Body Politics in GHOST IN THE SHELL 2017

by Maggie Corrigan

One of this year’s most controversial films is the new Ghost In the Shell remake, based on the Japanese anime, starring Scarlett Johanssen.  By now, I’m sure you’ve heard the outrage caused by the decision to cast Johannsen in the role of The Major. Despite my never having seen the original Ghost in the Shell anime or its sequels, and not being a frequent consumer of anime in general, I still find the cultural debate surrounding this new Hollywood film fascinating.

I can understand why people would be upset about white-washing the film, casting a white actress to play a Japanese woman does seem disrespectful to the source material. But Hollywood has never been known to be respectful to the source material. The book is always better, the original is always more true. Here Scarlett Johanssen is very convincing as a human-cyborg assassin, bringing the same disorienting performance she brought to 2014’s Under the Skin. But director Rupert Sanders and his producers try to infuse the 2017 version with a sense of global diversity, with some Japanese actors mixed in with British, American, and French actors like Juliette Binoche. Japanese actor and filmmaker “Beat” Takeshi Kitano appears as a character who only speaks Japanese but with whom everybody can understand and communicate.

But what’s so interesting to me about the white-washing controversy and cultural debate around the film is how it relates to the whole ideology of Ghost In the Shell. The question at the center of the film’s universe is, “What is a body? And what is a soul, if there is such thing as a soul?”

The character of The Major is a human brain fused with a synthetic body, a human conscience. So if there is a way to divorce the ghost from the shell, what does that make you? What do you understand yourself to be, your identity? Your sense of self is truly intangible and non-corporeal. It is NOT your body but your mind that determines who you are. Your body is just a shell.

So it is fascinating to me that people DO object to one body over another in the casting of the Major. This is the first time that the role has been played by a human being because the source material is animated. In the animated version, the character is depicted as a Japanese woman. But if the real story is about the soul of a person and their journey of self-actualization in an increasingly commercialized world where human beings are fusing with machines, shouldn’t the ethnicity of the person be immaterial?

No. It can’t be, because we know that the body politic is very real. There are so many regulations and categorizations of the human body. We’ve structured a great deal of our society around something as arbitrary as a physical shell, a manifestation of human conscience that fades and dies and has nothing to do with who we really are. Because we place so much emphasis on the body in our society and we are limited to the physical constraints of our body, the body you are born into does affect your relationship with the world.

So ultimately, the decision to cast a white woman over an Asian woman does matter. The ethnicity of the character changes that character’s relationship with the world around them. And we can’t escape the body politic until we are forced to face it. Ideally, we would come to recognize the dignity of the human soul and its tenuous connection to the human body. We all hope to live in a future where everyone is treated with respect regardless of what physical shell they are forced to inhabit. But for right now, we have to discuss how we categorize bodies and why certain bodies are treated differently than others.

The Hollywood production of Ghost In the Shell does very little to ask these difficult questions, instead it rests on the thematic elements of the original series. If you don’t want to see the Hollywood production because you object to the casting choice then that’s totally your decision. But you can’t have a fully formed opinion about a film unless you watch it.



Maggie Corrigan is a writer, volunteer, and cinephile from Seattle, WA. She sometimes strings words together and even, occasionally, forms cohesive thoughts. Follow her on twitter @maggiemarmalade


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