Ghost in the Shell and anime's troubled history with representation

A controversial casting is exposing the many complications and contradictions of Japanese animation

In January of 2015, it was announced that Scarlett Johansson would star as Major Motoko Kusanagi in Paramount's live-action adaptation of the beloved anime and manga franchise Ghost in the Shell. The reaction at the time was mild to positive —€” mostly because it seemed to make a lot of sense if we're just talking about Johansson's career. The actress starred in a slew of sci-fi roles that allowed her to delve deep into the relationship between a woman and her body and her consciousness: she was an AI turned omnipotent being in Her, a lonely alien turned carnivorous sexpot in Under The Skin, and a drug mule turned omnipotent being in Lucy. Her career was an IRL thinkpiece, and assuming the role of a cyborg supercop seemed like the next logical step.


As usual, it took a picture for the outcry to start. This month, over a year after the casting announcement, Paramount Pictures released a still of Johansson in costume as Kusanagi, and the internet did not take it well. The image of a famous white actress in Kusanagi's signature black bob seemed like another depressing example of Asian actors being removed from Asian narratives —€” the insult of M. Night Shyamalan's Avatar adaptation and Emma Stone playing a half-Chinese character in Aloha were still fresh in our collective memory. (Both films were bombs; so much for the "white actors are more bankable" argument.) Add the more recent controversy of Tilda Swinton's casting as a Tibetan character in Marvel's Dr. Strange and there was enough fuel for a fresh round of writers, filmmakers, and actors taking Hollywood to task for its refusal to cast Asian actors.

Representation is not as cut-and-dry in Japan

Whitewashing is very real, and the deficit of starring roles for Asians is one lane in the representation race that is stubbornly slow to advance. But in the case of Kusanagi, an anime character, it's not as simple as Japanese or white. The issue of representation feels cozily easy to understand here in the US —€” you either are or aren't represented —€” compared to the long history of self-erasure in post-war Japanese narratives. It's a dense, depressing history, and by the end of it I probably will still come to the conclusion that casting Johansson was the wrong move. But perhaps —€” and this is just a guess —€” the Ghost in the Shell adaptation shouldn't have been an American production in the first place.


Katsuhiro Otomo, Akira (1988)

After World War II —€” after two nuclear bombs and the forced demilitarization, an impoverished and war-torn Japan desperately needed to rebuild its economy, and it turned to toys. Using one of the only resources it found itself with a surplus of —€” discarded food tins from the occupying allied troops  —€” Japanese manufacturers began making cheap tin models of American Jeeps. They became immensely popular among Japanese children whose families couldn't afford expensive toys, and their popularity spread to the states, starting with returning GIs bringing home gifts for their kids.

Why American Jeeps? Why immortalize the vehicles of the country that defeated them? Well, they certainly wouldn't be making Japanese vehicles —€” there was no more army to speak of, any remnant of Japan's recent past as a military bully was being erased with embarrassment and shame. At any rate, this is where Japan gets into the business of selling the look of America back to it, and even doing it one better. After the toy cars started taking off, plastic figurines and dolls also rose in popularity, and Japan's expertise in the kind of disarming cuteness we know today really began to get honed. The toys had to be adorable enough (or flattering enough to American post-war jingoism) that American children would covet them —€” pre-war exports of traditional Japanese dolls with straight black hair and narrow eyes had never seen much movement overseas. Toymakers saw the popularity of Disney-style Western cartoons and started iterating on them, gradually making the heads bigger, the eyes rounder, the features softer. For many years, one of the most common dolls in Japan were unlicensed plastic reproductions of Kewpie, a wide-eyed Caucasian baby with origins in a 1920s American comic.

Kewpie was so vigorously appropriated that he eventually became a de facto Japanese character —€” when I see Kewpie now, I think of mayo. But this was an early chapter in a long tradition of the Japanese face and physicality being erased from contemporary Japanese iconography. Prior to the war, human figures in Japanese fine and commercial art were allowed to look Japanese, just as they had in centuries of block prints. After the war, once the Japanese face had become synonymous in the western imagination with untrustworthiness and cruelty, toymakers, character empires like Sanrio —€” and, ultimately, artists —€” adopted a more benign countenance. Osamu Tezuka, who is credited with the creation of the "anime eye," was directly influenced by Walt Disney and Max Fleischer, and responded in kind with his manga series Astro Boy, the tale of a sweet doe-eyed robot boy who's been rejected by his creator. The 1963 animated series was the first anime to be translated and distributed overseas, and key to Japan's literal soft-power comeback.

This is not a story of a country so in love with Magic America that it abandoned its own cultural identity —€” this is a country that culturally appropriated from the culture that had asserted dominance over it in order to rebuild itself.

Serial Experiments Lain

Serial Experiments Lain (1998)

During the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, when Japan had not only made its comeback but was experiencing an unprecedented economic bubble (on the back of consumer electronics exports —€” toys to the rescue again) Japanese animation started to really come into its own as an art form. And as it shifted from its origins as a medium aimed at children to explore more adult themes, it turned its gaze toward the ground zero of this aggressive expansion. Tokusatsu (special effects) films like the Godzilla franchise had explicitly riffed on post-atomic anxiety, but anime melded that anxiety with the technoparanoia and existential musings of American science fiction authors like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. The ubiquitous image of the atom bomb is the inciting or concluding event; the fallout is technology. Innocent youths are caged in robot suits, powerful psychics are trapped in decrepit childlike forms. Technology alienates everyone: consciousness becomes unmoored, bodies become arbitrary and disposable, sex becomes less a biological function than a psychological dysfunction, the planet and its host of forgotten nature spirits cries out in agony.

As anime began to pick at the scab left by two deep American wounds, the role race plays in that conflict is often obfuscated by the medium itself.

Enter Ghost in the Shell. Masamune Shirow's cyberpunk crime saga was first published as a manga serial in 1989, and by the time it was released as a feature-length film in 1995 the bubble economy had burst. The emphasis of the story shifted from the paranoid thrill of a world where everything is connected via a network to the fate of a human consciousness in a world overtaken by technology. Its heroine, Major Motoko Kusanagi, is a cyborg with a manufactured body and a human brain (maybe). She, like many other enhanced humans in this vision of 2029 Japan regularly jacks into a globe-spanning network via ports in the back of her neck. She's already started to wonder about the origin and location of her consciousness, when an artificial intelligence, that has self-generated in the network, finds her and asks to merge with her as a means of mutual self-prolonging. The 1995 film ends with her merging with the entity and assuming a new, younger body.

Motoko is part of a security force largely made up of artificial bodies. Her second-in-command, Batou, looks like an anime Dolph Lundgren; huge and muscular with slicked-back blonde hair. Motoko herself is tall and broad-shouldered, with brilliant blue eyes. The security company intercepts an empty runaway prosthesis that looks like a Scandinavian beauty queen. I don't think it's an accident that the cyborgs of Ghost in the Shell, including Motoko, are more "anime-looking" than the characters who are mere Japanese or American humans. This is not to say that they are supposed to be white, but they are not explicitly Japanese, either. They're a supposed sign of progress in a blindly technologized future, where not only can an individual's race be augmented away; one's entire physical being can be.

As comic author Jon Tsuei pointed out on Twitter, Japan has a relationship to technology that is fundamentally different from the states, which is why GitS is so irrevocably Japanese. Technology was what Japan turned to as a means to assert itself as a world leader when military might was no longer an option. The wire-encrusted dystopias of ‘90s anime are the natural outgrowth of a country brought to its knees by nuclear warfare that threw itself into a tech explosion and is now slumping through economic downturn. And it's an indirect American inheritance. America took away Japan's army, tossed it some tin cans, said "Here, play with this, instead." A half a century later, we have the PS4, Hatsune Miku, and sex robots. That's better than comfort women, to be sure. It's definitely better than nukes. But it permanently altered the entire question of national identity.

When I went back to investigate some of the responses to the photo of Johansson, I came upon a video, above, published by a Japanese vlogger named Yuta. In it, he asks young Japanese adults on the street what they think of the casting, and what they make of the outcry over whitewashing in the States. "My biggest challenge of this interview was to explain what whitewashing [is], because it's not something Japanese people usually think about," he says in the introduction.

The Japanese reactions are depressing, but predictable

The reactions are depressing, but if you've been following up to now, fully predictable. "I think this is better than hiring a Japanese actress," says one woman enthusiastically. "Yeah, it will look more anime-ish if the actors aren't Japanese." Every interviewee seems genuinely flummoxed as to why American audiences would be opposed to the casting. "Maybe they have high standards," one young man guesses.

Japanese audiences, unlike American audiences, don't understand Motoko to be a Japanese character, just because she speaks Japanese and has a Japanese name. This speaks to the racial mystery zone that so much anime exists in, allowing viewers to ignore such unpleasant dynamics as oppression and discrimination even as they enjoy stories that are often direct responses to those dynamics.

Of course, it's a different issue for Japanese Americans, who grew up forced to think about identity in a much more tactile way. For us, anime is something from our country, or our parents' country, that was cool enough for white kids to get into just as fervently. We couldn't see ourselves in Hollywood's shows and movies, but we could claim anime as our own, and see ourselves in its wild sci-fi imaginings and cathartic transformation sequences. Of course, I use the words "see ourselves" loosely.

Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

I was born in Japan, but raised by my Caucasian mother in America. She had an appreciation for Japanese art and culture, and raised me on some very basic Japanese. But I remember her looking askance at anime, especially as it started to rise in popularity in the states in the early ‘90s. "Those big eyes? That crazy hair? They don't look Japanese at all!" (Of course, the average anime character does look unmistakably Japanese, but in the same way a rococo painting in a gilded frame looks unmistakably French.) I knew I was supposed to be suspicious of anime, but as I grew into adolescence I found myself almost involuntarily drawn toward it. Not only did it have the seductive qualities of the forbidden, the lurid, the trashy —€” it was also one of the only pop cultural connections I had to a culture I had largely been severed from at birth.

I don't know that I saw myself in most anime characters, though it certainly didn't hurt that they tended to feature far more female protagonists than Stateside entertainments. I found myself strangely attuned to the rhythms and sensibilities of everything from Sailor Moon to Serial Experiments Lain to Evangelion. But I never had to visually deal with the fact that these magical girls and teen soldiers and melancholy robots were Japanese —€” culturally, yes; racially, no. It was enough for me to hear Japanese being spoken and Japanese culture being referenced to. But Japanese people —€” flesh-and-blood humans —€” had long since been removed from one of Japan's chief cultural exports.

Ghost in the Shell is the product of and response to decades of erasure

If I saw myself in anyone, though, it was in cyborg creations like Motoko —€” a mishmash of parts, not belonging to one culture or another, freakishly tall and unsure of the origin of her emotions. When I think about who I'd like to see in that role, it's not Scarlett Johansson, but it's not Rinko Kikuchi, either (who, despite what we've been led to believe, is not the only Japanese actress who can speak English.) Maybe I don't imagine anyone as Motoko other than myself; maybe I'm not alone in that feeling.

Ghost in the Shell is the product of and response to decades of physical erasure and technological alienation. It's pop cultural fallout, a delicately layered croissant of appropriation upon appropriation. It's as timely as ever, but it feels wildly inappropriate for an American studio and the British director of Snow White and the Huntsman to pick it up and sell it back to us. At the same time, Japan and the US have been stealing and selling images to each other for decades, and the result hasn't always been awful. I would still argue, though, that the knotty history that leads to Motoko Kusanagi will be lost in translation. This isn't The Matrix or Pacific Rim, this isn't just a look and a vibe being lifted. This is the entire history of Japan's relationship with itself, the US and technology, and without that, you're left with nothing but an empty prosthesis.