Watching Ghost in the Shell, in Asia

 

While I do like to write reviews on occasion, I usually go for lesser-known books and movies particularly if there is a focus on China or Asia. Generally speaking, while I do have my fanboy side, I think enough has already been written about big Hollywood blockbusters and my point of view won’t add much.

However, with all the recent controversy surrounding the now-bombing remake of Ghost in the Shell, I feel it may be worth sharing my perspective as an American abroad in Asia. Hope I’m not too late to the game.

First of all, I am a longtime fan of the original manga and anime. I wrote about my manga habit here, about the brilliant mangaka Masamune Shirow creator of Ghost in the Shell. I find the source material even better than the acclaimed 1995 anime film directed by the great Mamoru Oshii, but suffice to say that is one perfect film. The explorations into the nature of sentience, cyberpunk critiques of tech in society, and the philosophical themes about identity are all amazingly ahead of their time. (Actually,  just rewatched the original film for old time’s sake… And that only makes me loathe the remake more.)

Directed by Rupert Sanders, the new film is certainly interesting in the visual sense but so extremely dumbed down that it there is just no reason for the movie to exist. There’s already an excellent adaptation of the manga, not to mention plenty of episodes of the spinoff series and concurrent animations. Why do we need this live-action film?

I suppose that could start a discussion about the nature of any adaptations. Even if we were to go down that road and I’d grant that it’s worth rebooting these things for the sake of finding a new audience, I still feel the one currently out in theaters fails on its own merits.

The film doesn’t work. The streets of Hong Kong–or some ambiguous setting–full of holographic advertisement bombardment seems to be the only thing Sanders cares to add with any interest. There’s not even any nudity. The acting is stiff, pretentious, and not believable. Scarlett Johansson does not come across as well a reserved cyborg warrior with deeper notions of trying to understand herself. Batou, played by Pilou Asbæk, is inconsistent with his accent and not in the same league as the anime character whatsoever. Overall, it’s just like that other recent remake that was such a big deal, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Because ultimately the only thing these nostalgic movies succeed at is that they make you want to go watch the original classic animated versions.

But just being another lame Hollywood scifi action blockbuster isn’t the real reason why this film has been so controversial, and is failing so badly. Let us address the elephant. The whitewashing.

First of all, I was quite willing to give this universe’s version of the Major a chance. Fine, Scarlett Johansson is playing a character inspired by a Japanese character but named Mira Killian. She wouldn’t literally playing a person of another race in this version’s world, right? She even said so in interviews. I mean, after all the awareness of whitewashing the producers couldn’t be stupid enough to actually have her play an Asian?

I’d announce a spoiler alert, but in fact the trailer gave it away a long time ago. In more of the film’s stupid choices for originality, instead of the fascinating cybernetic lifeform Puppet Master as villain it turns out that the Hollywood plot is of course a complete Robocop ripoff. The evil corporation experimented on her and she has to try to get back her memories. The Section 9 team doesn’t do anything but get manipulated, and bring nothing constructive to the world of the film. So why root for them?

In any case, the trailer gave that away and it wasn’t a good storyline. But what’s worse, if you finally watch the movie the only surprise left s that the Major’s true self turns out to be.. wait for it… a Japanese girl named Motoko Kusanagi.

Oh, come on. Who on earth thought that would be a good idea? So there you have it, in your face whitewashing. Scarlett in yellowface. White privilege casting through and through, full of supremacist implications considering that cybernetic engineers “perfect” their experiments by turning them white, and with assumptions of whiteness as default thrown in.

That was just so much worse than it needed to be. Why Hollywood, why?

 

As a disclaimer I should probably say that I am a white person myself. Yet I do recognize the fact Hollywood clearly marginalizes minorities and that the idea of ‘white’ as the default is a supremacist trope which must be challenged. The media has a responsibility to be fair, and empathetic humans should care about these issues no matter what we look like or where we come from.

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Manga 漫画 マンガ!

Patriot that I am, I have always been a great fan of American comics — and by association that goes for various British authors as well. I grew up on superheroes primarily, though of course comics is a medium not a genre and there’s no reason I can’t read more literary and independent series along with the flying adolescent fantasies.

However, so far I admit to having been too Western-centric. There happens to be a whole other country with a tremendous comics tradition that dwarfs the whole of North America and Europe together. I speak of course, of that mysterious land of Japan.

 

I read:
Goodreads shelf: manga

 

The Eastern style is so different, and in many ways superior to the assembly-line system of writers, artists, inker and colorist . The cartoonist in Japan is almost always both author and illustrator, the he or she is helped by assistants. Black and white except for special occasions. Adaptations, usually made famous in anime productions, are word-for-word and shot-by-shot remakes extremely faithful to the source material. Comics being taken seriously by the literary world is fairly recent in the West, yet Japan embraced adult comics right after the post-war period as an efficient form of entertainment when they couldn’t afford to make films. They are produced quickly, read fast, and often stories come into hundreds of chapters (dozens of graphic novel volumes) for a story to be patiently completed by the auteur.

I recommend the brilliant essay/graphic novel Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud to delve deeply into the nature of East vs. West art forms, upon the subjects of minimalism and respect for words & pictures at once as well as studies on neurological effects of cartoons.

 

Let’s start with some history. Best place to begin is with Osamu Tezuka, the God of Manga. An insanely-prolific writer and artist, the mangaka drew over 100,000 pages in his lifetime! Originally inspired by Disney stylings, he soon found his own voice in the 1950s and 60s. Funny how Disney later ripped off his Kimba the White Lion with a certain lion king…

I came late to the party, but did all I could to read his best works in my late teens and early twenties in the 90s and 2000s.

You may know the character of Astro Boy.

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Tezuka was originally trained as a doctor before he found his artistic calling, and his medical drama Black Jack comes highly recommended.

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There was also Adolf, about World War II. Buddha, biography of the holy one. Phoenix, an epic tale that bounced from ancient Japanese history to the far future.

Here’s the Goodreads shelf for more:
Tezuka

Now, I wasn’t watching the Astro Boy cartoon in the 1960s. I got into anime in the 90s like everybody else starting with a VHS tape of Akira.

I was way too young to be watching a movie like that, and I was blown away. The most badass cyberpunk film ever made, still awesome today.

“Neo-Tokyo is about to explode.”

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The comic was even better. While the film had the title character — the government pscychic test subject Akira — only as brain tissue in jars, the comic had the super child reborn. And, when Neo-Tokyo was nuked the film ended. That was only half of the comics series. Then it continued twice as long with in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of World War IV. With incredibly detailed art work by Katsuhiro Otomo, who also directed the film.

 

There were higher standards back then. When manga really blew up in the 2000s, we learned that Japan produces a lot of crap as well. But in the 90s only the best of the best was worth translating into English. Dark Horse Comics in particular was the quality publishing company of record.

Ghost in the Shell, by Masamune Shirow, took hard science fiction to a whole other level.

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Masamune Shirow was never very prolific, but his books had a level of intricacy and know-how never before seen. Appleseed was more his opus, but Ghost in the Shell became his main franchise still going strong today. I enjoyed Black Magic and Orion equally.

 

But it wasn’t all seriousness and mindfuck scifi. A lot of these comics were more fun. Take the comics published by Viz:

I remember me and my sister bonding over Ranma, the gender-bending comedy of a martial artist who turns into a girl, with bunches of supporting characters who turned to animals. Challenging cisgender heteronormalcy before it was cool.

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I wasn’t as into Sailor Moon as my sister, and most Shōjo is frankly crap. It was the works by top female mangaka Rumiko Takahashi that were so funny and so creative. I went further back, and discovered old Urusei Yatsura stories from the 70s about an alien demoness named Lum and her pervert ‘boyfriend.’

“Dah-ling!”

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I never did get into Inuyasha though.

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