Is ScarJo in ‘Ghost in the Shell’ a Kick-Ass Cyborg Superhero or Cultural Whitewashing?
If you’ve only heard about ‘Ghost in the Shell’ because of ScarJo—and accusations of ‘whitewashing’ the story—there’s so much more to the transcendent sci-fi manga franchise.
Scarlett Johansson has signed on to a Western remake of Ghost in the Shell. You should be thrilled. If the last few years have played host to an argument for more women in lead roles in action franchises, it feels fitting that Hollywood wants to prove that one of the best female sci-fi protagonists ever doesn’t just exist on paper: she exists in flesh and bone actresses too.
2015 has already announced itself as the year Ghost in the Shell comes back. A new animated movie in the long-running franchise will be coming out this summer. But if you’ve only heard about the franchise because of ScarJo—and accusations of “whitewashing” the story—there are a lot of reasons to catch up on the fascinating series.
Not only is the original movie and subsequent spinoffs lead by a queer woman of color years before The Legend Of Korra got Tumblr in a frenzy, but it is also a major inspiration for some of the biggest sci-fi movies the West has produced in the last twenty years and it is a masterclass in show soundtracking from one of TV’s greatest composers.
Ghost in the Shell was originally released as a manga by Masamune Shirow (who also wrote Appleseed and Dominion Tank Force before, two other awesome female-lead series) and has since been adapted into a movie, a TV series, and an OVA, an animated miniseries. All of them are different takes on the original manga, and Masamune has stated in recent reprints of the manga that there is no definitive version. But, if you were to ask which one has had the most influence on other artists, the 1995 movie and the original manga are pretty high up there.
The story focuses on the same group every time: an anti-terrorist group called Section 9 and its two powerful cyborg members Motoko Kusanagi and Bato. The seven members of Section 9 investigate and take down cybernetic terrorist threats and thwart political skullduggery. The 1995 movie sees the more episodic manga plot boiled down to a singular mission, and also morphs the art style from its intensely ‘80s wide-eyed, soft-faced characters and zany antics to a strange, cold, semi-realistic and far less aged form.
Like much of the best sci-fi anime, the Ghost in the Shell movie has a balletic elegance that brings to mind the slow and deliberate movements of traditional Japanese theatre. The movie peppers the quiet, brooding sense of despair at their dystopian world with moments of well-crafted action, such as a famous fight against a “hacked” lackey through a bustling market and finally a watery plaza, perfectly choreographed and playing with the peon’s sense of safety in long pans of the built-up metropolis he finds himself lost in.
But it’s in its lead female, Motoko, that the show crafts a fine blend of femme fatale and classical hero. A full cyborg, she fears that she may not even have a human consciousness and that drives her throughout the movie. How real is she? And how real is her “ghost”? The movie ends with her and the main enemy, the equally existential Puppetmaster, fusing into one transcendent being that exists within the futuristic version of the net.
While Motoko’s philosophical storyline gives her a real weight, what exactly her personality is varies between showrunners, directors and even voice actresses. Some, like TV show director Kenji Kamiyama, had to really delve into the character all over again to find who she was. Motoko’s TV voice actress, Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, loved playing the character. “To actually play someone that was that strong, and still kind of feminine at times, but also kick-ass and while I use my own voice… I just loved playing that role. I loved, loved, loved it.”
Motoko at times seems a bit too competent at everything, a bit too capable, and a bit too pragmatic however, and she is given the kind of impossibly busty athletic form that is often the norm for action heroines in Japanese anime. It makes sense, in these regards, to cast Johansson: in 2014 she proved that she is not only a kick-ass leading lady in Lucy, but she also proved her ability to provide humanity and warmth to the most inhuman entities in Her and Under the Skin.
Motoko is just one part of a larger world of cybernetics, prosthetics, and politics however. The original manga is incredibly text heavy, loaded with analysis of how law enforcement, technology, and philosophy all exist and play out in this particular version of reality. All of this information is pushed into the background in the movie, allowing the visuals and the way characters respond to ideas alien to us. This world, with its strong visual language, has gone on not just to generate the Ghost in the Shell franchise, but influence many other directors and artists.
Most importantly, Ghost in the Shell is a noted influence on the Wachowski siblings who have themselves mentioned its role in conceiving The Matrix. It’s also worth mentioning that Ghost in the Shell was a vanguard of the big western anime boom of the mid-90s, along with Neon Genesis Evangelion and Macross Plus. Arguably, it had a large role in anime—and definitely philosophical sci-fi animation—finding a home in the West, especially after the domestic failure of movies like Akira a few years before.
If these aren’t enough to interest you, it’s worth mentioning that Ghost in the Shell has some of the most exciting soundtracks in anime. The movie soundtrack, composed by Kenji Kawai, uses a mix of thumping ambience and ancient Japanese chants to create an incredible, undeniably powerful atmosphere. It brings together the ideas of the mind and the soul that are as old as storytelling itself with the computerization of the soul and technological advances that ripple like electrical currents through the stories. The TV series Stand Alone Complex also brings in Yoko Kanno, one of anime’s greatest composers and worth discovering in her own right. She also composed the entire score of Wolf’s Rain and the iconic space western Cowboy Bebop, a jazz epic that is as famous as the show itself.
Of course, it’s a shame—if unsurprising—that a white actress will be the lead in an anime adaptation. But then, the movie has yet to be greenlit. What matters more than anything is that Motoko Kusanagi has re-entered the popular conscience. After the OVAs of the last few years, there’s another animation out this year and any chance for more people to access the world of Ghost in the Shell is worth promoting.
It is not perfect, but Ghost in the Shell is a technical thriller about cybersecurity with a female lead that has been tinkered with, crafted, and developed by writers for decades. In terms of time, it may seem like a step backwards, but perhaps this kick-ass cyborg is the iconic female superhero we need.