The Politics of Ghost In the Shell

I dislike movie theaters and usually wait to watch movies when they come out on demand or DVD. Ghost In the Shell was no exception, especially due to the “whitewashing” controversy which made me less-than-excited about this movie.

Finally having watched it just yesterday, my review of the movie is that they distilled some general themes and isolated scenes from the anime series (which was amazing in comparison) into a general action movie suitable for worldwide release.

Stripped from this movie was anything sexual or messily violent and the overall theme of government interference, human individuality, and freedom was boiled down to a fight against a corporate villain. The politics, issues of sexual identity, and even deeper character exploration, were all stripped away in order to create a PG-13 sci-fi action movie that would play safely across all target markets.

In my opinion, the reason for this is twofold:

  1. Movie studios need to recoup their investment and leading with content that is safe and digestible by large audiences essentially ensures that a movie is “safe” enough for the entire family. Predictable storylines and characters resonate with the masses (yeah, that last part sounds arrogant but I’m sticking with it because it is true).
  2. Chinese politics.

Investment and partnership from Chinese companies in US filmmaking comes with strings attached. And part of those strings are ensuring that any content meets domestic political standards as set by the government. Content must be non-threatening and meet the relatively puritanical standards set forth by the Communist Party.

Translation: violence is strong but not bloody, sex is toned down or non-existent, and corporations and people can be villains but never governments (or if there is a government villain, it will be a Western one).

Ghost In the Shell is just one example. The current flood of superhero movies (with the exception of Deadpool) fall into that category as do even small productions like Keanu Reeves’ Man of Tai Chi. In that movie, about an international fight club, a scene had to be inserted in which it is noted that only foreigners would watch two people kill each other and that none of the fights were broadcast even illegally in China.

The US has a history of film censorship so this not a unique phenomenon but it is a troubling one in terms of what we can expect from large film studios in the near future as they remain dependent upon foreign money and audiences.

In context of China’s troubled history between the Opium Wars in the 19th-century through occupation by foreigners, multiple wars including the Taiping Rebellion, World War II, and then the chaos of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution; this can be understood. China, under any government, would strive to ensure order, self-respect, and strength.

The government under Chiang Kai-shek both in China and then later in Taiwan, also introduced strict controls under the auspices of modernity and strength. Throughout the 20th century, the Communist and the Nationalist governments introduced hygiene, health, and empowerment programs dedicated to eradicating disease, the appearance of weakness and to promoting a vision of China as a strong and modern country.

However, the type of strength that does not allow for creativity and liberty is a brittle one and will not solve the issues at hand….and they will contribute to uninspiring movies in the meantime.


曲者 – Kusemono

In the Hagakure, a book written by the samurai official Yamamoto Tsunetomo in the 17th-century, the author writes about the different characteristics of people that make up society. He points out that the most valuable person is the “kusemono.”

Translators of the Hagakure point out that the modern meaning of that term is that of a “ruffian” or an eccentric. So why was the kusemono so valuable? According to the Hagakure, a kusemono is a person who avoids trouble, keeps to themselves, and only appears when needed. Not unlike the solitary hero of samurai movies in the 1960’s, a kusemono eschews high honors and recognition and prefers to keep to their own devices until duty calls. Then, when the job is completed, they return to their solitary ways.

In short, a kusemono is like a friend.

Waza & Sincerity (誠)

sincerity_kanji_by_bexikaSensei has been very consistent in his advice around jigeiko and the execution of any kind of waza. In effect, he says that less is more and that our attacks should be less in number but done with full commitment. With full commitment comes the requirement that we invest ourselves completely in that action, going through the stages of gamen, seme, and then sutemi when we engage with our partner.

Done this way, there is no chance that you will be able to do a series of meaningless attacks, exhausting yourself and putting yourself at risk of injury. Instead, you will funnel yourself into engaging in an authentic way with your opponent, training yourself in the deeper principles of individual combat as well as having a far more meaningful experience.

A recent article in The New Yorker covered the old concept of whether or not practice makes perfect. My takeaway from that article was that simply doing 10,000 hours of practice in itself does not equate to success. Genetics and environment play a key role and, while we can’t change genetics, we can certainly ensure that our environment is one that supports positive results.

This means that we should collaborate with each other, ensuring that we give the best of ourselves so that we get the best of each other in return. This kind of environment is the kind found in successful companies, musical bands, and artistic groups. It puts the “art” in the term “martial art.”

In Kenji Tokitsu’s book on Musashi, he talks about the transition of swordsmanship from pure combat into a more personally reflective practice as Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate entered a period of peace and order that lasted 250 years. “The way of the sword itself proposed a meaning to life, an existential direction…”

During that period and now, sword schools focused upon both the technical skills of swordplay as well as on the mental and spiritual training required to go beyond the physical element and to be prepared for actual combat.

Part of that process was engaging fully in what one was doing. This was actually quite common in all levels of life in Japan as in other countries of the time. Before the rise of technology and the myriad ways of quickly communicating using multiple channels and methods, people in that time were restricted to more simple and personal communication methods.

The quality and sincerity of a bow to a customer or verbal communication to a person of higher rank were important in the excellence of that simple action. Having less to use, people put more effort into what they had.

In that same way, kendo affords us the opportunity to step out of our complex and busy lives and engage in a way that is both simple and yet provides a much more in-depth experience.

Something to consider next time one is in the dojo.