If some of my previous posts are any indication, I’m not one to shy away from holding an unpopular opinion. So it may surprise you to know that I watched the live-action Ghost in the Shell the other day and actually liked it, despite its flaws. With the film getting mixed reviews, some quarters estimating a net loss for producers and even the film score release getting indefinitely postponed, I thought I’d give my quick thoughts on why you should watch it despite the pummeling it’s getting.
As in most cases, beware spoilers ahead! If you’re still reading this and haven’t yet watched the film, just go ahead to the concluding section below and you’ll be safe.
A Shell without a Ghost?
The original Ghost in the Shell manga and anime deal quite heavily with the evolution of the human condition in a society where the body can be replaced by robotics, the brain can interact with wider computer networks and artificial intelligence (AI) is relatively commonplace. The titular ‘ghost’ is the human essence of a person or soul which differentiates a human being from a simple biological robot. In such a world, for instance, something like the Puppeteer presents a particular philosophical and existential quandary as an AI that has gained enough sentience and self-awareness to ask if it has a ‘ghost’.
I will admit that the live-action film is a sci-fi thriller that focuses more on Western-oriented concepts of identity and memory than the deeper philosophy of the manga and anime. Despite this divergence, I wouldn’t say that the film is just a lifeless copy that scratches the philosophical surface, but that it simply looks at another aspect of the same world. The main questions being asked are about how identity can be preserved when your brain can be hacked and reprogrammed, which are actually compatible with the issues raised in the source material. There is also the issue of the Major trying to retain a sense of humanity in a body which doesn’t feel human at all, although this is mostly secondary to the other one. In a sense, the new film actually manages to focus more on character by leaning heavily on the Major’s past and its connection – or lack thereof – to her present.
Scarlett Johansson’s quasi-robotic performance does underscore the loss of the Major’s humanity, but I think the film could have been seen to stumble less if the audience had been shown more of the Major’s time adapting to her rebirth into a fully synthetic body. We do get her initial panic-stricken reaction to not feeling her body and her close encounter with another woman to understand something as basic as the feeling of touching your face, but showing more could underline the understandable existential issues she seems to have beneath the surface.
Another criticism levelled at the film is that is is too derivative. Its family resemblance to cyberpunk films like Blade Runner and The Matrix is hard to deny, but what gets me scratching my head is the simple fact that the new film is an adaptation of a much earlier work. Blade Runner was released in 1982 and the first Ghost in the Shell manga was published just five years later. One was obviously inspired by the other, but even then, writer Masamune Shirow added enough of his own character to turn his manga into its own thing. The Wachowskis, in turn, cite director Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 animated Ghost in the Shell – itself an adaptation of the original manga – as a major influence for The Matrix.
Keeping this in mind, it becomes a bit hard to blame the newest film for being faithful to the source material and coming out resembling something else as well. You can’t fault the 2017 Beauty and the Beast for not sticking to the original eighteenth-century story when it is a live-action adaptation of an animated adaptation. You can, on the other hand, fault The Last Airbender for sticking to the ‘purer’ pronunciations of characters’ names because it is an adaptation of the animated Avatar series, not the sources its creators took inspiration from. What can one say about Ghost in the Shell then?
Whether you believe the Ghost in the Shell film is just a hollow shell or otherwise, there’s no denying that it is a pretty shell. There are very short moments of somewhat dodgy CGI and times like the tank battle where the artistry of the 1995 anime film trumps the live adaptation. Otherwise, however, the latter film boasts some high-end production value which makes it visually stunning.
The aerial views of Port City, with its enormous flashy holograms a sight to behold, one which only becomes better when the films zooms in and lest audiences see its people in action. There are flourishes aplenty vibrantly bringing the metropolis and its people to life which I am sure can only get better with a second viewing. The cinematography is very well done and the fight scenes involving the Major are often spectacular.
I also have to applaud the great work done at Weta Workshop for the film. Not only does their artistic vision translate well digitally, but they did some sterling work with physical props.
I watched the film in IMAX 3D and my eyes were definitely not disappointed.
The Whitewashing that Was and Wasn’t
Then there is the big, flaming elephant in the room: whitewashing and casting Johansson as the Major (real name Motoko Kusanagi). I will not downplay the issue as a trivial one by any stretch of the imagination, especially since the live-action Ghost in the Shell is mainly a Hollywood production. I am also not naive enough to believe that some executive or director Rupert Sanders did not make the calculation of Johansson’s star power attracting viewers and increasing profits. After all, the Chinese did it when Matt Damon was brought on for The Great Wall. The only problem is that things aren’t as simple in this case, for a number of reasons.
Firstly, and I can’t help but be a bit blunt here, a good number of anime and manga characters do not have a Japanese or Asian appearance. The Major is particularly problematic because, despite her Japanese name – which is probably an alias anyway – the character has never been depicted as such across the different designs she was given.
You would think that an excuse as flimsy, especially coming from a non-US westerner like myself, would be immediately dismissed by the people whose culture this is supposed to offend, the Japanese. However, Japanese people have generally warmed up to the film a lot more than Americans did. A number of Japanese youngsters interviewed in one video actually support the casting, laying bare the inescapable truth that Johansson actually resembles the character. Even Mamoru Oshii himself has stated that he doesn’t find a problem with the casting, noting that a cyborg body doesn’t have to adhere to ethnicity.
There’s also the matter that, despite what a good number of people in the USA would be willing to accept, casting an Asian-American actress would not have solved the cultural sensitivity issue. People in neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia , such as China, Japan and Korea are particularly aware of their differences and how they are portrayed in film. Casting a non-Japanese Asian actress for a Japanese character is done at one’s peril, as Memoirs of a Geisha can attest. One Japanese interviewee makes her opinion on Johansson’s casting very clear: “Would that be OK if she was Asian or Asian-American? Honestly, that would be worse: someone from another Asian country pretending to be Japanese. Better just to make the character white.”
The biggest case for defending casting Johannson, though, is the film’s actual story. (This is also where the spoilers really come in!) The film not only acknowledges Johannson’s Major not being Japanese, but actually makes it a major plot point. Towards the end of the film it’s revealed that the Major was originally a Japanese woman by the name of Motoko Kusanagi. Being given a non-Japanese appearance thus becomes an in-story attempt by the real villains of the film to actually whitewash the character for their own ends. It also solidifies the reasons for the motherly affection Dr. Ouelet shows the Major and her eventual turn against said corporate villains.
I don’t know how self-referential the writers were when drawing it up, but it is definitely a stroke of genius in my book.
After thinking about it again and getting the chance to write the above, I am still glad I watched the live-action Ghost in the Shell. Despite claims about the original soul of the franchise being hollowed out for its Western cinematic debut, it’s actually surprisingly introspective and simply tackles a different side on the moral issues of the original. It also happens to be a real feast for the eyes, with great designs, good evocation of the source material where needed and some great cinematography .
While the controversy surrounding the casting of the main protagonist and whitewashing is somewhat understandable, I find that the issue is adequately addressed in the film itself.
My only appeal at this point is to temporarily put aside Western critics’ opinion pieces and go watch the film to form your own opinion. Even if you ultimately feel that the original cannot be surpassed, seeing the latest film on the big screen is definitely worth your time.
- GHOST IN THE SHELL Review – Is The Live-Action Adaptation Better Than The Original Anime? (comicbookmovie.com)
- Ghost in the Shell – Movie Review (youtube.com)
- Ghost in the Shell Angry Review (youtube.com)