Hollywood’s Ghost In the Shell and Personal Identity


In no way do I intend this piece as a defense of Hollywood or its myriad disappointing practices.

Since Scarlett Johansson was announced to play the lead in the Hollywood adaptation of the Ghost in the Shell (GIS) series there has been no end to the criticism by individuals who believe that the character of Major Motoko Kusanagi should be played by a Japanese actress or at least an Asian actress. While the “whitewashing” of popular media is a serious problem I think that decrying the casting of GIS is ignoring the larger philosophical underpinnings of the series. For instance, the titular “ghost in the shell” refers to human consciousness within technological constructs. This in turn leads to greater questions seeking to define what exactly it means to be human.

Those calling for a casting change should know that in GIS, Major Kusanagi does not have a biological body. She received a full prosthetic body when she was extremely young, how young depends on the particular story you are referencing but they all have her as several years preteen when her consciousness is first transferred to a prosthetic body. She has a 100% cybernetic body, a state of being that is extremely rare in the GIS world. Ignoring for the time being that we are dealing with a fictional character, what is the nationality or ethnicity of a manufactured body? In a world where consciousness can be transferred from body to body how much of an individual’s personal identity is connected to their physical appearance? Perhaps physical identity becomes a completely separate aspect from overall being once people can simply change a body whenever they need or want to.

Nationality is the easier of the concepts to define and attach to an individual. At its core nationality is just a matter of belonging to a particular nation. No conscious effort has to be taken and so inanimate objects can have a set nationality as well as animals let alone people. If you consider prosthetic bodies purely as manufactured trade goods, then there is no philosophical conflict. Nations routinely produce trade goods and many of those are restricted products due to various intellectual property concerns. Wandering into the realm of intellectual properties (IPs) things begin to get complex. Even in our current state there is a lot of discussion regard the nature of IPs. Copyright laws are already Gordian Knots attempting to spell out who owns what in regards to IPs. Now imagine adding the extra layer of having those IPs be the residence of a separate intellect. Let’s say that a Japanese citizen is in a horrendous accident and has to have their consciousness transferred into a prosthetic body. Most people would agree that this individual is still Japanese, that’s not the real issue. Let’s say that a Japanese citizen is in a horrendous accident in France and has to have a consciousness transfer. The doctors perform the transfer with the prosthesis they have on hand and once the Japanese citizen is healthy they attempt to return to Japan. Here we have a problem. The prosthesis that the French doctors provided to the Japanese citizen are restricted trade goods. When our Japanese friend’s consciousness was transferred to this body did it then become Japanese through presence? Since the body would be an integral part of this individuals continued life, common sense should dictate that the nationality would transfer from sentience to the current body. Corporate and international laws have very little in the way of common sense so situations like this would be a matter of real consideration in a world where individuals aren’t locked to any one body.

All things considered, nationality is a fairly simple concept to sort out. Nationality is at its core just a matter of lines on a map. Ethnicity is a completely different matter and here is where I think the more important questions surface. Ethnicity means belonging to a particular social group based on a shared cultural tradition. This is how a person could, for example, be a British national but ethnic Chinese. This matters because in this world of everyday cyborgs and impermanent physicality new ethnicities are being created. Obviously a person whose had cybernetic augmentation is going to have a different life experience from someone who has not. Even within a family the differences could be extreme. Imagine how differently your day to day life might be if you had a relatively simple cybernetic augmentation like one that would let you see in the dark. On the surface it seems like a pretty innocuous thing, but really think about how many lights you have to turn on during the course of a twenty-four hour period and how much you can’t do in the dark. So would someone who could see in the dark share the same cultural experiences as someone who couldn’t? What if they had a more advanced augmentation, maybe one that let them interface with computers directly? A pure flesh and blood human would not fair as well in an office environment working with people that didn’t need to use keyboards and monitors to get things done. This would lead to an even greater cultural rift and the list goes on. People like to think of ethnicity as a static ideal but it’s actual a fluid and relative concept. Ethnicity is all about differentiation, reds and blues, us and them.

In the GIS future the augmented humans are an ethnicity unto themselves and within that group there are even more divisions. Ghost in the Shell is all about attempting to define what is human. Is humanity a matter of appearance? Perhaps being human comes down to one’s actions instead. How about belief, is believing that you are human enough to make it so? When it comes to Hollywood’s new Ghost in the Shell movie, the question isn’t why is a Caucasian actress playing the role of Major Kusanagi. The real questions are, is Major Kusanagi Japanese? Is she human? That is where the spirit of Ghost in the Shell shines.