Ghost in the Shell is a sprawling, beloved cyberpunk series starring one of the most iconic female anime characters of all time. But the buzz around its live-action adaptation has been decidedly nervous. Part of that is the usual anxiety over how Hollywood will turn weird, complex source material into a blockbuster movie. But it’s also because of the controversial decision to cast white actress Scarlett Johansson in the role of protagonist Motoko Kusanagi, renamed Mira Killian in this film.
So when the movie was released last week, we went into it with a lot of questions. Would Johansson’s performance overcome our doubts about her casting? What would the filmmakers do with Ghost in the Shell’s distinctive cyberpunk aesthetic? And would it deliver on the combination of action and philosophizing that made us love the original? Now, we can finally answer them.
Major Ghost in the Shell spoilers ahead.
Let’s just jump in here: we’ve got a white actress playing a character who’s Japanese in the source material, with her whiteness supposedly justified in a big twist. Does it work?
Angela Chen: I’m going to go with “no.” I came to the movie with no background. I did know about the whitewashing controversy, but I was ready to give the movie a fair shot.
So, I knew Major was now Mira Killian instead of a presumably Japanese woman Motoko, but I assumed that she had always been Mira. When it turned out that she had been a Japanese woman who was literally destroyed and turned into a white woman, I was shocked. It’s like the directors heard the whitewashing criticism and thought this was a clever way around it — but this seems worse than just always having her be white. On a very visceral level, there are several scenes where people talk about how beautiful Mira is (and she is, of course — she’s ScarJo), whereas we never get to even see Motoko’s face.
The big twist could have worked with a different setup
Adi Robertson: It did seem like an emotional bombshell that was shrugged off. The idea might work if you emphasized the alienation of getting shoved into a “universal” white body by a company trying to produce the ideal human. If that had happened, her being called beautiful could work as intentional commentary. It would call back to the fears that designer babies will translate our biases and blind spots into permanent decisions about human bodies. What happens if our idea of perfection is one specific race?
Angela: People love to find the “objective” measure of perfection. Every so often, someone will publish a list of “most beautiful women, as determined by science” and it’s basically always 10 white women. Yeah, right. It’s never truly objective.
Kwame Opam: I’d really enjoy chewing on a Ghost in the Shell that approached Mira’s whiteness as monstrous, but the movie doesn’t do the heavy lifting to justify the transformation as anything other than an homage to fans of Kusanagi.
There’s a way to read what we see as intentional commentary. All the Hanka scientists and officials we meet are white, contrasting with the more diverse Section 9. The idea that Hanka is trying to create the perfect human-machine hybrid could also align with their vision of white racial superiority. The trouble is, the film never offers us a real way into that read, since we spend most of our time with Mira. There’s no thread in the movie that suggests the movie is about white supremacy in any meaningful way, and there isn’t enough world building to give us a picture of Hanka’s activities to back up the idea that they have any racial hang-ups.
What’s more, the evil of that cultural erasure isn’t dealt with in any meaningful way other than the idea that Mira and Kuze’s lives were stolen from them. If it were, it’d be really hard to position Mira as a superhero who’s still working for Section 9 at the end of the movie, armed with the belief that there will be more beings like her in the future. It’s a sunny outlook on a horrific situation. If all that happened to me, I’d quit outright, go on a road trip, and develop a real hatred of technology. There’s also the fact that ScarJo has explicitly said that Mira is raceless. That generous read just doesn’t hold up.
The Major should really quit Section 9 and go on a road trip
Nick Statt: I think one the biggest issues for me is that the twist has no grounding in the original. (Major is always Motoko in the Ghost in the Shell canon.) The script writers seem to have deliberately manufactured a reason for a white cyborg body to be the shell around a Japanese woman’s mind, either as a way to stave off criticism or perhaps as a manipulation of the original series’s message of transcending cultural identity.
But as you mention, Kwame, they do so without any of the deliberate narrative legwork. Never once does Mira utter a word of Japanese or contemplate her heritage, not even when meeting her birth mother. The film also seems afraid to even go near the fact that the setting is clearly a Tokyo-inspired city, in a time when America must be fractured — Mira thinks she’s a refugee — and Japan must be a dominant superpower.
I also see the twist as a pretty shameful, disingenuous reading of the ethnic fluidity of anime characters, which itself has serious historical significance. I’m already seeing people online defending the Mira / Motoko twist with, “Well, the Major never looked Asian to begin with.” Neither do a majority of anime characters, even when they have names like Naruto Uzimaki or Shinji Ikari. But that doesn’t absolve adaptations from acknowledging that these are Japanese stories populated by Japanese characters, regardless of how the plot or anime traditions allows them to appear.
Adi: On a side note, I find this doubly frustrating because I wasn’t a fan of Johansson’s performance. I like her as Black Widow, but I didn't get the kind of cold, self-loathing recklessness it seems like she was trying to project here. It was more like murderous sleepiness.
Plot and ScarJo aside, how do we feel about the aesthetic?
Kwame: I really enjoyed the aesthetic, but so much of that is knowing that the creators really love the Ghost in the Shell aesthetic and cyberpunk overall. The entire opening sequence is lifted right out of Oshii’s film. The cityscape is right out of Blade Runner. Mira’s thermoptic suit is beautifully rendered (even though you never really think it’s a part of her body). I thought the world, though super blueish-gray, felt really lived in and fully realized, even though we don’t spend a whole lot of time exploring it.
Adi: How long can we keep calling back to the ‘80s cyberpunk future, though? Ghost in the Shell obviously has source material to honor, but it’s all starting to feel too familiar — yeah, we get it, giant hologram ads and flamboyant sex workers in foggy alleys. While it almost pains me to admit this, I liked watching it in 3D, though. It gave aerial shots of the city an interesting toylike feel. The makeup and facial effects were delightfully weird and varied — you’ve got a doctor with perfect human eyes that peel off her face like a sticker, and then Batou with his crude body horror camera lenses. Johansson’s fight choreography was solid. And to be clear, I do think this was a gorgeous movie.
It’s clear the creators love the ‘Ghost in the Shell’ setting — maybe a little too much
Angela: I loved the aesthetic and loved the 3D. I agree with Adi that the “future” parts of it seemed familiar, but I didn’t mind. This is in part because the Asia of the future looks pretty much like the Asia of now (or at least the cities I’ve spent time in, like Beijing and Shanghai). So it didn’t make me think of ‘80s cyberpunk tropes as much as current world plus holograms.
Nick: It was immensely satisfying to see elements of the original film and anime series rendered with such care, even if it did come off as a bit too fan-pleasing. I also did enjoy the weird, disjointed clashing of Batou’s and other minor characters’ enhancements with those of the Hanka scientists and the Major. I like to think it was in service to the idea that cybernetic enhancement in the future is just as stratified by class as the homes, cars, and gadgets of today. In the nightclub, you had gangsters with horrifying prosthetic teeth and unconcealed implants on their temples and eyes. It even seemed as if the film was suggesting that these implants were like the Yakuza tattoos of the year 2030, a sign you underwent cyberization and perhaps did so under the table and with sketchy parts.
The Ghost in the Shell series has a lot to say about what it means to be human. Did the movie get at anything interesting there?
Adi: There’s so much fiction about cyborgs that it’s difficult to say anything new, and it's particularly difficult to look at nuanced questions about memory and being — the film’s ostensible themes — when the core conflict is "should an evil corporation murder dozens of teenage dissidents, put their brains in robot bodies that they usually fail to mesh with, and then treat them with total contempt if they somehow survive?" (Probably not?) Setting things at the very inception of full-body cyborgism also means we don’t get to see people already dealing with its effects in diverse and interesting ways.
I'm willing to accept these limits in a serviceable, fast-moving thriller plot. But with everything we talked about above, there are a lot of things it could have examined more deeply.
Nick: This to me is where the film fails most visibly. The series’s loose theme is that the nature of consciousness is a tricky ever-moving target that, in the age of cyberization, is even harder to pin down. What makes you human when pretty much every aspect of the human body can be manufactured? This film adaptation scratches only the surface of the question, and it ditches the original’s deeper exploration of artificial intelligence to keep the script from complete collapse. It would have been nice to get a movie that could, like The Matrix, be both action-packed and philosophical. But maybe that’s expecting too much from this adaptation.
Mapping a superhero origin story onto the Major doesn’t work
Kwame: For me, this is totally a consequence of trying to map a superhero origin story onto Ghost in the Shell, when that was never the point of the original work. Now, I’m not going to sit here and say I don’t enjoy superhero stories. But having the entire story hinge on Mira’s experience of her body and her identity, while potentially interesting in a “this is what it’s like to feel alien” way, undermines whatever exploration the movie could have done with how cyberization affects Batou or even Togusa on a deeper level. Not to mention the fact that the focus on beautiful visuals kind of takes the piss out of how difficult and messy any shift in our understanding of consciousness can be.
And that’s even before the ending blows up any real introspection into those problems by effectively saying, “This is the future, so let’s embrace it.” The movie seems pretty sure about what it means to be human, but only in the most shallow ways. Humanity isn’t only defined by what we do. Shirow and Oshii knew that, even if our ideas about selfhood have evolved since cyberpunk’s heyday. It’s why the original still holds up so well.
Angela: I agree with Kwame that there’s a missed opportunity in not focusing on how enhancement affects people like Batou or the doctor, who aren’t either fully human or synthetic. Everyone makes a big deal about how Mira is the future and she’s so special and different, but some of the other enhancements are so dramatic that it doesn’t seem that different from Mira’s experience. Where is the dividing line?