're going to lose a lot of the nuance that made both seasons of Stand Alone Complex great. And finally, if they wanted to make an original film that was a tribute to or inspired by Ghost in the Shell, they should have done that and made an original story, rather than simply backing on the name.

Ghost in the Shell's and Anime's Influence on Film

Ghost in the shell was largely influential for both audiences and filmmakers alike in the west. Ghost in the Shell is known primarily as the film that influenced the Matrix, with the Wachowski brothers going so far as to show the original Ghost in the Shell film in order to help pitch their ideas. Steven Spielberg had said the original film was 'one of his favorite stories', and sci-films that he directed less than a decade after Ghost in the Shell first aired, Minority Report and A.I., were influenced by the film. Likewise, James Cameron sung the film's praises calling it 'a stunning work of speculative fiction, the first truly adult animation film to reach a level of literary and visual excellence.'

This wasn't the first or the last Anime that influenced a western filmmaker. Black Swan, borrowed Heavily from Satoshi Kon's Perfect Blue, including shot composition that was directly referencing Kon's film. Another Satoshi Kon Film, Paprika, was influential in Christopher Nolan's Inception film. Guillermo del Toro stated that Pacific Rim was heavily influenced by Mecha anime like Patlabor and Tetsujin 28. These are just some examples and this brings me to my main point. These are all interesting films with unique stories to tell, and I think many fans of anime and manga specifically appreciate the influences that went into them.

Every artist has an influence, and thus every director, writer and actor is coming from a list of experiences they've had with their art that made her or him want to get into that work, or left a lasting impression on how that medium can be used. I think it's more natural for people to be given the freedom and creative license to do something they're influenced by, rather than just remaking the original. In fact, an entirely new work doesn't have many of the same problems that remakes do, with fans of the original having specific ideas and conceptions about what a remake should do, if it should even be made in the first place.

My sentiment, I think, can be summarized thusly, if I wanted to see a Western take on Ghost in the Shell, I would look at the films and other media that were influenced by it. But if I wanted more Ghost in the Shell, I would wish for Oshii and his team, or the Stand Alone Complex team, to adapt more of Shirow's manga. As a big Ghost in the shell fan, either would have me more intrigued than a Hollywood remake.

Industry Problems, Going for a product rather than art.

One thing I understand about the film business in the United States is just that, a business. And we have to understand that the interest of this business is, first and foremost, making a product that will give the company a profit. Hopefully, along the lines, the staff behind the film will do something artistically interesting, but again, the prime concern of the industry is profit, not art. I don't think that this article can properly touch on all the ways it would benefit artistic mediums like anime, film and television if we decoupled it from the profit motive. I'm not saying that Hollywood films can't do anything interesting artistically, but just as anime is filled with cash-grab adaptations, and rehashing archetypes to pander to Otaku, Hollywood has it's own problems with it's big budget films.

It's worth pointing out that the original Ghost in the Shell film had a budget of $10 million. Even by adjusting for inflation, it's a modest price, especially considering the huge amount of money poured into Hollywood blockbusters. This money poured in often becomes more of a creative liability, as studios have to make back the large investment and are incentivized to only appeal to what's broadly popular, leading to a lot of homogeneity in films today. In fact, casting ScarJo is directly related to this, as her popularity ensures that the movie will make some money back on it's investment.

Many critics of the Marvel films have pointed out how the films adhere to a rule of having an action scene every 20 minutes to ensure people will want to sit through it. And the recent criticisms of the upcoming DC film adaptation of Suicide Squad have pointed out that the direction seems to be emulating marvels style in order to bring home the money. Just as the limited amount of money in anime means that a lot of studios try to bank on the name of a successful adaptation, rather than doing something original, Hollywood studios do the same. They cling to past practices and are less incentivized to innovate.

Fusing characters and missing Side Stories. The loss of complexity and nuance.

My suspicion when the adaptation was first announced was that it's Hollywoodization would miss what makes Stand Alone Complex or the original film so great. The first Ghost in the Shell film in particular had more in common with European art films than Hollywood cinema. Moreover, the complexity of either season of Stand Alone Complex would be difficult to fit into film in general, even before you factor in Hollywood standards and practices. If you glance at the IMDB page for the upcoming film, you'll notice that the actor Michael Pitt is listed as playing 'Kuze' and in the character page Kuze's alternative name is listed as 'laughing man.'

This really raises my eyebrows. I know that we don't know for sure how the film will handle this, so this is, at best, educated speculation. I also know that the political nature of Stand Alone Complex leads to different interpretations about who was right and who had the moral high ground. But the fact that Ghost in the Shell was open to interpretation is one of the reasons it's such a good series. In Stand Alone Complex, there were so many shades of Gray that sometimes it's worth questioning if the system that Section 9 was defending was even worth being upheld. The laughing man has been described as someone 'whose singular goal is to wipeout Hanka's advancements in cyber technology, while Section 9 is said to be 'devoted to stopping the most dangerous criminals and extremists.'

The Laughing man obviously had no such motives in the original series. He was more concerned with exposing corporate fraud. Moreover, the existence of Section 9 was not about simple counter terrorism. In fact, Section 9 is always at the same time a chess piece in the power struggled between various persons, department and ministries in the Japanese government. The ending of Stand Alone Complex ends with a different force within Japan's public security labyrinth coming after Section 9. In addition, Daisuke Aramaki, after meeting the supposed laughing man, offers him a job at section 9 for his skills as a hacker. It's a complex story with a lot of layers, not a simple good guys stop the terrorists plot.

Likewise, the fact that they're combining the character of Hideo Kuze with the laughing man strikes me, again, totally in the wrong way. Kuze was, in Ghost in the Shell 2nd Gig, not only portrayed as someone who acted out of real moral concerns, for people who were often oppressed. Finally, he serves as a huge connection for Motoko to her path... another layer to her identity, ghost and her cyberization. Kuze and Motoko, the sole survivors of the same accident, both knew each other as children, shortly before they went into their cyberized bodies. So not only are the laughing man and Kuze two wildly different characters, they both have shades of gray and complex relationships with section 9 that don't fit in a simple ‘good vs evil’ narrative.

Furthermore, Stand Alone Complex bears the name because some of the episodes are one episode stories which don't really relate, stand-alone, or part of an overarching plot, complex. However, these stand-alone episodes often have a bearing on the overall plot and add valuable new elements to the story. Take the Tachikoma episodes which touch on the nature of A.I. and whether or not they could be considered lifeforms in the way humans are. This is not only a great stand alone episode with fantastic and detailed dialogue about complex technological ideas and philosophy. It's also important for the 'complex' part of the series, where the Tachikoma come through in a big way.

Taking side-steps to delve into dense sections where the intersection between humanity and technology is considered a hallmark of Ghost in the Shell. Is a film really going to be able to replicate this? Moreover, the first film did this with a strong art-film feel. These are a huge part of what makes Ghost in the Shell what it is, and I don't think that a Hollywood adaptation, at least from the developments we learned and the way they're altering the continuity, will be able to deliver a proper adaptation.


Concluding

Now, while I didn't touch the issue of whitewashing much in the article, instead I focused on others areas, I still want to emphasize now that I think the whitewashing of Ghost in the Shell is a huge problem. News developed not too long ago that the studio made attempts to alter ScarJo's face with CGI in order to make her look 'more asian.' But if the studio wanted the actress to look asian, the common sense thing to do would be to hire an Asian actress for the role. Not only is Motoko being played by a white actress, but Bato and others are as well, and a key character like Togusa does not even show up in the IMDB character page for the film. There's so many things for Ghost in the Shell fans to be worried about, aside from all the issues with it's casting. I hope you enjoyed reading this, and I hope that the final product isn't a mockery of all that Ghost in the Shell has done. What worries do you have about the film? What do you think about the casting? As always, we want to hear from you in the comments below.

CJL

Writer

Author: CJL

Long Islander who loves anime. Interested in politics, philosophy and also a huge fan of sports and video games. Just about any series can get me going if it’s done well. From cute girls doing cute things shows, to gritty-action or space-opera or mecha series. Comment on my articles, let’s get a conversation going.

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