Episode 3: Ghost in the Shell and Gender, Race, and Technology
This episode of East Asia for All discusses the beloved Ghost in the Shell media franchise and its relationship to the recent live-action film of the same name released in March 2017. Ghost in the Shell is a body of work that began with a manga (a graphic novel) series by Masamune Shirow in 1989 and grew into a franchise of anime films, TV series, and video games. The production of a new anime co-directed by Kenji Kamiyama and Shinji Aramaki was announced in April 2017.
The new live-action film, which stars Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi, sparked a heated discussion of Hollywood’s continued problem with race (remember #OscarsSoWhite?) throughout its pre-production and release. In addition to these criticisms -- which centered on the blatant whitewashing of Asian characters and even an anonymous source who claimed that Paramount studios considered making Johansson “look more Asian” through CGI -- devoted fans of the franchise had a cold response to the film even before its release. After its debut, many fans still felt as though the live-action film took the world of Ghost in the Shell and stripped of its meaning. Japanese and Japanese American actresses criticized the film for its casting, Americanized body language, and unfortunate twist ending. Originally a cyberpunk futurist landscape of genderbending cyborg bodies, Ghost in the Shell spoke into a much larger conversation on the nature of consciousness, humanity, and technology. In the larger sense, Ghost in the Shell also reflects Japan’s particular historical relationship with technology. The film, fans claimed, become a dazzling CGI backdrop for a mundane Hollywood plot.
In this episode, we are also thrilled to be joined by Professor Noriko Aso from the University of California, Santa Cruz, who teaches Japanese history, ancient to the present, especially the history of popular culture, science, and technology. Dr. Aso shares her own reactions to the live-action film, both professionally and as a Japanese American. She also talks about how scholars like Matt Thorne have framed the problem with whitewashing manga and anime characters, and gives her take on Japan’s historical and contemporary relationship with technology.
Although we were not devoted fans of Ghost in the Shell previously, we thoroughly enjoyed diving into its cyberpunk world. As we discovered, Ghost in the Shell is a huge body of work! If you don’t know where to start, we recommend the 1995 anime. Or if you feel like settling into an interesting read, try the original manga (and don’t skip the footnotes). Our own university even has a special connection: a character inspired by UC Santa Cruz emerita Dr. Donna Haraway in the anime Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. Although the Haraway character sadly became “a simple plot functionary” in the live-action film, you can watch the stoic, chain-smoking Haraway’s original monologue here.