Jon Tsuei is Right: A #WhitewashedOUT Ghost in the Shell Misses the Cultural Mark

There’s been so much talk about Ghost in the Shell, Dr. Strange, whitewashing, yellowface, and underrepresentation I bet some of you out there are saying, “Man, I might be at my limit!” But wait, there’s more!

When the first look image of Scarlett Johansson as The Major came out, tons of people, Ghost in the Shell fans and regular movie fans alike, were dismayed that yet another opportunity to cast talented Asian actresses passed Hollywood by. Or to put it another way, folks were upset that Hollywood didn’t take the opportunity to advance itself into something better than it has been.

But out of the outrage and anger seen on Twitter (all valid, of course), I think comic book creator Jon Tsuei (author of Image Comics’ RUNLOVEKILL) hit on a very salient point when it comes to why it’s highly important to have a Japanese actress portray Major Matoko Kusangi instead of some American blonde. On his Twitter page, and later here on The Nerds of Color, Tsuei explained how Ghost in the Shell ties directly into Japan’s cultural themes of rebirth and regeneration, particularly when it comes to how Japan itself went through a rebirthing process of its own national identity post World War II.

“The [Ghost in the Shell] manga came out in 1989, the first film 1995. An era when Japan was considered the world leader in technology,” Tsuei tweeted. “Everything hot in that era came out of Japan. Cars, video games, walkmans, all of that. Japan was setting a standard. This is a country that went from poised to conquer…the Pacific to forcibly disarmed. They poured their resources into their economy. And as a country that was unable to defend themselves, but was a world leader in tech, it created a relationship to tech that is unique. Ghost in the Shell plays off all of these themes. It is inherently a Japanese story, not a universal one.”

Tsuei is absolutely right. When I was in my adolescence and teenage years, I remember reading up on Japanese history and learning the cultural and historical contexts that went into projects like Ghost in the Shell.

Learning about what aspects of the Japanese cultural identity went into those projects made me even more connected to the stories and the culture they represented. I felt like I was getting a more complete picture of the Japanese collective consciousness and its anxieties about the past and future. What’s so concerning about Ghost in the Shell having a white lead is that Hollywood is not just committing whitewashing treason, but also cultural amnesia. Hollywood is destroying what makes properties like these special and valuable by engaging in racist practices, which robs its audience of the opportunity to learn more about its global neighbors. It also, as #OscarsSoWhite creator April Reign succinctly stated in the recent No! Totally podcast featuring her and Tsuei, removes the opportunity for a Japanese actress to provide her own frame of reference and cultural experiences for the character.

If a proper Ghost in the Shell adaptation was to be made, with actual respect to the culture it came from, it would honor these three aspects found in the most well-known Ghost in the Shell film, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence.

Japan’s reliance on technology for a new national identity

Ghost in the Shell is a direct critique on Japan’s dependence for technology when crafting its new post-war identity, asserting that there might come a time when Japan itself can’t tell the difference between itself and its own technology. It would seem that the warning is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy since there are Japanese scientists right now trying to create tech seen in Ghost in the Shell, such as the Tachikoma helper robots. This isn’t even counting the fact that the Japanese are well on their way to creating lifelike androids. Japan’s road towards lifelike robots has been critiqued in other anime and manga, such as Outlaw Star (with Melfina, an android who powered the eponymous ship and wondered how human she was or could become — apparently, she was human enough for Gene Starwind to date her) and Chobits (which was both a reaction to Japan’s obsession with humanoid robots and a precursor to the onset of young Japanese men marrying their video game or body pillow girlfriends).

The dependence on technology happened, as Tsuei stated, as a result of the atomic bomb. After Japan weathered the atomic attack committed by America, it needed to find a way to regain its sense of self and culture, much of which was wiped out when the bombs hit (these themes of annihilation are also examined in the gripping animated film Grave of Fireflies and the book Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse).

Japanese automobile and technology companies like Toyota, Nissan, Isuzu, Toshiba, and Hitachi used its militaristic advancements made pre-atomic bomb to help rebuild Japan’s economy post-war, stated John Dower in his essay “The Useful War,” found in Showa: The Japan of Hirohito. Andrew Gordon, author of A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present, continues this train of thought. “Japanese private companies expanded quickly and fearlessly,” he wrote. Kenneth Pyle also wrote in The Making of Modern Japan that “[n]ationalism and the desire to catch up with the West persisted after WWII,” but these efforts were now a way for Japan to rebuild itself and reintroduce itself into the global market as a force to be reckoned with. The new technological advancements and the speed with which they were produced helped cement Japan as the technological leader of the world.

Japan’s existential fear of a loss of itself and its culture by its own hands

Japan in the 1980s and 1990s began reflecting on the cost an adherence to technology was now having on their lives. These themes are best explored by Ghost in the Shell, since the very idea of an identity is conflated with the idea of upgrading technology. If your own body is seen as a product you can exchange for something more powerful and up-to-date, just like how Kusanagi has been seen to change out body parts and entire bodies, then what is an identity? By extension, what is a cultural identity if it’s an identity that can be replaceable? Japan’s heritage is one that’s thousands of years old; and quite a lot of Japanese culture (in terms of monuments, places of worship, and buildings that had been in place for centuries) were wiped out in the blink of an eye. How does a country wrap its mind around losing a huge chunk of its identity by creating a largely artificial one in its place? These themes are inherent in Ghost in the Shell, and by the film’s seeming whitewash of the cultural aspects disrespects everything that Ghost in the Shell represents.

A great example of Ghost in the Shell’s examination of the push-and-pull between a technologically savvy-yet disposable culture and a traditional, yet dwindling culture can be seen in this clip from Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, in which a traditional procession takes place in a technologically advanced, yet old-world style street. However, the procession is made up of automaton dolls, which also have a place in Japan’s past (as stated in Yoshiko Okuyama’s Japanese Mythology in Film: A Semiotic Approach to Reading Japanese Film and Anime, the Edo period was fascinated with dolls, or ningyō, that were automatic).  The music throughout Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is sung in the min’yō or “folk song” style, evoking more of old Japan coming into conflict with the Japan built from the ashes. Even the dolls burned in the scene evoke a feeling of disposability, harkening back to the disposability of our lead heroine’s own body.

“[A]fter asking whether you think [the robot “shells” are] a necessary element, you’re left asking by the end of the film what exactly are the uses of a human body which has no unique identity of its own,” states Emad Ahmed for The New Statesman. Anyone can argue that a Ghost in the Shell movie starring anyone could make the same argument, but the cultural nuance that was imbued in the media by that statement—the anxiety Japan faces as it takes on a new “shell” to forego the past—is something important that Hollywood shouldn’t have left on the cutting floor.

The cultural tie between Buddhism, technology, and the “ghost”

The concept of Ghost in the Shell is rooted in post-war existentialism, but it’s also rooted in Shingon Buddhism as well. The concept of kami, or spirit, is extended even to inanimate objects. Tsukumogami, translated to “Kami of tool” according to the Yokai Wikia, is a type of being that were once inanimate objects, but have gained a soul after serving their owner(s) for 100 years.

As Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence director Mamoru Oshii told The Japan Times film critic Mark Schilling (recounted by Okuyama), “In Toy Story, the dolls are just objects that humans bring to life, for their own amusement. The Japanese have a different view: they think that dolls have a spirit.”

This idea ties directly into Kusanagi’s own existentialism about her body and her life, and if she even has what one would consider a sentient soul. The tsukumogami theme is throughout the film, with the film constantly reiterating the tie between dolls, “shells,” and the possibility of sentience and transhumanism. Even the film’s main song, “The Ballade of Puppets,” describes the anguish of disposability and the replaceable world that makes up a puppet, or a “shell,” or a doll’s life.

“‘Even though in this world we may know grief and suffering/Our dreams shall never die,’ and they fall from the branch in anger,” notes that the blossoms, all of which are replaceable with new clones of themselves, fall indignant at their place in world and at how meaningless their lives seem to others. This echoes the same themes of Kusanagi being able to find a new body, or how the sex robots she’s trying to protect are made en masse, or how, again, the Japanese culture at large is transplanting itself from the ways of old to the technologically advanced, and possibly emptier and more replaceable, ways of the future. Kusanagi is more than just a cyber crime officer. She’s a metaphor for Japan itself, constantly in a flux of change ever since the floor was swiped from beneath them due to the atom bomb.

“Our dreams shall never die”

Ghost in the Shell may be manga-turned-anime, but just because it was originally a comic book or a cartoon doesn’t mean it should be treated with the same casual regard as a standard American comic book movie. The relevance Ghost in the Shell has to Japanese culture is something that should be honored in any live-action production, because without the culture, what do you have? You have empty movies about some random cyborg police officer without any of the exploration about why that theme is important to both a Japanese and global consciousness. Hollywood is supposed to be all about the exploration of the human condition, and Ghost in the Shell is nothing but an examination of the human condition. Somehow, Hollywood didn’t pick up on that, going for the lazy route instead.

Monique Jones is the owner and editor of COLOR, a website that offers something to get through your television and film viewing; a guide to where the rest of the rainbow is. A singular place where you can find out more characters who look like you. In addition to COLOR, Monique has written for Entertainment Weekly, Antenna Free TV, Black Girl Nerds, Racialicious, and many other outlets. Follow her on twitter at @moniqueblognet.

34 thoughts on “Jon Tsuei is Right: A #WhitewashedOUT Ghost in the Shell Misses the Cultural Mark

  1. It sounds similar to what happened with the 1998 ‘Godzilla’ movie. Instead of it exploring the Japanese reaction to nuclear power, it decided to be just a monster movie and was so so horrible.

    1. I agree. Even something like “Shall We Dance?” which centered on Japanese themes of work life, masculinity, and the family, produced a pretty uninteresting American remake. These themes, unless massively adapted, don’t resonate the same without context.

      1. Wouldn’t say so.
        True, the remake took out the themes pertaining to Asian Culture, replacing them with common American themes, but I think the work managed to keep up the greater theme, making for an entertaining movie in its own right.

        However, “Ghost” is, to my mind, more inherently bound up in Asian Culture by its genre origin, than “Shall we dance” was.

      2. in no universe is the american shall we dance any good let alone as good as the original

  2. I completely disagree with this argument.

    Firstly, don’t you think it’s rather premature to claim that a film that hasn’t even been completed yet has failed to capture the spirit of the original?!

    Secondly, it seem to me that the reading of Ghost in the Shell being advanced in this article is an outsider’s view. Neither Jon Tsuei nor Monique are Japanese.

    Most Americans consume very little foreign media (the percentage of subtitled films shown in US theater is very low, even UK TV shows get remade for US audiences). On the rare occasions that we do see a foreign film, the very foreignness and unfamiliarity of the setting becomes part of the appeal, and we focus on surface details that the local audience will see as incidental and take for granted. We tend to see a Japanese film as a film about Japan, even if that wasn’t the filmmaker’s original intention at all.

    Sometimes, the best way to convey the original meaning of a film to a foreign audience is to strip all this away and to relocate the action in a familiar setting. Japanese filmmakers like Kurosawa understood this; his adaptations of Shakespeare, which use Japanese settings, are more true to the originals than many superficially more faithful adaptations.

    I don’t want to dismiss entirely the argument that there are many culturally specific elements to Ghost in the Shell. But I think it’s naive to believe you can capture these elements simply by casting a Japanese (or Asian-American) actor. Culture isn’t just skin deep; US audiences simply don’t have the requisite background knowledge to recognize these elements, no matter who is playing the lead.

    For Americans, identity is closely bound up with race, but for Japanese, who live in a less racially diverse society and who don’t look dissimilar to people in neighboring countries like China or Korea, language is an important factor in determining identity. The fact that nobody is complaining that the film is being made in English rather than Japanese suggests to me that US identity politics, not concerns about the representation of Japanese culture, are driving this debate.

    Lastly, the claim to be concerned about “cultural amnesia” sounds very patronizing, even though I’m sure it’s well-intentioned. If you want to see a Japanese take on GITS, you can read the original manga or watch one of the several anime adaptations, they’ll all still be here after the US live action film has been and gone. Japan doesn’t need Hollywood to tell its stories on its behalf.

    1. You don’t have to be of Japanese origin to make an observation about cultural appropriation. IDK what the ancestry of Monique Jones and Jon Tsuei is exactly, but they do not lack credibility under any notion.

    2. I had a lot of stuff I wanted to say to this comment, but my comment ended up being about as long, if not longer, than your comment. So here’s the simplified version (which is still longer than I’d like for it to be).

      1) Yes, I know I’m black and not Japanese, but that doesn’t mean I can’t connect to other cultures or recognize that there’s something to be said for respecting that culture in a film.

      2)Your “stripping” cultural context argument is something to discuss with Shakespeare, but I’d also argue that when Shakespeare is taken out of its original historical context, the director is usually trying to make a larger statement on modern culture (and some are also trying to make the films more inclusive and, again, not just full of white faces). And to be honest, some of the time that practice with Shakespeare works, and sometimes it backfires. Personally, I’d rather if all of Shakespeare was just kept in its time. But to get back to your argument–by stripping GITS of its context, what other context is going to be put in its place and why would you want to remove its context? America’s perception of and relationship to technology is different than the Japanese relationship to tech (in general, not on an individual basis). Your argument of taking that out of “Ghost in the Shell” is gutting the entire concept of the manga/anime, and I don’t think there *will* be a larger statement made about *anyone’s* culture in the film, American, Japanese, or otherwise. My expectations are quite low. Also: having a Japanese actress play a Japanese character makes sense, right? No black person, Asian person, Latino person, or Native American person has played Queen Elizabeth, so why does a white person have to play a Japanese character? Her name is “Motoko Kusanagi” after all.

      3) I can say for a fact that I was not being patronizing at all. I don’t know how you read that into my statement. At the end of the day, if *you* enjoy the movie, then good for you (read that as patronizing if you will). Meanwhile, I’ll be waiting on a non-whitewashed version of a live-action anime film. The point of the article itself is that whitewashing in Hollywood includes erasing race *and* culture, and there comes a point when that has to stop, because none of us are cultureless.

      Thanks for reading the article, though.

      1. I am kinda tired of ScarJo being the go-to gurl for these movies.

    3. I have to say I disagree with your stance as well as this article’s. The article seems to be advocating an all-Japanese cast (as in, nationality), while you seem to be defending the film being whitewashed. Both sides erase the existence of Japanese American actors and actresses.

      I think that this discussion about the cultural context of Ghost in the Shell is kind of irrelevant to the discussion of the film being whitewashed. As you said, an American adaptation of Ghost in the Shell should be expected to capture the spirit of the film while talking liberties about the film’s cultural context. Attempts by Western filmmakers to make stories from Asian settings about Asian culture have proven to be fetishizing and poorly executed (see: Avatar the Last Airbender, etc.)

      But this does not mean that it was OK for Hollywood to cast ScarJo as Motoko Kusanagi. As far as I know, they didn’t even change her name from Motoko Kusanagi, so they are both trying to make the film about Japanese culture while whitewashing the main character.

      Hollywood has terrible history of casting Asian woman and men as stereotypical roles, and white people as nonstereotypical Asian roles. They are responsible for warping the general American population’s perceptions of Asian people, and continue to do so by casting a white woman as Motoko Kusanagi in this film.

      1. One more thing: while I disagree with Ms. Jones argument, I understand why it was important to write this article. I think, in general, a large amount of people do not think Motoko is Asian at all. Many have said that Motoko “does not look Asian”, “is not Asian”, etc. This is because Americans have warped perceptions of Asian people, due to the history of yellowface and stereotypes in American media.

        Long story short, I appreciate what this article is trying to say! Motoko is, without question, of Asian descent, for the reasons supplied in this article.

    4. I left a couple of replies on this thread, which I wish I could/knew how to delete. If you see those, you should just disregard them, because I was rushed and totally put words in both your mouths and twisted them to fit my own perspective. After rereading her article and response to Santini’s comment carefully, I realize that I misinterpreted Ms. Jones and didn’t give her the respect she’s due.

      For what it’s worth, here’s what I think now:

      As a practice, I don’t think that foreign adaptations should be expected to perfectly preserve the cultural values and themes of original. But I have no interest in an American “Ghost in the Shell” that guts out all of the Japanese themes, setting, and cultural context of the animated film. Why call the film “Ghost in the Shell”, if that is the intention? I just see it as another instance of Hollywood trying to profit off of “Asian things” without any real respect for the culture or people.

      Still, the discussion of how faithful the film should be to the original’s culture involves much more than just the casting choices, and is kind of a separate topic altogether. Staying on-topic about the whitewashing of the film, there’s no excuse to cast a white person as someone named “Motoko Kusanagi”, or to replace that character with a new white character that goes by “the Major” if that’s what they did. Even if the film needs to reflect American cultural values, Asian Americans are a part of American culture and therefore fitting for an American adaptation. I’m sick of whiteness being associated with being American, and Asian Americans being seen as neither “American enough” nor “Asian enough”.

  3. GITS2: Innocence is widely regarded as inferior to the original 1995 anime; I don’t understand why this article focuses almost exclusively on it, especially as the US film will likely be based mainly on the manga (that’s what they licensed the rights to, anyway).

    Also, I’d question whether it’s really “the most well-known Ghost in the Shell film” (perhaps in the US, where it received a limited cinema release)..

    In any case, the images in the clip from GITS2: Innocence you’ve chosen to focus on depict specifically Chinese, not Japanese, cultural elements which would look exotic and foreign to a Japanese audience. Compare the imagery in the clip to the Taiwan-shot music video to the single “Dorian Shōnen” by Japanese idol group NMB48, which evokes a school trip to an exotic holiday destination:

    1. thats true Innocence was not even worth watching, and i own all the GitS anime besides that one and i was in high school when the movie hit us screens and when i saw it i have to admit it was the best anime ive seen and i keep up with the best stuff like Bleach, Akira, Gundam….. especially Gundam 00 and Gundam Wing. but if its been truely good in the last 30 years i have it, but not the failure follow up to the original revolutionary movie. i grew up watching anime like Transformers and Robotech in the 80’s then i saw Vampire Hunter D and started buying my own collection at 14 years old, i have the entire Guyver series, Ninja Scroll, Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo, Metropolis, Appleseed, and anything worth owning since the early 90’s and some before like Akira. as for the live action GitS its a shame that the people that have the rights to market this should be ashamed of giving the rights to Hollywood to screw up…….. they new what was going to happen and they traded morality and quality for a name that has no clue what is going on beneath the basic idea like she wont be able to pull the whole struggle off that she faces by not always knowing what the real self is somehow just a pawn with no original self to fall back on and then she shows the trust in her ghost by listening to it and knowing that is the real definition of who she is a selff made and seperate intity then anybody that is nothing but a puppet because she thinks and has individual strengths and is capable of being the person with the best abilities and intellect to be a seperate person ………..its strength of mind and will.

  4. I went to see Captain America: Civil War the other day and was “treated” to a Doctor Strange trailer. It looks good with exception to one thing: the casting of Tilda Swinton as a Tibetan monk. (REALLY?!)

    I will have to overlook this miscue, and ordinarily I might skip it under protest but it looks awfully good despite this lapse in casting sanity.

    1. Re: Tilda Swinton: apparently the MCU Ancient One is now Celtic… at which point I’m left wondering why the heck the story is still supposed to be set in Nepal (I understand that Tibet = immediate ban in the People’s Republic of China) instead of changing locales to correspond to the character change and all I can think of for an answer is “the ‘exoticism’ was baked into the script from the beginning”.

      1. UNDERLYING MESSAGE: The Celts are more mystically superior than the Tibetan monks of Nepal.

        THUMBS DOWN. All the Way Down.

  5. even i one who is vaguely familiar with ghost in the shells knows how japanese it is. all this bogus of “well its not the major’s original body so they can make it look any race” is just that: bogus. its just white people with their white worship cause of course if a person of color could create their ideal body it would be that of a white person despite that fact there are how many asians in the world? dont think they are all racing to erase their heritage by mating with the anglos….

  6. What I would have done is change Strange’s nationality to British I mean I love Cumberbatch’s accent he speaks so eloquently. But what I read sometime ago is that Tilda’s character is just one of many Ancient One’s there’s not one definite one. But I agree with that this time I’ll let Swinton’s casting slide I am a fan of her work.

    1. I too, like Tilda Swinton. She has amazing range as an actor and I will see Dr. Strange, but I am skipping GITS out of protest. No room for a change of mind, either.

  7. There are characters whose nationality or ethnicity is a major part of their character that changing it would be against the character I mean can you imagine Sherlock Holmes as anything but British? I think that’s the same thing for GITS, it’s a cultural icon and remake or reboot or whatever. What pisses me off the most with these remakes is the sheer audacity many of these producers have, the disrespect they show to the original work as if they don’t already have an existing audience who grew up with it.

  8. What should have been done is change the local have Tilda’s character reside somewhere corresponding to her character’s origins like Ireland or Northerner France.

  9. “Looking at her career so far, I think Scarlett Johansson is well-cast,” Sam Yoshiba, director of the international business division at Kodansha’s headquarters in Tokyo, told The Hollywood Reporter (via AnimeNewsNetwork and RocketNews). “She has the cyberpunk feel. And we never imagined it would be a Japanese actress in the first place.”

    “Ideally, everyone should be able to live where they want to, and in the multiracial sense Japan will probably become much more similar to the West.” – Masamune Shirow (Creator of the manga)

    There you have it, from the creator’s mouths. If your familiar with the source material you will realise her body is a mass production model with customised internal combat parts. Her name is also incidental as her body was destroyed before she was two years old, her nationality of origin is unknown. Batou is also based on Steven Seagal with the remaining characters being Japanese in origin. I own all the Ghost in the Shell Mangas, books, anime series, and films, and I can tell you that the ethnic origins of the main character is utterly unimportant to the core themes explored therein. The film and manga contains aspects of zen, epistemological nihilism, christian imagery, and the exploration of “what is real?” The reflecting water and various light reflections throughout the montage and scenes with crowded streets create a surreal effect that makes the viewer question whether it is a dream or reality Motoko is seeing. It also questions the nature of conciousness, the very idea of identity within a synthetic body. The idea of the singularity where humans merge with technology to achieve transcendence, Nanotechnology, micro machines, advanced networking, and genetic engineering also play a reoccurring roll through out the series. I don’t expect everyone to know about that, after all your talking about a five hundred plus pages of manga and the hours of content within the series and films. But it really seems like people who are not familiar with the source material chimed in and this was the first thing they saw a white chick in a movie based on a japanese anime.

    All that said i’m concerned about the film staying true to the source material which is indeed uniquely Japanese. From what I’ve read it seems Oshi san is onboard and acting as a consultant for quality control. Also the film will contain the original score composed by Kenji Kawai and a recent press event had him playing with live orchestration, along to footage of the major’s “birthing sequence” from the original 1995 film. I’m afraid that the film will use the “confused girl wondering who she is trope.” When really she questions her existence and the nature of consciousness, but she never does it in a scared and whiny way. She is after all THEE best combat cyborg in the world and a military, tactical, and cyber security/hacker genius. She is someone who commands respect and does not second guess herself at all during combat. I hope that the trailer only shows a side that will get westerners into the theatre, I’m ok with promoting it for a western audience. But once the film starts I hope they don’t loose site Shirow’s original philosophical and hard science themes. I’m terrified at the idea of a masterpiece of Anime and Manga being made into another generic action flick.

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