By Scott Ng
Ghost In The Shell is a seminal piece of anime, possessing one of the most thought-provoking exercises in the question of self to ever be committed to film. Generations of anime fans have discovered and rediscovered this landmark anime, finding new mysteries to appreciate with every viewing. Ghost In The Shell the live-action movie, however, proves itself to be little more than a slavish homage to the anime, yet stripped of soul and cultural nuance by bad writing decisions and a major (pun intended) plot twist that occurs to the end of the movie. Spoilers ahead, read at your own risk.
Major Mira Killian is part of Section 9, a heavily armed peacekeeping force that answers directly to the Prime Minister of an unnamed Asian megacity which we infer to be a futuristic vision of Japan, given that the largely unseen Asian cast can be heard talking in Japanese at points. Mira is the first of her kind – a human brain implanted into a robot chassis, a ghost in a supremely powerful shell.
When a mysterious hacker called Kuze appears, threatening a robotics megacorp called Hanka Robotics – the very same corporation that created the Major’s current robotic body, Mira is dragged into a mystery revolving around her past, her creator, and her own sense of self.
This may be one of the prettiest movies to come out this year. Nearly seamless CGI creates the impression of an alien yet familiar future, with gigantic hologram advertisements rising over buildings to hawk weight-loss products and robotic enhancements. From the neon street signs at ground level that distinctly place us in Asia to the look and feel of a flat in the poorer side of town, every visual detail has been meticulously crafted to truly immerse the watcher in the world of the movie.
The action scenes are beautifully choreographed, and in some cases, lifted from the original anime shot for shot. This almost slavish devotion to the visual flair of the anime truly brings to life in many ways, though not all, the future described in Ghost In The Shell anime as well as some of its most iconic imagery.
Of all the characters in the film, perhaps only Batou is given enough time to form a connection with the audience, and provides a gruff levity to a film that purports to be leaden with big metaphysical questions. A special note has to be made for the absolute badassery of Takeshi Kitano’s Chief Daisuke Aramaki’s starring moment, a gun duel capped with a one liner only Kitano could have pulled off with such aplomb.
Scarlett herself is perfectly serviceable in the demands of her role, which mostly involve her a) looking emotionless b) looking conflicted c) looking lonely. Enough is hinted at in her facial expressions that we know she isn’t just a robot, but Scarlett only really serves to look mysterious, kick ass, and take names.
Now, is Ghost In The Shell watchable? Yes, it is. Repeated viewing will undoubtedly yield even more details inserted lovingly by a team that obviously admired the anime. It is visually stunning, and Scarlet Johansson accquits herself fairly well as a very restrained Black Widow-type.
However, Ghost In The Shell is ironic in that it purports to tackle the nature of the soul, or ‘ghost’ – a word I heard hammered into the script far too many times to appreciate by the time the movie was over – and yet, is the most soulless adaptation of the original story that could possibly be imagined. Ghost In The Shell, the anime, tackled a future in which humanity had transcended our own bodies, transferring our consciousness into robotic ‘shells’ when venturing outside digital walls. The question of the ghost in the shell as a theory is the main struggle of the anime – what is the nature of a soul, and how does it exist in the context of technology and the coming singularity of humanity and technology? Is there a difference between a human soul and an AI that has achieved sentience?
These questions are thrown out for a largely by-the-numbers superhero origin story, with the Major’s obsession with her past and the nature of her ‘self’ in her new robotic shell forming the main drive of the storyline. However, most fans would’ve expected the dumbing down of the anime’s themes for the Hollywood audience, and when we face it, this isn’t the biggest problem with Ghost In The Shell, live-action adaptation.
The Elephant in the Room
And now we come to the part where the movie experience fell apart for me personally. Up till the three-quarter point in the movie, we had largely become numb to the occasionally eye-popping setting of the movie and the strange feeling that the characters were divorced from their surroundings – a bad copy and paste job that never really explains why Section 9 appears to be largely Caucasian, yet operating as a national special forces unit in an Asian country. The characters are divorced from any cultural context with the city they safeguard, and it is in the attempt to remedy this that the film makes its most baffling move.
Following the standard ‘operative learns the truth and goes AWOL’ moment, we find out that Mira Killian was originally Motoko Kusanagi, a teenage Japanese runaway who is captured in the ruins of a bombed-out city by Hanka Robotics to fuel their experiments with robotic bodies. In one of the most stunning (not in a good way) moves in recent cinematic history, the Major was literally whitewashed, an Asian girl severed from her cultural identity, inserted into a Caucasian body, implanted with memories of being raised Caucasian – forced to become white.
In an instant, the movie either validated all criticism made against it for the casting of Scarlett Johansson, or executed the most masterful troll of its critics possible in cinematic history. How you see it is really up to you, but personally, this moment took me out of the film and I sat there, for the last 30 minutes, wondering how amazing this movie would have been like had Rinko Kikuchi, Constance Wu, Shu Qi, or any number of talented Asian actresses available to Hollywood had been cast to reconnect the character of the Major to her surroundings – and her past.
Ghost In The Shell is a beautiful movie, and worth the price of admission for the spectacle alone. However, the story and the setting feel entirely divorced from each other, and the movie’s big reveal is one that will leave a bad taste in some mouths. However, if you’re just looking to watch ScarJo be mysteriously sexy and kick ass, you’ll probably do just fine. After all, it looks like Ghost In A Shell was just a very expensive sizzle reel for a Black Widow solo movie.