Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Thoughts on, and a place to discuss, the plot points we can’t reveal in our review.

Scarlett Johansson doesn’t look like Mamoru Oshii’s version of Maj. Motoko Kusanagi; that character is tall and blue-eyed, and Johansson is neither. Of course, we can break out the anthropometric calipers and go through Oshii’s Ghost In The Shell frame by frame in order to analyze her brow ridges, nasal aperture, and zygomas (are they projecting or receding?) with the help of some antique German science books that will surely settle the question of whether her features are more Caucasoid than not. Or we can accept that her outward appearance is that of a feminine cyborg body drawn in an art style that doesn’t always lend itself to social constructs of race that vary from country to country and is also the product of a popular arts culture with its own complicated history of representation. But here’s an undisputable fact: Motoko Kusanagi is Japanese. The Simpsons may have four fingers on each hand, globe eyeballs, and dandelion-yellow skin, but they are narratively understood to be human and white in the American sense of the term.


This live-action iteration of the character is also Japanese, though this fact is kept from her until late in the film. In the future of this Ghost In The Shell, cybernetics are still ahead of artificial intelligence, necessitating the use of human brains implanted with false memories. Both the Major and Kuze, the terrorist played by Michael Pitt, were young Japanese anti-corporate anarchists before being subjected to secret experimentation. Such a twist could be taken as a mea culpa, if it didn’t touch on so many interesting questions—including issues of nationality in a digitally globalized world that at first glance seem out of place in the context of the United States, where both cultural identity and discrimination are broadly understood through categories of appearance rather than the hyperspecificity of ethnic groups. (As anyone who hails from the Slavic and Balkan countries can tell you, one should never underestimate the degree to which people who all look like they could show up at the same family reunion can view one another as suspicious others.)

Which is to say that there is some degree of miscalculation, but the idea itself is fascinating and self-reflexive. Led to believe that she is a refugee who has been given a second chance with a high-tech body, the Major has been assigned to a special government unit. So the question of her Japanese-ness is central, paradoxically addressed through the fact that she—or, rather, her cyborg body—is played by an actress who doesn’t look Japanese. One might read it as another take on the Ghost In The Shell franchise’s classic ship of Theseus (or grandfather’s axe) problem: With wiped memories, an American voice, and a body that passes for white, is she still “Japanese”? Or one can see it as the story of a woman who has been forced to think of herself as an outsider, tricked by a false and racially charged self-image that was literally constructed for her by commercial and government interests. But then, the Japan of this Ghost In The Shell, while still recognizably Japanese, seems to be populated in large part by immigrants—they are its garbage men, its sex workers, its doctors and scientists—and is very concerned with the vague threat of terrorism. Maybe it’s not meant to be Japan at all, but another country in disguise.

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