April 13, 2017 10:00 am JST
Tea Leaves

'Ghost in the Shell' keeps it real with inauthenticity

Life and art blur ethnic lines in this film -- and that's just fine

PETER TASKER

Here's a slice of British reality. It's a rainy night and I'm sitting in a cinema in George Street, Oxford. I am watching "Ghost in the Shell," a Hollywood live-action remake of a Japanese anime.

A stone's throw away is the site of a recently defunct nightclub called Roppongi. This establishment billed itself as "a unique playground for Oxford's elite" and featured exotic cocktails such as "Electric Kabuki" and "Oh My Godzilla," some of which contained trace quantities of real sake. Now it is gone forever, although nearby Japanese-style restaurants continue to ply their trade, ranging from Koto, a tonkatsu pork cutlet specialist, to Yo! Sushi, with its revolving conveyor belt and video clips of central Shibuya.

Authentic? No more so than the Japanese style of curry rice or, indeed, Scarlett Johansson playing Major Motoko Kusanagi, the cyborg heroine of "Ghost in the Shell." A brouhaha kicked off in the U.S. when Asian-American activist groups objected to the Asian role of Kusanagi being played by a white star. That, apparently, constitutes an act of cultural appropriation known as "whitewashing," a serious offense from the grievance-charged perspective of American identity politics.

In Japan, which has made cultural appropriation a national strategy for the last 150 years, such thinking makes no sense at all. Mamoru Oshii, famed director of the 1995 "Ghost in the Shell" anime, praised Johansson as "the best choice possible" for the role. As he went on to say, films have always taken a creative approach to casting. For example, Omar Sharif, an Arab, played Doctor Zhivago, a Russian. Art can transcend gender as well as ethnicity. I recently saw the great British actress Glenda Jackson play King Lear on stage in London. She was totally convincing.

Geographical mashup

The world of Japanese anime and manga has always been one of cultural and ethnic indeterminacy, in which Japanese-speaking characters have Westernized features and implausible physiques.

The location of "Ghost in the Shell" is a mishmash. The futuristic metropolis in which the action takes place contains yakuza-run bars and geisha-assassins. Yet the cityscape itself is clearly a digitally enhanced version of Hong Kong, with its spectacular harbor and teeming alleys. The chief of public security, played by eccentric celebrity "Beat" Takeshi Kitano, is the only character to speak in Japanese, helpfully subtitled in English.

The decision to "Sinocize" the backdrop may relate to the fact that two Chinese companies financed the production. Even so, the melding of geographical identities is squarely in the cyberpunk science-fiction tradition.

Ridley Scott's hugely influential film "Blade Runner," released in 1982, was set in a Japanized vision of 2019 Los Angeles, complete with sushi masters, noodle bars and gigantic video-screen geisha. Likewise, William Gibson's groundbreaking 1984 novel "Neuromancer," which foresaw today's networked world of hackers and giant online companies, takes place in a hyper-real "Chiba City."

It is not just the visual texture that "Ghost in the Shell" owes to cyberpunk SF. The theme is the same too. What is the difference between the implanted memories of a replicant and genuine human experience? Could what we think of as everyday reality be a fiction?

This was the metaphysical conundrum that obsessed American writer Philip K. Dick, whose novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" was the basis for "Blade Runner." Shirow Masamune, author of the original "Ghost in the Shell" manga, must have been influenced by Dick's vision as well as by Arthur Koestler, whose book "The Ghost in the Machine" provides the title.

Judging by the Johansson film, the future has not changed much since the 1980s. That may be because the cyberpunks were unusually farsighted. Today the approach of "the singularity," when machine intelligence will surpass the capability of humans, is no longer science fiction but a business topic discussed by Silicon Valley executives.

Meanwhile, best-selling historian Yuval Noah Harari declares that the biotechnological revolution signals the end of Homo sapiens. One day the controversy may not be about whether the role of an Asian cyborg should be played by an American, but whether it should be played by a cyborg.

Heavy thoughts to ponder as I sit before the Yo! Sushi conveyor belt with its freight of spicy chicken and apple gyoza dumplings, as well as sushi rolls. It wouldn't pass muster in Tokyo, but is just right for a rainy night in Oxford. The ghost of sushi lives on in the British shell.

Peter Tasker is an analyst with Tokyo-based Arcus Research.

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