Global ghosts in the shell of Japanese manga

by

Special To The Japan Times

Earlier this year, a major Hollywood studio announced that it was planning to produce a live-action remake of the Japanese manga and anime “Ghost in the Shell.” The backlash from cultural critics in the United States and Europe was swift. They deemed that casting Scarlett Johansson in the role of cyborg policewoman Major Motoko Kusanagi was a form of “whitewashing” — where white actors are cast in non-white roles to appease Western audiences. What’s more, her character’s original Japanese name has been removed from the script; she will only be referred to only as “the Major.”

There is one limitation with the whitewashing argument: the story of “Ghost in the Shell” — and manga as a whole — may not be as Japanese as it first appears.

In the postwar era, long-form comics became ubiquitous in Japan, but during the past 30 years manga has moved beyond Japan. There are now tens of millions of copies of popular manga series — and more if you count fan-made translations — circulating in dozens of languages worldwide.

In “Manga’s Cultural Crossroads,” two researchers, Jaqueline Berndt and Bettina Kummerling-Meibauer, explore the origins of the medium. They argue that manga is a product of globalization; that well-known motifs and archetypes from the literature of other countries permeate Japan’s comics. “Ghost in the Shell” is a prime example in the way it merges various identities, landscapes and cultural ideas — many Japanese, but many non-Japanese, too.

Claiming that manga is not indigenously Japanese may seem like a radical position to take, but Berndt and Kummerling-Meibauer are not alone.

“Historically speaking, as a medium — and as an artform, too — manga is a product of cultural hybridity,” says Shige Suzuki, an assistant professor of comparative literature who specializes in Japanese-language arts at Baruch College in New York City.

“I am critical of the repeated claim that manga, or contemporary Japanese comics, can be traced to Japan’s pre-modern visual culture, such as 12th-century scroll paintings, ukiyo-e paintings or medieval visual traditions, among others,” he says. “For me, manga is a product of modernity.”

The original source material for the new “Ghost in the Shell” film is a 1989 comic, “Kōkaku Kidōtai” (“Mobile Armored Riot Police”), written and illustrated by Japanese manga artist Masamune Shirow, and serialized with the subtitle “The Ghost in the Shell.” Shirow’s story explores the limits of consciousness through the character of Major Kusanagi, who leads a counter-cyberterrorism unit in a mid-21st-century vision of Japan. It’s a story rife with government corruption, backup brains, cyborgs and thermal cloaking — it’s a future world filled with illusions and hybrid identities. Suzuki points out that these themes were shared by other works labeled “cyberpunk,” a science fiction subgenre that emerged in the 1980s and “was cultivated by American SF writers,” says Suzuki, “most famously, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.”

Gibson and Sterling, Suzuki argues, perceived or imagined that America would one day become like Japan — they exoticized Japan as a high-tech supernation. They assumed that American society would become “Japanized,” akin to the opening scene of Ridley Scott’s cyberpunk film, “Blade Runner,” in which Harrison Ford’s character is seen eating ramen noodles in a dense, dirty city filled the neons.

“It was, in part, a reality,” says Suzuki. “Japan in the 1980s was economically powerful — or so it was perceived to be, especially in the U.S. when Reagan-era America was experiencing economic stagnation and inflation.” Japan’s economic power, says Suzuki, “seemed to be driven by new kinds of technologies.”

But the technological Japan of the ’80s was also being filled with consumer culture imported from the West. The obsession with luxury goods and designer brands seemed to suggest that the country was defining itself in a new way: through images and information. This change, Suzuki argues, is what Shirow was exploring in his original “Ghost in the Shell.”

But the future-focused world of the ’80s wasn’t all that inspired him. Other popular manga, such as “Sailor Moon” and “Naruto,” are also read worldwide but still retain Japanese mythologies. “Ghost in the Shell” is no different: The original name of Johansson’s character, “Kusanagi,” is a reference to to Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, a legendary Japanese sword.

Kummerling-Meibauer believes “Ghost in the Shell” also has European influences, as well as ideas borrowed from European literature and art. Though the idea of the Puppet Master — the villain in the original “Ghost in the Shell” story — may be related to bunraku, Kummerling-Meibauer feels that the idea of a malicious figure pulling strings “can be traced to German Romanticism at the beginning of the 19th century.” Her example is Prussian novelist Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann, and his 1816 short story, “The Sandman.” It’s the tale of a lifelike mechanical girl — a puppet, controlled by someone behind the scenes — who drives a suitor to madness.

“This is just one significant trait that emphasizes the universal approach of ‘Ghost in the Shell,’ which might be an explanation of why it became such a worldwide success,” says Kummerling-Meibauer.

Shirow’s manga wove together hybrid identities, but what about the wider history of manga — has it always been a cross-cultural art form?

Kummerling-Meibauer believes it has, and that only “specific aesthetic principles,” such as enlarged eyes or other features, “distinguish manga from Western comics and popular culture.”

From a Japanese perspective, then, what happens when a Caucasian female is cast as Japanese character?

“Nothing,” according to Suzuki. “Japan, in general, thinks it’s cool that Hollywood is making a movie out of a popular anime.”

Suzuki believes the “whitewashing” controversy is more related to Americans projecting cultural issues on Shirow’s manga, which he argues is a way of “Westernizing” the original story.

“The movie aspires to link Japanese and Western culture, thus emphasizing again the global attraction of Japanese manga and anime,” says Kummerling-Meibauer.

“From its beginning, the history of Japanese manga shows the impact of Western art styles and comics. It is not possible to strictly separate Western comics and Japanese manga — both art forms have influenced each other.”