it’s been a while since I’ve done any sort of film criticism/theory posting, but today I want to dive back in. I don’t think I’ve written anything in depth since my two-part essay on the Heist Movie Genre, but recently I was reminded that I wanted to examine the issue of diversity in the live-action adaptation of “Ghost in the Shell.”
movie adaptations are tough. for one it’s a different medium, which means somethings just have to be changed. I wrote about the process of adaptation here. it seems that no matter what is done, people get very upset with any changes from the original text. whether it’s casting an actor that doesn’t look like the source character, a costume that is different, or a change in a hero’s powers.
back when the film came out there was much internet outrage about the “whitewashing” of the lead character. people were offended that Scarlett Johansson had been cast in the lead role… instead of an actor with Asian ancestry. when I watched the movie, I was struck by how diverse the cast and world was. it had probably been 10 plus years since I’d seen the anime, so I wasn’t sure my memory served me correctly. I made a mental note that once the new film was available to purchase, I’d buy both and compare the two to see what sort of changes were made in the adaptation. and for good measure, I also bought the original manga, from which both are based.
now, writing about diversity in cinema is a minefield, actually writing about diversity in anything is, and as such, I feel the need for a couple disclaimers.
• the lack leading roles for non-white leads in Hollywood movies is a real, and ongoing problem.
• diversity in cinema is important to me, and not just in words, I put it into practice.
take a look at who I cast in the films I make in this blog. or if you’re in a hurry, here’s the TL;DR, out of 31 roles – Men: 19 (10 people of color / PoC), Women: 12 (6 PoC), total PoC: 16.
how does that compare with Hollywood films as a whole? well, USC Annenberg’s Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative did a study in 2014 that looked at 30,000+ characters and found that the men/women ratio was 2.3:1. mine was 1.58:1. racially, the percentage of white/non-white actors was 73/27. mine was 48/52. more on this in Addendum B.
okay, with that out of the way, let’s dig in.
anime has always had an interesting, and fluid portrayal of race. I’m not an expert on it, so I’m not going to get too far into that rabbit hole here, but if you are interested in learning more— here’s an article about the look of characters in anime and here’s one that talks about an audiences’ perceived bias in anime. the most interesting article I found, which gives some great historical context on the evolution of Japanese pop-art is this piece by Emily Yoshida—I highly recommend reading for those who are interested in digging in deeper.
taking account both these things (bias and fluidity of character design), I’m not going to make any assumptions on the race of characters in the “Ghost in the Shell” anime (which I’ll shorthand GIS95, after its release year). for the live action “Ghost in the Shell” (GIS17), it was possible to find out the ethnicity of most of the named characters thanks to Google and IMDB. I didn’t find the manga to be particularly enlightening in this regard, many of the characters are not named and often the design of the characters changes dramatically from panel to panel. there is also a fairly large extended universe of additional movies, TV series, video games, and OVA. I haven’t seen all of those, so will be referring to them collectively as the “Extended Universe”.
my default assumption for GIS95 is that ALL characters are Japanese, based on their character names… unless specifically stated otherwise. for example “Dr. Willis” is referred to as American and has a Western name, so I think it’s safe to say that he is not Japanese. where as a character like Batuo, who, in the words of Ms. Yoshida, “looks like an anime Dolph Lundgren…” will be considered to be Japanese because he has a Japanese name.
the films don’t follow the exact same plot, and have a fair amount of different characters, so I’m going to group them into good guys, bad guys, and other and compare there different portrayals below.
Major aka Motoko Kusanagi.
she’s has an entirely artificial cyborg body. only her brain & ghost are human. in both GIS95 and the manga we do not learn if Major was every actually human. part of the story and her character’s struggle is accepting her humanity—regardless of if she ever was really human in the first place. it’s only in the Extended Universe and GIS17 that we learn of her human, and Japanese backstory.
this is the head of Section 9, the covert government branch that Major and the rest of the team work for. in GIS17, an English language film, he is the only main character to speak Japanese and was portrayed by the Japanese actor Takeshi Kitano. here he is in both films.
the Section 6 team had several additional characters added in GIS17. two of these come from the extended universe, one is entirely new.
this character was changed from Asian to Caucasian. although I have to say, he looks almost exactly like the anime version—perhaps this is my bias? he’s played by Danish actor, Pilou Asbæk.
the only “all human” member of the team, his race was portrayed as Asian in both films. in GIS17 he’s played by Chin Han, an actor born in Singapore.
changed from Asian to Pacific Islander. he’s played by the Fujian/Australian actor Lasarus Ratuere.
this is an entirely new character. the actress that plays her, Danusia Samal, is Kurdish & Polish.
this character is from the manga & extended universe. his wikipedia entry says he’s an “Ex US Navy Seal”. obviously, he could be of Asian decent and serve in the US Military, but his backstory could indicate a different ancestry. in GIS17 he’s played by Yutaka Izumihara, a Japanese actor.
this is a named character in GIS17, and is the only team member to not have any lines. he is in the manga and extended universe, where the character is almost albino in color… in the film he is played by a Zimbabwe-born New Zealand actor, Tawanda Manyimo. (this still was part of publicity materials unlike others its not a screen capture from the film.)
Director Nakamura & Minister of Foreign Affairs
in GIS95 Director Nakamura is the leader of Section 6, a rival agency. while this rivalry exists in the Manga, it is absent from GIS17. we also meet the Minister of Foreign Affairs, again he doesn’t appear in GIS17.
the lead antagonist in GIS17 is Cutter. he works for Hanka Robitics and is best matched by Dr. Willis, one of the Antagonists from GIS95. the newer film was consistent in keeping the villain as a western white guy.
The Garbage Collectors/Terrorist
in GIS95 the garbage collectors are working for a mysterious man who then has a firefight and chase with Major and Section 9. in GIS17, the garbage dudes (credited as Skinny Man & Bearded Man) engage in the fight and the 3rd character is eliminated.
the Terrorist character (I think that is correct credit) has the darkest skin color of any character in GIS95, is referred to as member of a “militant immigrant organization” and is named “Feng” a traditionally Chinese surname. this makes him one of the only “non-Japanese” characters in the anime.
in GIS17 both are played by Caucasian actors.
the Yakuza Bar
the seedy bar that Major and Batou go to hunt down Kuze is full of new PoC characters. most of them don’t have lines, so I’m not going to go into all of them. but one that really stood out was Tony, played by Malaysian actor, Pete Teo.
this is another example of characters that were changed and combined. story wise, he is a mix of the Puppetmaster from GIS95 and Kuze from the extended universe. the Puppetmaster was an AI that we saw portrayed as a blonde haired, blue-eyed female robot, Kuze was a Japanese man with an entirely cyborg body. In GIS17 this combined character was played by Michael Pitt, a caucasian actor.
interestingly enough, in GIS95 (and the manga) the Major assassinates a foreign diplomat. in GIS217, Major instead saves the Ambassador, who is also referred to as the President of the African Federation and is played by Chris Obi—a British actor of Nigerian descent.
Dr. Ouelet/Dr. Dahlin/Technician(?)
in GIS95 there is one “doctor” who talks. I think his character name is “Technician” although I wasn’t able to track it down. what I do know is that there are TWO named doctors in GIS17 and both of them are women. the portrayal of women in STEM positions is another problem in Hollywood movies, namely there aren’t many of these roles for women. here’s a quote from a Forbes article on the subject:
“And forget seeing women in STEM jobs. When characters held those positions, 88.4% were men and 11.6% were women. This calculates into a gender ratio of 7.6 STEM males to every 1 STEM female.”
so we have one Asian man turned into two Caucasian females, the French actor Juliette Binoche and Anamaria Marina a British actor of Romanian descent.
this is a new character that does not exist in GIS95 or the manga. she’s played by Adwoa Aboah, an British actor of Ghanaian descent.
this character is Major’s human mother. she’s played the Japanese actor, Kaori Momoi. this character is not in GIS95 or the manga.
so there you have it. was the 2017 film more diverse than the anime or manga? I think it’s pretty clear that it was. does that “excuse” the casting of Scarlett as Major? I don’t know. I’m sure there was any number of Asian, Pacific Islander, or Hapa actors that could have done a fantastic job in the roll, but would they have had the box-office track record that would indicate the projected earnings that would allow a studio to green-light a 110 million dollar movie? again, I don’t know.
here’s a couple of things that I do know.
1) the portrayal of women in GIS17 is light years ahead of the source manga. in almost every instance, the women in the manga are portrayed as sex objects—if not outright sex robots. take a look at how these technicians/scientists are dressed and compare them to the scientists in GIS17. the anime, GIS95, avoids the objectification of women found in the manga. unfortunately it has basically no female characters other than Major.
2) the portrayal of non-Japanese characters in GI17 is light years ahead of both GI95 and the manga. here is the one instance of a potentially African character in GI95… it’s a mannequin. and in the manga there is one background character, an American soldier whose cartoonish portrayal borders on caricature. now compare that to the opening sequence of GI17 that features a multitude of characters of African decent… as well as all the named characters mentioned above.
which brings me to my final thought: the reason to keep an element from the original should not be simply “because it was in the original.” if it did, GIS17 would have been un-diverse and incredibly sexist. there are numerous factors to take into consideration when adapting a property, things like changes in: culture, societal norms, and technology. there are also practical considerations that have to be weighed like production, financing, and scheduling issues.
now, I know some will disagree with this, but I think that with adaptations its important not to treat source materials like holy texts. things will need to be changed. does the change serve the narrative? is it true to the world of story? in the context of the piece of media—does it work? those are the things that are important. having a fundamentalist adherence to the original misses the point of storytelling. the goal shouldn’t be to faithfully recreate a previous work, the goal should be to tell the best possible story to the biggest possible audience. and to do that anything should be fair game.
what are your thoughts about adaptations? any project you think did it particularly well? let me know in the comments below—and thanks for reading!
A) for those of you that made it this far, here’s my monday-morning director way of fixing some of the problems in GIS17. assuming that Scarlett is needed in order to finance the film, there are a couple of changes I would make. first, I would cast Kuze with an Asian actor. as you may have noted from the images above, Michael Pitt looks remarkably like the Extended Universe version of Kuze—but having two caucasian actors playing characters that are “asian” in the world of the story, even if their bodies are cyborgs and therefore “post racial”, is problematic. Pitt is not an international film actor, so replacing him should not hurt financing like replacing Johansson would. this would create a more balanced view of what a “cyborg” looks like in the future world. next, I would change Major’s backstory from Japanese to poor immigrant. the future society the characters live in is very clearly multi-ethnic and mixed, there is no reason, other than fidelity to Extended Universe, that her backstory needed to be Japanese—she could just as easily have been from a poor Caucasian family that moved to Japan. in many ways, this is more fitting with the themes of exploitation of the poor & working class that the film explores.
B) it’s interesting to note that the racial breakdown found in the Anneberg study is almost identical to the US population as reported by the 2010 Census, like within 1%… which is rather remarkable. STILL it’s important to take into account that the study looked at “speaking or named characters”, my hunch is that number would be no where near as close if only LEAD characters were analyzed. and as I mentioned in the opening remarks, I think that the lack of non-white aka PoC leads is an important issue for media creators to address. America is a multi-cultural and mixed society… and our films should reflect this!