Before our brave western bloggers and social media activists went all Matt Damon to protect our poor Asian brethren from the whitewashing of Danny Rand they asked a more important question; was casting Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell racist? It seems pretty cut and dry right? The story is set in Japan. The character’s name is Motoko Kusanagi, and all anime characters are Japanese right? Well…the answer might not be so simple.
First, the history of things, cause I like that stuff. Ghost in the Shell started as a manga written and illustrated by Masamune Shirow. The original title is Kōkaku Kidōtai or Mobile Armored Riot Police, though the author always wanted it to be called Ghost in the Shell. The manga was released in 1989 and has spawned a large franchise which includes books, movies, television shows and video games. The story revolves around Major Motoko Kusanagi, and the members of the counter-cyberterrorism task force, Public Security Section 9. Cybernetics, robotics, and just damn cool future tech is the prevailing theme of the stories and it’s inspired many of the cyberpunk tales we have today.
What’s in a Name?
Many people seem to be hung up on the name of the main character. Motoko Kusanagi. That’s a very Japanese-sounding name isn’t it? Often names define our ancestry, even our ethnicity. Not always though, right? We all know Joel de la Fuenta, the Spanish…I mean Portuguese…Malaysian…Chinese…man of Filipino descent right? He’s an actor that’s been in The Man in the High Castle and Hemlock Grove among other shows. He’s actually descended of all those nationalities, but still looks distinctly Asian. There’s many more, but point being, a name doesn’t always denote ethnicity. Well, then there’s this.
It doesn’t really matter that Major’s name is Motoko Kusanagi, since it’s an alias. The character could be from any place, and taken that name to fit in. Who knows, except the author, why that name was chosen, but we find out pretty early on that it’s not her real name. (Editor’s note: I haven’t seen/read everything GiTS related. It’s possible the reason has been revealed.)
Who are We to Say?
There seems to be this driving need for people to be offended for others, even if those others aren’t offended themselves. In an interview last year, with Hollywood Reporter, Sam Yoshida said,
Looking at her career so far, I think Scarlett Johansson is well cast. She has the cyberpunk feel. And we never imagined it would be a Japanese actress in the first place.
He also said, after a visit to the set, that he was impressed with the respect being paid to the original source material. Who is Sam anyway? He’s the current director of international business for Kodansha, the original publisher for Ghost. The rest of the article quotes several other Japanese manga fans who don’t see much of an issue here. They even point out that if a generically Asian woman had been cast, which happens quite a bit, for example a Chinese actress taking the part of a Japanese character as in Memoirs of a Geisha, it would have gone over worse.
Of course the debate online is long, and complicated. What I was unable to find was something from the manga’s creator specifying what he thought of the Major’s ethnicity. Just a lot of Matt Damon’s offering their own input.
One curious bit of explanation I saw was ‘of course she’s Japanese, in anime that is the default person,’ and further, ‘if I draw a stick figure most people in the west will see a white male because that’s the default person there.’ That sure assumes a lot. I don’t know about you but when I see a stick figure, I see a stick figure. When I see anime characters I see animated people with a variety of features that are sometimes definable and other times not so much. I can’t speak for everyone else but that’s just me. Does this assume that Japanese people are racist and think that Japanese is the ‘default person’? Somehow I think that generalization is a little sketchy. It just seems a little too simplistic to me.
One thing I did find from an interview with Masamune Shirow by Frederik L. Schodt is this response to a question about what the writer thought of Japan’s future with varieties of people and robots.
Ideally, everyone should be able to live where they want to, and in the multiracial sense Japan will probably become much more similar to the West. In terms of robots being an equal part of the mix, it would be great fun [laughs], but I don’t see it happening in my lifetime. ~Shirow
In Shirow’s future vision of Japan he sees it as multiracial as the West. Even if the current people of Japan believe that Japanese is the ‘default person’, that is not the future the writer sees.
Who is Really Offended?
In all the research I’ve done for this, and reading I’ve done over the last few months, it seems like people here in the west are far more offended than anyone we’re trying to protect. What is the right answer? Quite honestly, as a writer, there’s only one opinion on this that matters, and that’s Shirow’s. Second to that would be the people and culture which spawned his creation, and when you ask them the answer is far more complicated, and less controversial than western media makes it out to be.