Remix Theatre: Ghost In The Shell

Whooehee, going to step on some landmines here.

Source: Kotaku
Source: Kotaku

Basically, I don’t want a live-action American-made Ghost in the Shell movie. I think that it’ll be bad, and I think that in part because I think that the process that goes into making movies isn’t really very good at making movies I like. I think that the process that creates movies in America is a process that produces things like The Last Airbender and Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice as a stated purpose, and good movies that I like as a sort of accident. Even movies that are adaptations that I like (like Watchmen or V for Vendetta) kind of have to be ‘the stupid remix’ of what they’re adapting.

But my not wanting one doesn’t mean I think that the people making it are doing something wrong. I think they shouldn’t bother if their intention is to make a good movie, but the sin of making crap movies isn’t exactly a unique enough thing to yell about. They make lots of crap movies. All over the place. Plus, making content that appeals to me is statistically close enough to impossible so as to not bother, so I think it’d be a real dick move on my part to try and hold anyone to that preposterous standard. Anyway, so: I don’t want it, but doing it isn’t bad.

But then… doing it like this is bad.

Now, I don’t buy anyone who says this is a uniquely Japanese story and cannot be done with American hands. To say that the Japanese culture of technological exultation in the 90s happened in a vacuum is to kind of ignore that moment when technology blew up two Japanese cities and restructured a lot of the Japanese psyche as to their personal relationship with technology. Remember that when America invaded Japan in the 1940s, they came with a truly terrifying amount of force and a great big sign that said NO MILITARY SUPERPOWER FOR YOU. The technological superpower of a forced-industrialised Japan even came at the behest of America and part of the Marshall Plan in which two countries that fucking hated each other (Japan and Australia) signed preferential trade deals with each other so one of them could industrialise and the other one would not. Both powers did this because again, America had just blown up two Japanese cities and it was kinda hard to forget about that.

Then there’s the fact that it’s a classic of cyberpunk media, cyberpunk being a movement that started in America, by an American, and was propogated through American media. American media that had cachet in Japan as well. It’s not that cyberpunk couldn’t happen in Japan, but to act like Neuromancer* never happened and the whole thing sprung unbidden from the forehead of Shirow as if Athena from Zeus kinda undersells the wide range of influences that go into any work in this kind of world.

To see the Ghost in the Shell’s postwar counterterror setting (as it was in Standalone Complex) as not being influenced by American ideals and worldshaping is … weird too. It acts as if some of the elements in the story are not about creeping notions of Americanisation or colonial values, such as the way capitalism and cybernetics collide, or rights to privacy vs surveillance do, or the notion of the military as an inherent right. It sells short the fact that America is a presence in the Ghost in the Shell stories if only as a cautionary tale about nuclear power, which again, Japan has reasons to have opinions on as they relate to American expressions of power.

So I’m not buying that No American Can Make a Ghost In The Shell Story. Hell if nothing else, I really want to see what Japanese-Americans, people who culturally straddle that divide, want to create in that thought space, as people who are, conceptually at least, between these cultures.

I also don’t buy that remixing and changing and redoing and rebooting Ghost in the Shell is bad. If forced to run down the statistics of it, I only enjoy a small amount of Ghost in the Shell (though I really do like what of it I do like). The majority of it has pacing problems or looks ugly, or has a really grotty relationship with its women characters or a very monocultural view of masculinity I find distasteful. Constantly reinventing and retrying it is part of what let this series become so many different things and mean as much as it does to so many people. Standalone Complex is my favourite part of the franchise – and it’s a big honking franchise. Cyberpunk is about technology and our relationship to it – it’s good to keep examining that. Remember back when Ghost in the Shell first had a movie, people were plugging themselves into the internet through neural jacks – by Standalone Complex we had wi-fi.

And with all that said, I can still say: Don’t fucking whitewash Motoko Kusanagi.

Her name is Motoko Kusanagi for fuck’s sake! Her name is Janey Excalibur, or Mia Nagelring, or Charlize Joyeuse!

Cynically, I know the reason Scarjo is in this role. She’s got this role because right now, she’s proven a good reliable Genre pull, she’s in that special range of Attractive In The Right Ways**, she’s a good, stable actress who can pull off action reasonably well and they can photoshop together a human who looks a lot like her for promotional materials. This is a matter of wringing what they can out of the rags marked Genre and the other rag marked Scarjo in the window of 5% of their lives that can make the bulk of their profit***. And I don’t doubt she is (or isn’t) a fan of the series, I couldn’t give a shit. I don’t even care what she thinks about the whitewashing of the role, because behind closed doors, away from a microphone, she’s a woman whose job has a timer on it that ticks down faster every time she tells someone with a giant pile of money ‘no.’

There’s a lot going on in this whole mess – and I say mess, not controversy. Controversy would imply the studio are engaging in their side of this, defending this in any way but a token bit of noise. There is no real defence of this position because the values they use to make these choices are not the values we think of as mattering. You can even name a dozen actresses who could do the job better, but none of them would be the Marketable Genre Property that Scarjo is right now and therefore, would not get approached.

I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed, really.

A final note is: Japanese people probably don’t care. Nor should they. This isn’t about Being True To Japanese Culture, this is about a super easy example of when Casting Someone Other Than A White Person could be done as part of the nearly endless cycle of American film-making blanding things down to a mean they can sell.

But that’s not what this is about. This is about Genre and Brand. Hail to the rise of Genre, for what we love has become part of the churn of Brand.


* I’ve had it pointed out to me that Neuromancer is very much considered a Canadian novel – even one of the 100 most important Canadian books of all time. I missed this in my quick checking on the topic.

** These ways are often very, very white

*** The nature of marketing can make Flo Rida famous, they could make whoever they chose to play Kusanagi famous. Scarjo is just the current robust investment.

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