Japanese Ghost, Western Shell

Ghost in the Shell was among the first animes I have ever watched, and among the first sci fi manga I have ever read. Even today, its themes, aesthetics, technology and design language influence my writing and worldbuilding. When I learned of Scarlett Johansson being cast as Major Kusanagi Motoko for the live action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, the only thing I could do was sigh.

I prefer adaptations to be as true to established canon as possible. Everything from themes to technologies, settings to characters, including their mannerisms, personalities and, yes, appearance. Part of this comes from distaste of executive meddling, of Hollywood inserting ideas that are not the original creator’s, or deleting ideas the creator wished to explore. While adaptations and edits are necessary to translate a given work from one medium to another, I prefer that these edits enhance the experience and stay true to the author’s vision instead of detracting from it.

Case in point, let’s look at the upcoming movie adaptation of The Dark Tower. The series protagonist, Roland Deschain, will be played by Idris Elba. However, in canon, Roland is a white man. And his ethnicity plays a major role in the story.

(Spoilers ahead!)

In the second Dark Tower book, The Drawing of the Three, Roland draws three characters from different worlds and times into his. One of them is Eddie Dean from 1987 New York — a white man. Another is Odetta Susannah Holmes from New York — a black woman from 1964. Holmes also suffers from dissociative identity disorder, and has a secondary persona, Detta Susannah Walker. Who also happens to be murderously psychotic.

Much of the drama in The Drawing of the Three lies in Detta’s antagonism towards the men. Detta hates all white men, calling them ‘honkey mahfas’, and speaks with a stereotypical black accent. Her racism boils off the page, culminating in attempted murder.

If Roland were a black man, and if the movie version of The Dark Tower extends to The Drawing of the Three, the presence of a black gunslinger would rob the drama of at least half its power. Barring clever editing and rewriting — which Hollywood adaptations are not known to enjoy — the experience will be cheapened. Or even eliminated altogether. And if such a pivotal experience, one that gives rise to Holmes/Walker’s third personality of Susannah Dean, is weakened or eliminated — what else will be given up? What else will be eroded?

What else will be sacrificed on the altar of political correctness?

(End spoilers)

When I think of Major Kusanagi Motoko, I think of a Japanese secret policewoman who fights cyberterrorism and corruption in a post-cyberpunk Japan using fair means and foul while grappling with what it means to be human. She lives in a time and place where anybody can afford a customised cybernetic body, a ‘shell’, which throws into question the nature of the soul, or ‘ghost’.

It is true that the setting allows Kusanagi to choose whatever body she wants, including, presumably, that of a Westerner. It is also equally true that in the canon she chose to present as a Japanese woman. To present her as a Westerner barring specific circumstances feels like disrespect towards Kusanagi, her choices and her motivations. Further, the entire franchise is set mainly in Japan. If Kusanagi presents as a Westerner in Japan, one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries in the world, she will stand out — not a good trait for a secret policewoman who operates outside the law and fights terrorists and corrupt government officials.

And what if the story is not set in Japan? Then the next question must be: Why even call it Ghost in the Shell? While the core theme of the franchise is an exploration of what it means to be human, the cornerstones of the story universe are based on Japanese concerns. Ghost in the Shell, it must be remembered, was originally a manga published in 1989. The manga dealt with powerful Japanese corporations, superior Japanese technology,  growing Japanese soft and hard power, unelected Japanese bureaucrats and officials consolidating and abusing their power, and Real Robots — itself a spinoff from the pioneering mecha genre, a Japanese innovation.The manga reflected a dark vision of a future Japan, seen from 1989. The anime adaptations stayed true to this vision. If the live adaptation isn’t set in Japan, and doesn’t have a Japanese lead, then it won’t reflect the Japanese underpinnings of the story. In which case, why even call it Ghost in the Shell? It might as well be a whole new post-cyberpunk movie.

Otaku are not a forgiving breed. When they encounter questions like this, they default to the worst case scenario: Hollywood cast Scarlet Johansen in an attempt to appeal to a Western audience, and they don’t care if it ruins the creative vision of the franchise. If an American film company will cast an American to play the role of a Japanese, then will the Americans respect the Japanese ideas underpinning the story, including a cynical view of American imperialism and interference in Japanese affairs? If the film concept is about a Westerner doing things set in a cyberpunk West, with little or no reference to Japan, then is it simply leeching off the fame of the franchise like the all-female Ghostbusters remake and Mad Max: Fury Road?

In other words, what other aspects of Ghost in the Shell will be sacrificed on the altar of commercialism?

There may be good reasons for casting Johanssen as a Japanese woman. Hollywood may even take the safe way out and eventually brand it as a Western adaptation of Ghost in the Shell under a different title, the same way Edge of Tomorrow was a Western adaptation of All You Need is Kill. I’m hoping that the film makers will take this path, as it respects the executives’ desire to appeal to a Western audience and the otaku’s desire for integrity of the franchise’s creative vision — and also because Ghost in the Shell as a title isn’t particularly evocative to Western ears. The director may even surprise everyone and cast a second, Japanese, woman to play the role of Kusanagi Motoko, perhaps as Kusanagi’s shell when she wants to appear Japanese, reinforcing the franchise’s theme.

But until more is known about the movie, the otaku of the world are simply going to assume that Johanssen’s casting is symptomatic about a much deeper problem — one Hollywood is infamous for. And Hollywood isn’t doing anything to assuage their fears.

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