Ghost in the Shell Film Analysis Part V and Final: The Problem With the Ghost in The Shell film

The film has one Big Issue, and it’s racism. In fact, it’s such a big issue that it manifests itself in three ways: white-washing, Orientalism and Eurocentrism. Yes, in previous installments I spent a huge amount of time praising how believable and cool future Japan was, and yet I’m charging the film with charge being Eurocentric anyway, for reasons that will become clear when I get  to that point.

I confess that I’m not the most ‘woke’ person out there when it comes to US racial politics, mainly because I’m not from the US nor have I ever lived there, so I have a higher tolerance for racial bullshit than what people would otherwise expect from me. However, when I start noticing stuff, Hollywood, you done fucked up.

Now, I said white-washing was not something I would discuss because better words have been written elsewhere, so I’ll just leave you with these quotes by Scarlett Johansson:

I think this character is living a very unique experience in that she has a human brain in an entirely machinate body. I would never attempt to play a person of a different race, obviously. Hopefully, any question that comes up of my casting will be answered by audiences when they see the film.
Right. Because the character having a brain that originally lived through a Japanese experience erases that character’s experiences when the film you’re heading makes the exact opposite case is totally not playing a character of a different race. Alright.

I certainly would never presume to play another race of a person. Diversity is important in Hollywood, and I would never want to feel like I was playing a character that was offensive.
Oh, Scarlett, honey. Have I Got News for You!

I understand part of her statements come from wanting to conceal the twist of the film, perhaps due some contractual obligation of  the sort or whatever, but they don’t exactly make Scarlett come off better, alright? (They also raise the question of why she accepted this role in the first place.)

This leads us to Orientalism. There are positive definitions of the term, but the one I’m going to go with is the Western tradition of outsider interpretations of Eastern cultures that feature prejudice, exoticisation, fetichisation, etc., as shaped by imperialistic narratives going back to the 18th and 19th centuries. This is not a good way to introduce the general audiences to other cultures, since it’s inherently disrespectful.

Which leads me, again, to the robo-geisha scene. Something I didn’t perceive during the preview, albeit I noticed now, is the fact that the robo geishas have the ability to interface with a human brain at all. (Brain-hacking, remember?) Later in the film, I believe at Dr. Dahlin’s lab, they are referred to as ‘companion bots’. I concede that the implication may or may not be sexual, however, I am inclined towards the latter interpretation due to the fact that the robo-geishas are based on the Hadaly robots from Ghost in the Shell: Innocence, and those robots are clearly sexual, explicitly stated to have non-essential parts as pertaining to their roles in order to function as sexdroids. This bothers me, since I find it hard to believe that future Japan would allow robots that work as geishas to be sexdroids, given the respect given to the geisha profession. To me, it reaks of the ‘geisha girl’ stereotype formed during the Allied Ocupation of Japan that underscores the Western belief that geisha are prostitutes.

gif image from Ghost in the Shell: Innocence of Hadaly gynoid
So sexy.

There’s also the fact that there’s not many Japanese people in the film, as extras or in the cast. Yes, I know, didn’t I say about a million words before now that I didn’t mind that? Incorrect, I said I didn’t mind the lack of spoken Japanese, given that it is a logical assertion that can be inferred from the setting. But for a film set in Japan, to not have Japanese people other than a couple characters here and there… Maybe six or seven years ago I read a film review about a film that had been white-washed, too, and had issues with Orientalism. Let me paraphrase one of the lines that struck me the most: This is the perfect white-people’s dream; they get to enjoy the Asian culture without all the pesky Asian people in it. (Now, this doesn’t go for all white people, of course, but that quote is seriously perfect. I believe I read it on a The Last Airbender review?)

I’m sure someone with more knowledge of Japanese culture would be able to point out more instances, but these are the two that jumped at me.

Then there’s the Eurocentrism. Eurocentrism is a term that describes notions of European exceptionality; sort of like ‘manifest destiny’ but for a whole continent. It’s another colonialist narrative.

Usually, I wouldn’t have given much thought to the fact that the Major has a brain in another body. I mean, this is a transhumanist narrative, right? However, I believe I have to take that in context of the film, and what it means for the viewer. And throughout the film, the Major is called ‘beautiful’. Kuze calls her that, Dr. Ouelet calls her that, various creeps calls her that, and certainly Scarlett Johansson herself is a fine example of conventional, feminine, Western beauty ideal. That’s fair enough. But  when this film can’t be bothered to feature a single Japanese character, aside from Aramaki and Togusa, amongst the main cast, it becomes problematic. And when Dr. Ouelet tells the Major that she’s ‘what everyone will become’, it’s skeevy.

Kuze is seen here not looking Japanese.
In-universe, Dr. Ouelet refers to her body as ‘perfect’, that the pinnacle of directed human evolution is to cast aside everything but our minds. In context with the viewer, however, given the whole white-washing thing, the subtext is that everyone will be white. There is literally no other way this can be interpreted, given that Kuze is stuck in a white male’s body, and he was originally a Japanese youth named Hideo; and Dr. Ouelet implies his failure was just another step towards the future — towards Major Mira Killian. It isn’t really helped by how the Major at the end of the film is warmly received by her mum — which is great for her character, don’t get me wrong! — but wearing Scarlett’s face, with a brain that explicitly came from Japanese runaway Motoko Kusanagi (played by Japanese actress Kaori Yamamoto). When we live in a world where, in many places, the only way to be beautiful ideal is the Western beauty ideal, this is completely unacceptable. (Each word is a link.)

The final expression of Eurocentrism in the film comes from the fact that all scientists and people associated with high-tech employment are not Japanese, whether we’re talking about the people who were fussing over Batou after he gets his new eyes or everyone who is alligned with Hanka Robotics. I have to say that this normally wouldn’t ping on my radar, if at all, were it not for all the points I blathered on above. You see, Shirow Masamune’s Ghost in the Shell manga was published in the 80s, the time where Japan was deemed the technological powerhouse of the world.  It was written in that context. Even with all the lack of Japanese people, I would have expected for there to be Japanese people working as employees for Hanka as a sort of way to pay homage to that historical context in which the work was made. But all the cutting edge tech is developed, and assessed by Europeans or European-looking people, such as Dr. Ouelet or Dr. Dahlin. It’s such a little thing, but it adds up to the snowball of ugliness.

Gif from the Ghost in teh Shell live-action film where Dr. Ouelet scolds Major for having destroyed her body.
Dr. Ouelet, seen here whitesplaining to Major.
I understand the filmmakers didn’t intend any of this since they cared so much to make future Japan so awesome, and they paid proper attention to the source material, and so on and so forth. But! And this is a big ‘but’! Intentions do not matter when they harm people or promote narratives that harm people worldwide. And these issues just described feed into each other; the colonialists narratives of Eurocentrism and and Orientalism are reinforced by the whitewashing of the casting. I can explain away a lot, however, there comes a tipping point where I cannot explain away the erasure of Japanese people from a Japanese narrative set in Japan.

And this, this is why I could not bring myself to rec this film.