The live-action version of Ghost in the Shell is the latest rendition of the celebrated manga and anime franchise that has entertained audiences since 1989. Although the movie has many callbacks to the original, it lacks many of the themes and details that made the original so beloved among anime and sci-fi fans.
This piece contains spoilers for the Ghost in the Shell live-action movie, as well as plot details from the various titles throughout the Ghost in the Shell franchise. These include the 1995 movie, the broadcast series Stand Alone Complex and the direct-to-DVD prequel series ARISE.
The Major is mischaracterized, and the whitewashing is only the beginning.
Let's get this out of the way first, so there's no doubt about the Major's identity: Major Motoko Kusanagi is a Japanese woman. She identifies herself as Japanese, she speaks the Japanese language, she was raised in Japan, she lives in Japan, and she works in Japan. Some have argued that Motoko's cyborg body is ethnically ambiguous, but this doesn't override Motoko self-identifying as Japanese. In the live-action movie, the Major is named Mira Killian, she speaks only English (even to her Japanese-speaking superior, Chief Aramaki), and her cyborg body is unmistakably white.
Controversy surrounded the initial casting of Scarlett Johannson as the Major. Ghost in the Shell is a Japanese animated franchise, set in Japan and featuring Japanese characters. Johannson's taking on the role of the Major stole the possibility of having an Asian American actress take the lead. What might have been a breakthrough for a WOC turned out to be just another credit for Johannson. If the initial intent was to attach the movie to a famous box office draw, the intent failed because the live-action movie's box office take has been, so far, rather weak. Johannson has gone on record that she considers Mira an "identityless" role and that she "would never attempt to play a person of a different race."
The film attempts to explain the whitewashing by revealing that the Major was, once, a young Japanese woman named Motoko Kusanagi. Motoko was kidnapped and experimented on against her will, and her brain was inserted into a state-of-the-art cyborg body which just so happened to be white. The Major is told that she is meant to be the first of many, and yet there's no explanation for her outward appearance. Her body could have been any ethnicity at all. It could have even been Asian, and the Major's journey to uncover her past could have been just as poignant.
The revelation might have worked had the film focused on the obvious dysphoria that a change of ethnicity would cause. There should be a sense of alienation and loss of self if one saw a stranger in the mirror. The Major's memories were wiped, but the bulk of the movie features her trying to uncover her past. Intent or not, Johannson's character is a Japanese woman.
There could have been a deeper exploration of race and identity, but Mira was much more concerned with her robotic self. The first thing she says after her brain is transferred is that she can't feel her body, which sets up her conflict at the very beginning. She doesn't feel human, and she doesn't feel connected to other humans. Mira contemplates one of the destroyed robotic geishas, and fellow Section 9 team member Batou has to remind her that she's "not like them." She even considers herself an object and a weapon, reminding her creator that "this is how you made me." Her sense of identity is mired in self-doubt. She's only "The Major." A thing.
After going through her journey, discovering her true identity and defeating the bad guy, she is asked who she is, and she replies, "Major." The exact same thing she identified herself as at the beginning of the movie. She disavows her past, and the right to mourn the loss of her identity is taken away. She's literally at her own grave when she tells her mother that "you don't have to come here anymore." Mira is Motoko, but she still doesn't want to acknowledge it.
Mira's obsession with discovering her past runs counter to the actual Motoko Kusanagi. Throughout the entire franchise, Motoko isn't concerned with who she was, but what she is capable of now. In ARISE, Motoko's parents were caught in a horrific attack, their bodies contaminated with an unspecified contagion. Motoko, still within her mother's womb, hadn't been exposed to the agent that killed her parents. Motoko was placed in a cyberized body while still a fetus, and she's never known what it was like to be flesh and blood. Despite that, she has a ghost. In the franchise, a person's ghost is an amalgam of their consciousness, their memories and their sense of self. Ghosts are what separate humanity from AI.
Throughout the franchise, Motoko is touted as being a world-class hacker. This could be due to the strength of her ghost. She's able to deep-dive into different scenarios without the worry of becoming hacked herself because of how intensely she believes in herself. When mind-hacking, there's always a real possibility of getting lost within the other framework. Motoko's assertion of her identity is so strong that she's able to continue being "her" in the face of firewalls, counter-hacks and cyber-viruses. In the live-action film, the head of Hanka Robotics, the corporation that created Mira's body, worries that she might have been compromised by hacking into the robotic geisha. Motoko would never fall for this. Her sense of self is too strong.
The bulk of ARISE is centered not on Motoko's past nor on her lost humanity, but on her struggle for autonomy. Motoko's ghost is assured, and she continually asserts her sense of self. As one of a group of fully-cyberized soldiers, she's been invaluable to the Japanese military, until she yearns to be more than just a weapon. The military gave her that body and they consider her their property. Motoko eventually wins her autonomy and with it her chance at self-determination. All her life, she's been told what to do, and once she's fully independent, she's free to choose her own future. Self-determination and the will of the individual are major themes in the entire Ghost in the Shell franchise, and when Mira accepts her role as a weapon, it undermines one of the tenets of Ghost in the Shell. Motoko is assertive; Mira is not.
Stand Alone Complex gives another origin story for Motoko. The victim of a plane crash as a child, Motoko was the very first young human brain to be fully encased in a robotic body. Both ARISE and Stand Alone Complex illustrate that Motoko's past is tragic but filled with hope. Her cyber-prosthetic body is Motoko's only chance for a future, while her own flesh and blood body failed her.
In the live-action film, Mira's past is shockingly violent and removes any agency from her narrative. Mira was a victim and eventually rises above it. Motoko was never a victim and she's free to choose her future.
Her team is unrecognizable as well.
Mira is shown as the first of her kind, a fully robotic body enveloping a human brain, while the rest of her team has varying levels of cybernetic implants. In the anime, most of Section 9 are fully cyberized, and only one member, Togusa, is still a flesh-and-blood human with minimal cybernetic enhancement. He's considered an anomaly who clings to relics of the past. In the 1995 film, Togusa is chided for using a revolver instead of an automatic pistol. Togusa refuses an upgrade for his firearm because he worries about the complicated firing mechanism jamming. He's also the only team member who has a family, which makes him even more of an anomaly.
The Ghost in the Shell franchise is set in a future where most people seek companionship and connection through technology. They're either caught up in debates within virtual chatrooms or have companion androids which are specialized for human interaction. It's becoming exceedingly rare for the family unit to even exist, but Togusa is still a family man in all the different versions of Ghost in the Shell, serving as a counterpoint to the rest of Section 9.
In the live-action movie, Togusa is relegated to a secondary character who spouts exposition. He still sports his Matever revolver, but why he owns a vintage weapon is never explained, and Togusa's relevance is never fully explained either.
Live-action Batou doesn't have the military grade cyborg body that anime Batou has, and the live-action movie offers an explanation for his trademark prosthetic eyes. After being caught in an explosion, Batou gets his eyeballs replaced with prosthetic lenses. He then tells the Major that he "sees like you now." This moment should be more poignant, as Batou is slowly but surely becoming just as cyberized as the Major, but the Major's lack of reaction to his attempt at a mutual connection makes the scene fall flat. Many scenes in the live-action movie are similar, as the Major's attempts to connect with others all lack emotional resonance.
Where the [bleep] is the AI?
Ghost in the Shell doesn't just focus on a post-human world, but on a post-AI world as well. There are constant references to AI evolving beyond their programming, and the original 1995 movie's antagonist is a hacker known as the Puppet Master, which turns out to be a government program created to spy on the net. The Puppet Master understands that all life evolves, and since it is self-aware, it wishes to combine with Motoko in order to evolve. The Puppet Master and Motoko do combine and create an entirely new life form, not wholly human nor fully AI, and the ending of the film shows this new entity facing its future and perhaps planning to change the world.
Stand Alone Complex offers another fascinating take on the future of AI with the Tachikomas, agile spider-tanks which serve as a support team for Section 9. The Tachikomas are completely autonomous robots with personalities that resemble precocious young children. The Tachikomas are often shown discussing the philosophical aspects of whatever case Section 9 is working on. They could be debating the rights of the individual versus the rights of society one moment and then furiously discussing which of them Mr. Batou likes best the next. Many of their scenes are spent pondering whether they have ghosts. If they do have ghosts, then what does that mean for the future of humanity and for robotics?
Evolutionary AI is one of the main themes of Ghost in the Shell, and the live-action film lacks any relevant examples of AI. The robotic geishas don't count because they appear to be programmed with a single purpose in mind and only deviate from that purpose once they're hacked. The Puppet Master, the Tachikomas, and even Motoko all illustrate the complex interplay between humanity and technology, and where those lines blur. Mira, by contrast, seems to want to keep hold of her lost humanity despite her robotic body and never fully accepts that both ghost and shell can be a cohesive whole.
Ghost in the Shell is not set in a post-racial world.
The Ghost in the Shell franchise is set in the mid-21st century after a number of wars devastate the world. Since Japan is one of the few countries to get through these crises relatively intact, it experiences an influx of displaced immigrants. This refugee crisis is at the crux of the second season of Stand Alone Complex, where antagonist Hideo Kuze becomes a kind of messiah for the displaced, offering salvation in the form of escape. He wants to digitize the refugee population and upload them into the Internet. The refugees are forced to live in slums and the anime specifically calls out the government's mishandling of the refugees as the reason for Kuze's call to revolution.
Ghost in the Shell doesn't exist in a post-racial world because so much of its narrative stem from how people from different ethnic backgrounds are treated. Kuze's plan to move the refugee population into the net is an act of desperation. The Internet is the only place where the disenfranchised can be free. Therefore, racism is still important in Ghost in the Shell's futuristic Japan, despite what the live-action filmmakers have to say.
Director Rupert Sanders claims that: "The world we've created is a parallel world. It's a global world. Ghost in the Shell inhabits a very multicultural, multiethnic and diverse landscape. I think it's very authentic." But the live-action film indulges in a kind of Orientalism, reveling in the trappings of Japan but never fully embracing it or its people.
Behind the scenes, WETA Workshop designed the robotic geishas around a lifecast of Japanese model and actress Rila Fukushima. Apparently, "exotic" Asian features are fine when depicting artificial representations of Japanese culture but not actual Japanese people. There are very few named Japanese characters in the live-action movie, and only one, Beat Takeshi as Chief Aramaki, is allowed to speak Japanese. Everyone in Section 9 speaks English, showing Asian erasure. Only the older generation, that of Chief Aramaki and Motoko's mother, are allowed to depict Japanese culture. When one of the robo-geishas pleads for its life, begging Mira not to kill it, it does so in English.
Sanders' film, on the surface, is diverse. Section 9 is populated by POC, but the team is practically shoved into the background. And it's in the background where we see most of the POCs. Faces passed by on the street, or, in the case of a WOC sex worker, used as props to further Mira's sense of alienation.
This scene, by the way, was incredibly cringeworthy. It's beyond disappointing to see that most of the important characters in the live-action movie are white. Mira is white. Batou is white. Mira's mentor/creator is white. The president of Hanka Robotics is white. And even Kuze, the antagonist who desperately wants Mira to recall her true past, has a white cybernetic body.
It's clear that Sanders adores the visuals of the Ghost in the Shell anime. Images that echo scenes from the original franchise abound in the film. They make for great eye candy, but they don't ring true to the original. It's as if the filmmakers took their favorite cool scenes from every title in the franchise, placed them all into a blender and filmed the result. And the result is a movie that echoes the anime visually (sometimes shot for shot) but never gets into the core reasons why the original is venerated as a classic example of cyberpunk.
At the very least, the live-action Ghost in the Shell movie could be used as a primer, a gateway into the deeper world of the anime franchise. If a viewer's interest was piqued by the movie, then they're certainly free to explore the other versions of Ghost in the Shell. Sanders' film, however, joins the ranks of the many Hollywood films which miss the mark when adapting anime: they're never as good as the original.