Ghost in the Shell is an irritating instance of racism.
To use the term racism seems harsh, but to use the other term that has been bandied about—whitewashing—doesn’t seem correct. I don’t believe that taking a notable work and changing the setting or race of the characters is an issue if you are using said change to make a point about a specific culture or spotlight a particular aspect of said culture. That applies to white people as well as people of color.
The Handmaiden, a Korean drama which pulls its plot from the novel Fingersmith, does not use Korean actors for a Victorian tale. It does not put an Asian face upon a European cultural product. Instead it reassembles a new work upon a neutral frame and uses it to tell a fascinating story about Korea during colonial rule as well as explore Korean-Japanese relations in the past to shed light on relations today. It is a commendable work of art.
As is The Wiz, which borrows from The Wizard of Oz to showcase African-American culture in an amazingly beautiful way. I would also add the tale of Cinderella, which takes the basis of the Chinese Ye Xian and places it in a European setting. And one cannot forget one of the most modern successful examples in the show Friends, a white American version of the African American Living Single.
But the upcoming Ghost in the Shell is not like the projects listed above. It is an embarrassment, for its attention to detail simply results in Asian cultures being used as a backdrop for a white ingénue. It sends a sinister message—that the cultures of people of color are acceptable, but the autonomous presence of people of color is not. It sends the message that white Americans can reproduce foreign cultures more skillfully than said foreigners because they are inherently better than them.
The movie’s one potential saving grace is that it might handle race and culture in the same manner as Blade Runner, in which predominately white characters maneuver through a Los Angeles that is overwhelmingly culturally Asian and Latino. Blade Runner told a story about race, about whiteness—perhaps inadvertently—through its near lack of characters of color. It touched upon the paranoia of poor and working-class white people through their placement in a fantasy world where they are subjected to the inhumane treatment and alienation that immigrants and abductees of color once faced (and currently face) in the United States.
However, I think the two movies that Ghost in the Shell could have been would have been infinitely more effective and important to our society than the movie that has been produced. A Ghost in the Shell featuring Asian characters in a culturally Asian city would have allowed for Asian American actors to have the opportunity to showcase their talents in an industry that often ignores them. It would have given Asian Americans a chance to explore what it means to represent oneself as Asian and American in a world increasingly impacted by technology, augmentation, and globalization—and share that with American people.
The other movie that has been lost is a purely American adaptation featuring an American cast in a culturally American city—a futuristic one with elements of dozens of subcultures. This movie still could have featured Scarlett Johansson in the lead role and allowed for a fascinating exploration of what it means to be white in a world where one’s image is wholly changeable. What does it mean to be white in a world shaking off the last vestiges of white supremacy? So many American movies center white people and whiteness without any examination of it—a lost opportunity to create powerful life-changing art. A project that centers whiteness sans examination is a celebration of it. To have all projects center whiteness sans examination is dangerous propaganda.
However, there is still a chance for those two lost movies! And though they would not be able to assume the benefits of an internationally known brand, they would still have an opportunity to be successful. Who knows? Perhaps one of those movies is already here.