Scribbler’s Saga #25 – Ghost in the Shell

Posted: April 9, 2017 in Uncategorized

© 2017 G.N. Jacobs

I wasn’t going to comment on the recent version of Ghost in the Shell, especially so soon after using this column to suggest a simple in hindsight script doctor fix for Passengers. The highfalutin point about allowing art, even that with which we don’t agree, be has been made. The second point that we should treat artists better to forestall the ugly day when after getting the shit beat out of us by our very customers we quit and cede the field letting a certain fat and evil Orange Peel Man win in the absence of all art…been there, done that as recently as last week. Basically, I didn’t think I had a fix to justify inclusion in this writers’ column. Give it a day… 

So the problem. A sci-fi movie given the live action treatment needs at least $100,000,000 to convince filmgoers to come out instead of stay home and dig out the original anime. Hollywood being what it is needs a white actress to lead the movie or the suits will stay home and dig out the anime…taking their checkbook with them. In the course of needing to explain how a white actress played what might be interpreted as an Asian role, the story on screen decided to come up with a convoluted deal where Major Kusanagi was a white looking asskicking fembot who didn’t know her human brain started out as a Japanese girl murdered as part of unethical cybernetic experiments. In 20/20 hindsight, expect to roll tape on the shrill racial outrage.

Now, there are other, so far unsuccessful, ways to argue that the butthurt among us should’ve just chilled out, treated this movie as a flawed artifact and given it a chance. I tried on Facebook to remind people that Japanese animators don’t actually draw verifiably Japanese women in anime. I tried the “it’s science fiction set in an era when people have become post-racial,” argument. And it didn’t work, because the butthurt don’t listen to rational argument, but also because the story chosen really is a convoluted mess that actually gives me a tiny bit more sympathy for the anti-whitewashing position, at least in this case.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m agreeing with the detractors more because the perceived racist story solution is also the clumsy and inarticulate solution. But, hey, we put up with the Soviets for three and a half years knowing Russian bodies backed up by American bullets would kill a lot of Nazis. I hate clumsy. We all hate the racism underpinning whitewashing (I just don’t let it get in the way of experiencing art). Allies…until they improperly go off on the next butt-rash inducing movie.

So how would your humble unemployed script doctor fix Ghost in the Shell? Eliminate the whole “started out as a Japanese girl firing off sharply worded manifesto blogs until kidnapped by the evil robot building corporation” origin. Yes, it’s just that simple. Major Kusanagi was always white, even as a human.

“But, Kusanagi is such a stereotypical Japanese surname,” you might comment, “we really should explain this oddity.” No, actually we don’t. The less elegant variation of this solution, say nothing and trust in the imagination of the audience, could work. This is the same trust that stage impresarios show when they decide that the ticket sale value of James Earl Jones playing Lear far outweighs the inevitable – “But, isn’t King Lear a white dude?”

How does that play out on stage? No one changes Shakespeare’s words. James Earl Jones shows up and plays the hell out of the role without resorting to a ridiculous white-face makeup job. They cast Cordelia and the other sisters according to whoever walks in the door with the best auditions. Maybe people discuss the oddity for a few minutes over dinner, but then they talk about how James Earl Jones made them feel. A workable but inelegant solution in the case of Ghost in the Shell.

My solution. Major Kusanagi starts out as an orphaned white girl washed up on the unnamed, but presumably Japanese shore. Madame Kusanagi falls for the little girl and takes her home adopting her. Later, the temporary argument leads to a runaway situation where a beloved daughter never actually comes home.

I really like this variation of the use black highlighter to the script solution because of several factors. First, it fits the theme of the movie better, where the movie defines the struggle of the individual to stake out a claim to our singular humanity in the face of technology that, when used improperly, debases us. In a movie where evil robotics corporations just grab their enemies off the street to harvest their brains to run lethal fembot shells, you don’t need to clusterfuck the story with excessive reliance on racial gymnastics intended to explain how a white woman is named Kusanagi.

Yes, in the real world the answer to that mess lies in the paradox of the white actress funds the movie, but you can’t change the character’s name because you can only go so far before your movie stops being recognizable as Ghost in the Shell. A “she was adopted” solution works even better than the “say nothing and tap dance” solution. Why, you ask?

One thing that it will take to evolve our society into anything resembling the post-racial tropes of most good science fiction is that we’re going to have to get over ourselves when it comes to cross-cultural adoption. In the hypothetical case of Madame Kusanagi seeing a lost little girl for the first time, she becomes a mother ignoring stupid white people arguing for cultural purity at the expense of the wisdom closest surrogate mother willing to take responsibility gets the child. The Major picks up the Kusanagi surname because parents name their children usually based on patrilineal descent.

The foundling makes good as a literary trope goes back a long way. I’ll have to reread the Bible again to see if Moses got his name from his Jewish mother or the Egyptian princess that found him by the river. In this case, adoption artfully cuts out much of what fell flat about the movie, even for me.

No Japanese actress hired to play the Major’s human incarnation in blurry-face. No nasty, if unintended (we hope), digs about whiteness being better. No excessively convoluted story messes leaving the viewer asking WTF?

This clumsiness in storytelling basically helped the story find the worst possible way to unfold. It insulted people who would’ve otherwise found another movie to wipe their asses on hoping to heal their permanent butt-rash. And it just confused the segment of the filmgoing population less likely to care by taking the long and dumb way to the end.

By contrast, how are post-racial elements supposed to work in science fiction? Very carefully, you can still screw things up. But, just do it and don’t telegraph it might be a plan.

My favorite modern show, Babylon 5, had two examples of interesting casting choices that bear relevance here. In the episode “War Prayer,” show creator J. Michael Straczynski needed a racist anti-alien man named Roberts. They cast Michael Paul Chan, an Asian-American actor. Similarly, in “Voice in the Wilderness Part 1,” the casting call went out for intrepid Interstellar Network News reporter Derek Mobotowabe played by a white man, Langdon Bensing. Yeah, this one still raises my eyebrows imagining that fictional man’s genealogy how he ended up with what sure sounds like a Swahili derived name.

Neither casting choice was predicated on stupidity like – “okay, we need to explain how the Major will look white but have a Japanese name, because unlike theater audiences that can still use imagination to work out whatever they like about her backstory we assume movies audiences are stupid. Therefore, we’ll do some Frankenstein style brain and body switching between a Japanese actress and ScarJo!”

I might diverge some from my temporary allies over how much weight to give the racial whitewashing aspect of this narrative lead balloon. I think it’s bad, but shouldn’t have detracted from the larger themes of humanity in the face of corporations willing to crush everything for profit or to simply ruminate on the nature of humanity itself. I would’ve preferred that Ghost in the Shell’s many enemies didn’t freak out and go for the pious boycott missing out on a valiant attempt at a theme.

But, when the racism is also clunky, convoluted and predicated on assuming your audience is so stupid that we needed a narrative element we really didn’t ask for, you just lost me. So I will close suggesting those suits left holding the bag on the debt to remember to smile at the bank.

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