Eighty-eight years after Boris Karloff uttered the line “Kill the white man and take his women” as a villainous Chinese caricature in The Mask of Fu Manchu, whitewashing and tone-deaf depictions of Asian culture still thrive in Hollywood.
Ghost in the Shell, director Rupert Sanders’s glitzy live-action adaptation of the beloved manga and anime franchise, stars Scarlett Johansson as cyborg assassin Motoko Kusanagi, here renamed Mira Killian. Her casting in a story so quintessentially Japanese—one that critiques a culture’s overreliance on technology to rebuild its identity post-World War II—was swiftly met by accusations of whitewashing.
Sanders & Co. are well aware of the backlash. They’ve probably even seen the memes. (Johansson has defended her role by equating it to a win for feminism. Director Mamoru Oshii, the man behind the original, wildly influential 1995 anime film, likewise dismissed American concerns: “In the movies, John Wayne can play Genghis Khan,” he reasoned, presumably without irony.)
Onscreen in Sanders’s film, the matter of Johansson’s whiteness actually becomes a plot point—or rather, a plot twist. And boy, does it somehow manage to make everything worse. Warning: Spoilers ahead for this silly movie’s even sillier ending ahead.
A quick primer on the basics of the plot: “The Major,” aka Mira Killian, works as an elite counterterrorism operative in Tokyo in the year 2029, when cybernetic body enhancements have become a way of life. Everyone wandering the streets likely has artificially improved vision, speed, strength, mental prowess, and so on—it’s a common way of life.
Mira’s body, however, is more than just enhanced: It’s all-synthetic, implanted with the human mind of a woman whose body was allegedly destroyed in an accident (her consciousness is the “ghost” in her body’s shell). She’s the first of her kind, we’re told, and the “future of humanity.” She remembers little before joining her comrades in Section 9, until “glitches” in her mind begin to reveal flashbacks of her past.
A supposedly villainous hacker named Kuze (Michael Pitt) warns Mira not to trust her makers, and to investigate the memories they’ve hidden from her. She does, and eventually discovers—you ready for this?—that her brain originally belonged to a young Japanese woman named Motoko Kusanagi who was kidnapped and killed by Hanka Industries, the corporation that made Mira’s body.
We never get a full glimpse of Motoko’s face, but we learn she was an anti-technology anarchist who spent her days with a community of like-minded runaways, one of whom was also kidnapped and repurposed into an ultimately failed cyborg. That young man’s name was Hideo. Now, he’s known as Kuze. Dozens of men and women died before them, we learn, in Hanka Industries’ quest to create the perfect living weapon: a quest now fulfilled with Mira.
Bizarrely, the race-bending twist was conceived specifically for this American retelling; it’s nowhere in Oshii’s film, or in Masamune Shirow’s original manga. The film itself seems unsure what to do with it, ultimately leaning into a half-baked statement about consent (Mira verbally gives or declines her consent whenever scientists alter her data)—one of about a dozen unexplored themes left dangling throughout.
We’re then given a parting shot of Mira and Motoko’s mother hugging in front of Motoko’s grave. Mira decides to remain in her Caucasian shell, rather than fuse with Kuze in his human-made network of minds, and dedicates herself to spare any more Japanese runaways of Motoko’s fate. How heroic. And trendy! Between Marvel’s Iron Fist and Matt Damon Saves China: The Movie, white saviors are all the rage in 2017.
That Motoko was murdered is a horrible thing, the film ultimately concludes, miraculously. The most visible boss at Hanka Industries emerges as the real villain and is killed in a by-the-numbers climactic battle. But Sanders and writers Jamie Moss and William Wheeler are less harsh on the scientist who actually designed Mira: Dr. Ouelet, played by Juliette Binoche. She dies too, but heroically, after sacrificing herself to give Mira the keys to her past.
No one answers for (or even really mentions) the erasure of Motoko’s race. The implied assumption that Western beauty ideals are somehow an “upgrade” on Eastern ones goes unchallenged. And that’s a shame. There was room for a smart, meta statement in here about a society that chooses white bodies as ideal embodiments of human minds, but nothing so intelligent (or hell, interesting) ever happens.
Instead, the twist only becomes more tone-deaf in retrospect. Knowing there’s a murdered Japanese woman’s mind inside a shell that looks like Scarlett Johansson makes the half-dozen or so times that other characters harp on about her “divine” beauty and specialness all the more uncomfortable. Bonus cringe points for having Kuzo, who we later learn was Japanese, stare at her new form in wonder and say, “I am not beautiful like you.”
And yet, astoundingly, none of this ends up being Ghost in the Shell’s biggest problem. Whitewashing aside, the film fundamentally misunderstands (or simply doesn’t give a shit about) the ideas at the heart of Oshii’s 1995 masterpiece. It sands down the strange, striking subtleties of the anime in favor of razzle-dazzle CGI, slick aesthetics, and unimaginative gun-fu sequences.
Where the original is a deeply philosophical meditation on isolation, technology, and the nature of the self, 2017’s Ghost in the Shell boils down those ideas—so ripe for exploration in today’s world!—to two-line soundbites. Characters pay lip service to an incoherent jumble of themes while the plot itself carries on, unconcerned.
This is partly because Sanders never aims for more than aesthetics-driven cherry-picking of famous images from the anime. Iconic objects like the tarantula typing hands and detachable eyes, so unsettling in Oshii’s film, are here repackaged as shiny, cool toys. Motoko’s invisible fight in the water, her “fishing” trip with Batou, their battle with a giant robot spider—entire scenes are lifted and grafted onto a largely meaningless story about a Tokyo Jason Bourne.
It’s such a cynical, depressing take on a sci-fi classic. It’s visually stunning, to be sure, in everything from its costume design to its Blade Runner-inspired vision of Tokyo: all grime and neon lights and towering holograms. And yet it’s also hopelessly stale. Every idea or action scene it attempts has been done better elsewhere, from Ex Machina to The Matrix.
Oshii’s film is full of quiet, contemplative moments that convey Motoko’s alienation: looking up at pink-tinged clouds above the city, for example, or a lingering look at her own reflection before resurfacing from underwater. It also isn’t afraid to be ugly: In the climax of that last spider-bot battle, the muscles of Major’s body expand, bulge, and burst grotesquely in a feat of strength. It’s hideous, yet thrilling in the best body-horror way.
In Sanders’s version, when the camera pans up toward the sky, it’s only to show off the pretty lights of his meticulously designed city. And when Major faces the spider-bot, her body, the object of so much verbal admiration throughout, transforms much, much less gruesomely. It’s almost funny. This movie, so eager for explosions and mayhem elsewhere, suddenly turns faint-hearted.
This isn’t to nitpick how faithfully an adaptation stuck to its source material. Usually, it’s better for everyone when projects like this expand and build on what we’ve already seen or read. But the 2017 Ghost in the Shell is, unfortunately, its own apt metaphor: It’s a shell without a soul.
It does manage to condemn the transplant of Motoko’s brain into Mira’s body. But in refusing to look the uneasiness of those racial dynamics in the eye, the film also ends up undermining itself. The crime isn’t just that a girl was murdered, as it tells us. It’s also that a Japanese woman’s mind was put in the body of a white woman and then treated as inherently superior.
You know what we call that back here in 2017? Whitewashing. The cultural crime Ghost in the Shell unwittingly condemns is exactly what it did in casting Johansson, and hopes to continue to do in would-be sequels. Luckily, to understand why that’s wrong, you need look no further than this blockbuster blunder.