Representation, Erasure, and the Complex Relationships Between the Colonizer and Their Victims

A decade of having this conversation, and now there’s an article. Hazzah~ Thank you Emily Yoshida and Ranier. *turns on loudspeaker*


Whitewashing is very real, and the deficit of starring roles for Asians is one lane in the representation race that is stubbornly slow to advance. But in the case of Kusanagi, an anime character, it’s not as simple as Japanese or white. The issue of representation feels cozily easy to understand here in the US —€” you either are or aren’t represented —€” compared to the long history of self-erasure in post-war Japanese narratives. It’s a dense, depressing history, and by the end of it I probably will still come to the conclusion that casting Johansson was the wrong move. But perhaps —€” and this is just a guess —€” the Ghost in the Shell adaptation shouldn’t have been an American production in the first place…

…During the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, when Japan had not only made its comeback but was experiencing an unprecedented economic bubble (on the back of consumer electronics exports —€” toys to the rescue again) Japanese animation started to really come into its own as an art form. And as it shifted from its origins as a medium aimed at children to explore more adult themes, it turned its gaze toward the ground zero of this aggressive expansion. Tokusatsu (special effects) films like the Godzilla franchise had explicitly riffed on post-atomic anxiety, but anime melded that anxiety with the technoparanoia and existential musings of American science fiction authors like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. The ubiquitous image of the atom bomb is the inciting or concluding event; the fallout is technology. Innocent youths are caged in robot suits, powerful psychics are trapped in decrepit childlike forms. Technology alienates everyone: consciousness becomes unmoored, bodies become arbitrary and disposable, sex becomes less a biological function than a psychological dysfunction, the planet and its host of forgotten nature spirits cries out in agony.

As anime began to pick at the scab left by two deep American wounds, the role race plays in that conflict is often obfuscated by the medium itself.

Enter Ghost in the Shell. Masamune Shirow’s cyberpunk crime saga was first published as a manga serial in 1989, and by the time it was released as a feature-length film in 1995 the bubble economy had burst. The emphasis of the story shifted from the paranoid thrill of a world where everything is connected via a network to the fate of a human consciousness in a world overtaken by technology. Its heroine, Major Motoko Kusanagi, is a cyborg with a manufactured body and a human brain (maybe). She, like many other enhanced humans in this vision of 2029 Japan regularly jacks into a globe-spanning network via ports in the back of her neck. She’s already started to wonder about the origin and location of her consciousness, when an artificial intelligence, that has self-generated in the network, finds her and asks to merge with her as a means of mutual self-prolonging. The 1995 film ends with her merging with the entity and assuming a new, younger body…


…Japan has a relationship to technology that is fundamentally different from the states, which is why GitS is so irrevocably Japanese. Technology was what Japan turned to as a means to assert itself as a world leader when military might was no longer an option. The wire-encrusted dystopias of ‘90s anime are the natural outgrowth of a country brought to its knees by nuclear warfare that threw itself into a tech explosion and is now slumping through economic downturn. And it’s an indirect American inheritance. America took away Japan’s army, tossed it some tin cans, said “Here, play with this, instead.” A half a century later, we have the PS4, Hatsune Miku, and sex robots. That’s better than comfort women, to be sure. It’s definitely better than nukes. But it permanently altered the entire question of national identity…

The reactions are depressing, but if you’ve been following up to now, fully predictable. ‘I think this is better than hiring a Japanese actress,’ says one woman enthusiastically. ‘Yeah, it will look more anime-ish if the actors aren’t Japanese.’ Every interviewee seems genuinely flummoxed as to why American audiences would be opposed to the casting. ‘Maybe they have high standards,’ one young man guesses.

Japanese audiences, unlike American audiences, don’t understand Motoko to be a Japanese character, just because she speaks Japanese and has a Japanese name. This speaks to the racial mystery zone that so much anime exists in, allowing viewers to ignore such unpleasant dynamics as oppression and discrimination even as they enjoy stories that are often direct responses to those dynamics.

Of course, it’s a different issue for Japanese Americans, who grew up forced to think about identity in a much more tactile way. For us, anime is something from our country, or our parents’ country, that was cool enough for white kids to get into just as fervently. We couldn’t see ourselves in Hollywood’s shows and movies, but we could claim anime as our own, and see ourselves in its wild sci-fi imaginings and cathartic transformation sequences. Of course, I use the words ‘see ourselves’ loosely…

Ghost in the Shell is the product of and response to decades of physical erasure and technological alienation. It’s pop cultural fallout, a delicately layered croissant of appropriation upon appropriation. It’s as timely as ever, but it feels wildly inappropriate for an American studio and the British director of Snow White and the Huntsman to pick it up and sell it back to us. At the same time, Japan and the US have been stealing and selling images to each other for decades, and the result hasn’t always been awful. I would still argue, though, that the knotty history that leads to Motoko Kusanagi will be lost in translation. This isn’t The Matrix or Pacific Rim, this isn’t just a look and a vibe being lifted. This is the entire history of Japan’s relationship with itself, the US and technology, and without that, you’re left with nothing but an empty prosthesis.” ∇


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