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(Paramount Pictures/Manga Entertainment/Dark Horse Comics/Ringer illustration)
(Paramount Pictures/Manga Entertainment/Dark Horse Comics/Ringer illustration)

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Lost in Translation

In America’s unsuccessful history of adapting Japanese anime to live-action film, Hollywood has placed its biggest bet on ‘Ghost in the Shell.’ The casting of Scarlett Johansson brought immediate controversy, but the whitewashing claim isn’t the only obstacle the movie needs to overcome.

Major Mira Killian is a tool. In the new, live-action Ghost in the Shell movie — based on the eponymous manga series created by Masamune Shirow and its more famous 1995 animated film adaptation directed by Mamoru Oshii — the Major is an unprecedented marvel of cybernetics, a badass field agent, and a blueprint for the future of human life. She’s a robot who speaks of foggy memories and "consent." But ultimately, Killian is the product and a puppet of a system that casts her into self-serving conflict. In fact, she’s a lost soul — a Japanese girl named Motoko Kusanagi — who awakens to find herself entombed in a powerful cyborg designed as a white woman.

It’s that last detail that has infuriated critics since Scarlett Johansson was announced as the lead actor for Ghost in the Shell two years ago. In 2017, these concerns have reached a fever pitch as major TV and film studios have announced and released a variety of projects with East Asian origins and influences that star largely white casts. Marvel’s Iron Fist — a Netflix original — stars Finn Jones as Danny Rand, a martial arts savant who is the guardian of the mythical city K’un-Lun. The Great Wall stars Matt Damon and Willem Dafoe as European mercenaries who fight demonic beasts in China. Most recently, Netflix launched the first trailer for its estimated $50 million live-action adaptation of the Japanese TV anime and film series Death Note, which bills the teen matinee idol Nat Wolff as Light Turner, based on the original protagonist Light Yagami. Even if there is some diversity elsewhere on each of these projects, the core complaint is that the main stars are, inevitably, white.

Scarlett Johansson and director Rupert Sanders (Paramount)
Scarlett Johansson and director Rupert Sanders (Paramount)

For Ghost in the Shell, the director Rupert Sanders has reimagined the series protagonist Motoko Kusanagi — an iconic anime heroine — as Mira Killian, an agent of the special operations task force Section 9 based in the fictional New Port City, which the original film’s director Oshii modeled after Hong Kong. By streamlining elements of Shirow’s original manga, Oshii’s two film adaptations, and the Ghost TV series into a single project, Sanders runs the risk of remixing the story beyond recognition. But the stories and characters of Ghost in the Shell are only as sacred as all nerd-pop properties become when faced with Hollywood incursion. It’s the franchise’s origins in Japanese media and its setting in an East Asian megacity that make Johansson’s casting incongruous.

On paper, the casting is provocative enough. The affront is only worsened once you learn that Paramount and DreamWorks briefly considered using special effects to modify Johansson’s face in order to make her appear Japanese. While the studios quickly decided against it, the mere consideration of such tone-deaf innovation speaks to the great lengths that Hollywood will go to avoid casting actual Asians as lead actors.

Dogged by complaints that he’s whitewashed such an essentially Japanese character, Sanders has only doubled down on Johansson as the Platonic form of the Major. "She was my first choice and remains my first choice," the director said in a recent interview with CNET. "She’s the best actress of my generation and her generation, and the person I felt most embodied the physicality and the ability to inhabit that role." Sanders cites Lost in Translation, Under the Skin, and Lucy as Johansson’s bona fides, proof of the actor’s "punk/cyberpunk aesthetic." Johansson has spoken in measured terms about the liberties that Sanders’s adaptation has taken with Shirow’s manga and Oshii’s film. "I don’t know if I was the right person, but I think Rupert and I shared the same vision for the character," Johansson told Collider last year after filming wrapped.

Johansson’s casting is just one part of a broader argument about Western studios’ treatment of Asian stories and Asian characters. The Academy Award–winning Weta Workshop, a studio based in New Zealand, produced the film’s many elaborate props and special effects — such as the Major’s adaptive camouflage suit — and the studio’s core team has also been cautious in how it describes Sanders’s adaptation. "‘Respect’ is the word we had front of mind as we embarked on our part of the concept design," writes Richard Taylor, cofounder and creative director of Weta, in the film’s official artbook. The 160 pages of photos, sketches, cast interviews, and text are filled with hints at the authenticity concerns that have plagued the movie before its release.

For anime fans, Ghost in the Shell should be the most exciting box-office release of the decade. Instead, it’s become another slog through identity politics in the form of a casting debate — one that Sanders has only exacerbated with a backstory for the Major that rehashes her Japanese heritage only to erase it on screen. But while Johansson’s role in the film is critics’ foremost concern, Western film studios face deeper, potentially insurmountable challenges in adapting anime into live action.

"There are tits on the poster," says Emily Yoshida, a film critic at Vulture and host of a podcast called It’s Cool to Like Anime, offering perhaps the simplest explanation of why Mamoru Oshii’s original Ghost in the Shell is so globally beloved. "It’s a fantastic film," Yoshida stresses in an interview, "but I think the Major’s body is definitely used as a hook. Not just in that main poster, but in everything."

The artist Masamune Shirow created the Ghost in the Shell manga series, about a humanoid cyborg’s exploits as the commander of a covert counter-terrorism outfit, in 1989. Oshii launched his feature-length anime film adaptation in 1995 with the Japanese animation studio Production I.G., the Japanese publisher Kodansha, and the U.K. distributor Manga Entertainment — a remarkable arrangement at a time when theatrical runs for anime features were generally limited to Japan. Oshii’s original movie is one of the best-selling anime films in the U.S., the first anime feature film to top Billboard’s video sales chart at the time of its VHS release in 1996. The author Brian Ruh writes extensively about Ghost in the Shell and the rest of Oshii’s works in his 2004 book Stray Dog of Anime. "It’s not like Ghost in the Shell was a small, domestic Japanese production that suddenly got worldwide attention," Ruh says in an interview. "It was international to begin with."

Mamoru Oshii (Getty Images)
Mamoru Oshii (Getty Images)

Upon the movie’s worldwide release in the spring of 1996, James Cameron hailed Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell as "the first truly adult animation film to reach a level of literary and visual excellence." High praise, though it overlooks the earlier ambitious work of anime directors such as Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira), Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies), a young Hiroyuki Yamaga (Wings of Honneamise), and Oshii himself. But while Akira, released in 1988, was an instant genre classic in Japan that gained traction in the U.S. and Europe only after it hit the home video market, the original Ghost in the Shell was produced and marketed as a real box-office contender in the West. In reality, however, the film hit only a couple of dozen screens in the U.S., the U.K., and the Netherlands in limited release, earning about $516,000 in ticket sales.

"Ghost in the Shell is intended as a breakthrough film, aimed at theatrical release instead of a life on tape, disc, and campus film societies," the late Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times’ three-star review. "But this particular film is too complex and murky to reach a large audience, I suspect." Ebert was right that Ghost in the Shell would never become a huge box-office success outside of Japan, but he underestimated the degree to which a generation of Western film directors would reflect the movie’s themes and aesthetic in their own work.

In fact, Ghost in the Shell is perhaps the most coveted anime franchise among film directors in the West. Setting aside The Matrix — a film that the Wachowskis initially pitched as a live-action riff on Ghost in the Shell’s themes and visual style — a rotating cast of studio executives, screenwriters, and directors, including Steven Spielberg, worked for six years to put a proper, live-action Ghost in the Shell adaptation into production. Amblin Entertainment developed the initial draft of the script after Spielberg and DreamWorks acquired rights to the franchise back in 2008. In 2014, Spielberg asked Sanders, who had previously helmed Snow White and the Huntsman, to direct the long-awaited adaptation. Sanders accepted, finally kicking the project into production.

Although there have been plenty of successful, live-action Japanese adaptations of popular anime titles, there is, to date, no clearly successful anime adaptation from a Western director. Since a turbulent first wave of U.S. live-action adaptations of popular anime titles in the 2000s, which crested with the release of the massively panned Dragonball: Evolution feature film in 2009, Hollywood has struggled to translate anime to live action with the levels of commercial and critical success that studios have brought to U.S. superhero comics since X-Men at the turn of the century. The key challenge, of course, is that American awareness of the X-Men is much broader than our national appetite for Dragonball and Sailor Moon.

In 1997, it was reported that Disney had plans to cast Geena Davis as the villain Queen Beryl in a live-action film adaptation of Sailor Moon that ultimately never materialized outside of those initial casting rumors. In 2008, Warner Bros. bought the rights to Akira and Ninja Scroll, with intentions to make live-action adaptations with Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company, Appian Way. ("I’m a big fan of Japanese anime," DiCaprio told MTV at the time.) Since the acquisition nearly a decade ago, however, Warner Bros. has churned through several script drafts and rumored directors, including Christopher Nolan (and now Jordan Peele). In the meantime, Japan’s anime industry peaked, collapsed, and rebuilt itself anew, creating a wake of bankruptcies and rights disputes that complicated several adaptation projects, including a live-action Neon Genesis Evangelion film.

Emile Hirsch promoting ‘Speed Racer’ in Tokyo in 2008 (Getty Images)
Emile Hirsch promoting ‘Speed Racer’ in Tokyo in 2008 (Getty Images)

In 2008, the Wachowskis directed a $120 million live-action adaptation of the classic 1960s anime series Speed Racer, which flopped hard at the box office, having made back less than $20 million in its opening weekend, and only $94 million worldwide — a setback for anyone rooting for their favorite anime to be remade in America. Since the Matrix trilogy concluded in 2003, the biggest Hollywood coup for anime hasn’t been a straight adaptation, but rather Nolan’s film Inception, which features surreal contortions of time and urban space that the director said were heavily inspired by the late animator Satoshi Kon’s final film, Paprika. But that is, at best, an asterisk. U.S. studios have botched or aborted most of their live-action anime adaptations to date. The successful production of a big-budget Ghost in the Shell movie, in any form, is a small miracle.

Ghost in the Shell is only Sanders’s second feature film, and so the relative newcomer is walking in a giant’s shadow. By the time he was adapting Shirow’s manga, Oshii was no novice; he had directed a few popular, feature-length films for the anime TV franchises Urusei Yatsura and Patlabor. Oshii’s two films for the latter, Patlabor: The Movie and Patlabor 2: The Movie, prefigured much of the philosophy and style that the director would go on to advance in Ghost in the Shell. Oshii is a master of dystopian mood, existentialist themes, and surreal visual conceits. These signatures are pervasive in all of Oshii’s earlier works, but Ghost in the Shell is the first of his works that feels totally his own, to the extent that it is more frequently associated with Oshii than with the original author Shirow.

Still, the world of Ghost in the Shell has become so sprawling that the Major has become irrevocably open to interpretation. Shirow’s Major is spunky and fierce. Oshii’s Major is curt and introspective, an ego under construction. And Sanders’s Major is nothing if not curious, an agent whose memories get the better of her and send her knocking on the doors of her origin story. For 28 years, the Major has taken various, alternatively popular forms, and so even Sanders’s race-bending version isn’t necessarily a great stretch. Yoshida, a Japanese American writer, has written extensively about the transmutability of Major Kusanagi’s identity, and about the "racial mystery zone" that so much anime, including Ghost in the Shell, occupies. "Japanese audiences, unlike American audiences, don’t understand Motoko to be a Japanese character," Yoshida writes. "Of course, it’s a different issue for Japanese Americans, who grew up forced to think about identity in a much more tactile way."

Japan is a nation of 127 million people, 98.5 percent of whom are ethnically Japanese. Accordingly, your average Japanese citizen’s outlook on diversity is much less influenced by pluralism than the outlooks of many Asian Americans, who live in a country where popular culture rarely represents them well, if at all. Hence, many Japanese Americans may find Johansson’s casting in a Ghost in the Shell movie distressing, while native Japanese observers make nothing of it. Oshii, arguably the most important Japanese observer in all of this, has appeared in promotional material for Sanders’s adaptation, and he has defended the decision to cast Johansson more vigorously than Sanders himself has. "What issue could there possibly be with casting her?" he asked an IGN reporter earlier this month. "The Major is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one. The name ‘Motoko Kusanagi’ and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray her."


Oshii makes the case that the Major’s unsettled identity, which yields his movie’s ultimate conflict, suits Johansson as an actor who, ostensibly, doesn’t belong. Yoshida anticipated this argument last year, and she agrees somewhat. "I don’t think it’s an accident that the cyborgs of Ghost in the Shell, including Motoko, are more ‘anime-looking’ than the characters who are mere Japanese or American humans," she wrote last year. "This is not to say that they are supposed to be white, but they are not explicitly Japanese, either." The post-humanist conceit of Ghost in the Shell adds yet another dimension of complexity.

Toussaint Egan, a contributor to Paste Magazine, is a black American arts critic who often covers anime and manga as well as U.S. comics and Western sci-fi. He is wary of the general tendency among Western anime fans to displace Japanese characteristics from Japanese characters and Japanese works. "No matter how detailed an anime character might be," Egan says, "that character is ultimately an abstraction of lines and symbols put together in order to represent in place of a person. Depending on how abstract that character is, we’re able to project ourselves onto them. So really it becomes more of a task of not just looking at the character themselves, but also the context of which they are interacting and where they are in space."

There’s no white American space in the original Ghost in the Shell, and so Johansson’s place in this world — not just in Sanders’s film, but in the extended universe — is a matter of great contention.

It’s surprising that this creative exchange between Japanese and American artists should prove so fraught. On the one hand, anime is distinctly Japanese, a medium full of stories and social commentary that pronounce — at times very loudly — a society that strikes many U.S. viewers as strange; the feeling, of course, is mutual with regard to Japan’s view of many American exports. That said, anime is also inextricably invested in Western pop culture, inspired by Walt Disney’s principles of character design, and often looks to Western culture for archetypes, settings, and plot concepts. Much as the Wachowskis have said that The Matrix was heavily inspired by Ghost in the Shell, Oshii has said that many of his films, including Ghost in the Shell, were influenced by Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott and released 13 years earlier.

"The ideas that are explored in Ghost in the Shell" — dualism, existentialism, and robotics — "are not new issues to American science fiction," says Tim Maughan, a British anime critic and science-fiction author, who cites the Ghost in the Shell franchise as his formative introduction to both genres. It is true, as the Chinese American comics writer Jon Tsuei explained in a popular series of tweets last year, that Ghost in the Shell is "inherently a Japanese story," a fantastical capture of Japan’s commercial dominance of technology at the end of the 20th century. But Ghost in the Shell is part of a global science-fiction continuum that tracks common fears about the relationship between mankind and advanced machines. "I can’t talk about these movies without going back to Blade Runner," Maughan says.

Maughan thinks Sanders may be underestimating the uniquely Japanese aspects of anime, and what the challenges of translation across forms will mean for his movie. "I’m sort of iffy about the director using the word ‘international’ to describe it," Maughan says. "I feel like he’s trying to use it interchangeably with the word ‘universal,’ and that doesn’t fly with me at all."

If not universal, accessible, then. The film’s reputation is big enough to have sold executives at DreamWorks and Paramount on the bankability of a $110 million adaptation. There are anime fans who are excited to see Hollywood throw such a budget at one of the genre’s most revered works, but there are also those who fear that Ghost in the Shell is just the latest in a series of cursed adaptations in which the original franchise’s spirit is inevitably lost in translation. "I think there’s an understandable urge to defend Ghost in the Shell from Hollywood incursion because Hollywood incursion is terrible," Maughan says. "As a general rule, it doesn’t matter where your comic is from; they’re probably going to fuck it up."

Hollywood is nothing if not a superhero training academy these days. In the film, Major Mira Killian is a big-screen comic-book archetype, the bland sort of protagonist who lately rakes in mega millions at the box office. Her powers are stealth and athleticism; her backstory is complicated and yet unimportant.

As portrayed by Johansson, the Major is often hazy and distracted, suffering sensory glitches and surges of awful recollection. She and her favorite companion, the hulking blonde Sergeant Batou, banter reservedly about metaphysics, as they do in Oshii’s first film. But those conversations are no longer crucial to understanding the Major, and to the Major’s understanding of herself. Ghost in the Shell instead rushes the Major through so many heel turns and plot twists that whenever anyone pauses to offer their unsolicited thoughts on the nature of dreams — essential moments of the original film — they sound like they’re interrupting their own movie with another one. And perhaps they are.

Sanders paces the film like it’s the first of a trilogy, landing on a come-hither note of "What’s next?" More of the same, if the plot’s unresolved threads are any indication. If nothing else, the broadness of Ghost in the Shell may serve to demystify anime for those moviegoers who associate it with trolls and neo-Nazis; and so hopefully Hollywood produces a few more with better judgment in casting and direction. What this film desperately needs is what all Hollywood anime adaptations, save for Speed Racer, lack: the whimsy and force that cartoons are uniquely capable of displaying, and a level of ambition that doesn’t conflate respect with slavish dedication to beats and scenes from the source material. Oshii’s film is an anime classic, and it only exists to begin with because he dared to take Shirow’s original manga and make something astoundingly new.

The new Ghost in the Shell’s shortage of imagination is hardly Scarlett Johansson’s fault. She embodies the Major with a demeanor that is always cold but with just enough wit and rebellion to betray a passionate spark. In the film’s artbook, Johansson talks about the challenge of playing a cyborg. "She finds herself in this body, in this circumstance," Johansson says, "and by the end of the film, she embraces this decision that’s been made for her." That’s the language of an actor who’s spent 26 months fighting a war on behalf of the powers that brought her to life.

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