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Non-Review Review: Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell is a fascinating, deeply flawed, film.

The movie is vibrant and vivid, rich both textually and texturally. Its style, as much riffing on American films inspired by Japanese cyberpunk as by Japanese cyberpunk itself, is simply breathtaking. The hypersaturated colours leap off the screen, which is somewhat ironic given that the 3D rendering mutes them ever-so-slightly. Those bright blues, those glowing greens, those rich reds, they combine to create a sensation that might be described as “bubblegum noir”, a reworking of the noir trappings of cyberpunk with the colour turned way up.

Putting the pieces together.

It is almost too much handle. There is an appealing aura of sensory overload to the world of Ghost in the Shell, as if the film might best be experienced by passively allowing the world to wash over the audience, to sink into the movie in the same way that several members of the cast threaten to sink into virtual networks. Ever frame is saturated with detail, creating a sense that the audience might drown in all the little touches that suggest this neon fantasia dystopia. Ghost in the Shell works best as a mood, a visual lava lamp of shapes in motion.

The problems only really emerge when the story and characters come into focus, the film struggling to grapple with its themes through dialogue and exposition as readily as it does through steadicam tracking shots and computer-generated establishing sequences. Every character in Ghost in the Shell speaks as if preparing for a freshman philosophy tutorial, ruminating on the threads that bind identity and memory together. Characters have little time for metaphor, often bluntly over-explaining their world and their emotional state.

Neural network.

Ghost in the Shell feels at once too smart and too dumb for its own good. This is perhaps most obvious in the allegations of whitewashing that hang over the film, the wry irony of casting Scarlett Johansson as the central character in a big-screen adaptation of a beloved piece of Japanese culture. Johansson’s presence has sparked debate about cultural appropriation and representation. To its credit, Ghost in the Shell makes an earnest attempt to engage with this idea, turning audience frustration into theme. It is a very clever way of dealing with the issue.

The only problem is that Ghost in the Shell simply cannot talk its way around this core concern. Ghost in the Shell tries to recast itself as a narrative that is fundamentally about cultural appropriation, but in doing so it cannot escape the fact that it is also an example of cultural appropriation. Like those circular debates about identity and memory, these is a sense that Ghost in the Shell is attempting to trap the audience in echoes and reflections, a glitch that betrays a fundamental flaw.

Manufactured.

Ghost in the Shell is a decidedly complicated pop culture artifact. There are several very important debates taking place around the film, each capturing a facet of the larger issues. The film is a loose adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s iconic 1989 manga series. That manga series has gone on to spawn a multimedia franchise, including films and video games. It is one of the most iconic pieces of late eighties Japanese pop culture, arguably a key text in the wider context of cyberpunk as an artistic movement.

There are all manner of debates to be had about the original material. There is considerable debate over whether manga can be considered a purely Japanese artform drawing from the country’s historical artwork that can trace its roots back to the twelfth century, or whether manga owes a larger debt to the foreign art that came to fascinate and dominate Japanese culture in the wake of the Second World War. The issue gets even thornier when applied directly to Ghost in the Shell as opposed to manga in general.

All goodie in the hoodie?

Ghost in the Shell is largely a reflection of the American fascination with Japan in the eighties. This fascination can be seen in films like Blade Runner and in comics like those written and illustrated by Frank Miller, both of which are significant visual influences on director Rupert Sanders in this live action adaptation. The iconic geisha girl from the Blade Runner billboards is reimagined as both a gigantic hologram and as a Japanese serving robot. The central character spends a lot of time moodily skulking on rooftops like a Dark Knight.

Of course, this feedback loop can continue indefinitely. As much as films like Blade Runner inspired Japanese creators by seeing their own culture reflected back through the eye of American economic anxiety, so too did an entire generation of manga and anime leave an impression upon American popular culture. Without Ghost in the Shell, there not be The Matrix or A.I.: Artificial Intelligence or even Avatar. The simple fact is that popular culture does not exist in a vacuum, particularly in an era of global reach and distribution.

Degraded copy.

It does not particularly matter whether Ghost in the Shell was inspired by American cyberpunk fascination with eighties Japan, any more than it matters that the American western owes a massive debt to samurai cinema. Nobody would argue that The Magnificent Seven or A Fistful of Dollars are any less quintessentially American because they took their influence from abroad. Ghost in the Shell is fundamentally a Japanese narrative. As much as it is inspired by American pop art, it twists that around on itself.

As such, there is something frustrating in seeing a big budget live action adaptation based off a script by two American writers, helmed by a British director and starring a bone fides American movie star. There are any number of reasons for this, but the most simple one is the relative lack of high-profile leading roles for Asian and Asian American performers in American cinema. Indeed, Asians are underrepresented in American television and film, even by the standards of other minorities.

All-seeing.

A lot of this is down to appropriation, the decision to take Asian narratives and reframe them around white protagonists. There plenty of examples across a wide range of genres, from the true story of 21 to the heightened fantasy of the upcoming Death Note. Indeed, there are even a wealth of white characters and performers who have largely usurped culture associated with Asia; consider the outrage over the cast of Danny Rand in Iron Fist, even if that casting remained true to the race of the problematic source material.

To be fair to Ghost in the Shell, the film at least makes an effort to engage with this idea and this theme. While Iron Fist glossed over the appropriation at the heart of the narrative, Ghost in the Shell at least acknowledges this idea. The movie unfolds in a futuristic version of Hong Kong, that intersection point of East and West. Whereas the political and cultural influence in the region seems to be largely Japanese, the economic power is European and American. In that respect, Ghost in the Shell remains true to those eighties science-fiction thrillers.

Some assembly required.

Indeed, one of the movie’s central themes concerns the ownership and exploitation of Asian bodies by large American and European multinationals, about the brutal exploitation and suppression of Asian identity in favour of a homogeny built around faces like those belonging to Scarlett Johansson or Michael Pitt. Ghost in the Shell has stared in the mirror, and recognised the monster staring back, even going so far as to build the film around it.

Whitewashing is very much on the film’s mind. The opening credits are set against the construction of the Major, the eponymous ghost in the shell. The audience watches as a human brain is placed in a cybernetic shell and as tissue is grown around it. The last stage of the process finds the body lifted through a vat of thick white liquid like that employed in Westworld. Even before Scarlett Johansson opens her eyes, the audience is aware that they they have witnessed a whitewashing. It takes some courage to put that idea right out there.

Cybersex.

It is telling that the most prominent (identifiably) Asian character in the film is played by Japanese cinematic “Beat” Takeshi Kitano. Unlike other authority figures in the film, like industrialist Cutter or scientist Ouelet, Aramaki represents government authority as opposed to corporate power. “Be careful who you threaten,” Aramaki warns Cutter at one point in the film, despite the influence that Cutter holds over the economic stability of the region. “I report to the Prime Minister. I do not report to you.” Of course, the Prime Minister never appears.

There is also something to be said for the composition of Aramaki’s corporate-government “Section Nine” task force. The group is racially diverse. However, the most prominent (identifiably) Asian member is Han, played by Chin Han. His fellow officers have all be cybernetically augmented and enhanced, their biology warped and distorted by Cutter’s corporation. Han’s insistence on minimising his exposure to these enhancements marks him as free from that insidious and corrupting influence.

Cast into the Pitt.

However, these intriguing textual games can only get Ghost in the Shell so far. As much as this might be a movie about cultural appropriation by American influences in Asia, it is also a film starring Scarlett Johansson. There is a point where this self-awareness feels more like posturing, a computer approximating depth rather than fully understanding the implications. This is most obvious at the climax, which seems to fundamentally misunderstand the logic and conventions of the genre in which it is working to offer a more conventional ending.

Still, in spite of these issues, there is a lot to like about Ghost in the Shell. Despite its muddled third act, the film actually does a reasonable job wedding its brightly-lit dystopia to classic noir stylings in the grand tradition of cyberpunk. Characters wear long trenchcoats that sway in the breeze as they stand on top of skyscrapers, their internal monologues captured and broadcast by subcutaneous implants to anybody within earshot. This is a future where cars still drive on roads, and when a vital piece of information can prompt a sharp 180-degree turn.

Sunshine.

Similarly, Johansson is endearing game for a script that seems openly hostile to the idea of subtext. As the Major, Johansson is constantly asked to deliver profound meditations on the nature of human identity, and Johansson plays into the character’s more stilted robotic sensibilities. As played by Johansson, the Major moves in a way that underscores her cybernetic nature. Even without computer-generated assistance or make-up effects, Johansson ensures that there is something deeply uncanny about the Major.

Between Under the Skin, Her and Lucy, Johansson might just be the world’s premiere transhuman performer. It is almost a shame that she was not working at the height of David Cronenberg’s preoccupation with body horror. As brought to life by Johansson, the Major is a fascinating addition to the cinematic robot canon, and one worthy of the performer. It is just a shame that Johansson did not get to work with a stronger script.

Making quite the splash.

However, for all the interesting aspects of Ghost in the Shell, there is something sadly disappointing about the structure of the film. The movie starts out compelling and intriguing, throwing out crazy concepts with reckless abandon. There are quick glimpses of life in this future Hong Kong that suggest a fully realised world, whether in faces that don’t seem quite human or human bodies hanging from the ceiling in bags like left-over takeaway. However, the film devolves into a more conventional blockbuster towards the end, losing that flavour.

Ghost in the Shell is more fascinating than the reaction would suggest, an interesting concoction that plays with intriguing ideas. However, the film never embraces that oddness. Its richness and its texture are initially compelling, but are gradually revealed as an affectation. Self-awareness is perhaps the key to consciousness. If so, Ghost in the Shell feels more like a talent mimic than a fully-formed consciousness.

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18 Responses

  1. Thorough dissection.

  2. Interesting review.

    It does sound like the biggest problem the casting had was that it was a half measure. If as you point out ‘The Magnificent Seven’ is a successful American re-imagining of a Japanese original that maybe it would have been wiser to abandon Japan and the Asian setting altogether for a New York or Chicago set film?

    After all we have seen in recent years a Chinese remake of ‘What Women Want’ and a Japanese version of ‘Unforgiven’ and of course famously Kurosawa raided Shakespeare many times. Cultural appropriation is problematic certainly but I think there is a perfectly legitimate space for cultural re-conceptions and that that is a street that goes both ways.

    • That’s actually a very fair point. I wonder if it could work in the same way that “The Departed” worked as a loose adaptation of “Infernal Affairs.” Move it to San Francisco, retain most of the same plots, and you’ve got yourself a solid oligarchy story about an over-eager tech bubble and its influence on public policy, for example.

  3. Was reading all reviews I could find this morning and then suddenly thought I should check your blog. And hey, you did it!

    The problem with the protagonist is more about how she is represented than what race she is. One of my friends and I have started to joke about “not-my-major” ever since the second trailer came, but before that we were both in so much hope for a live action adaption of this beloved anime. It’s hard to pinpoint the issue, more like a sense of oddness we both feel towards the trailer, like the characters, stories, and underlying tones are slightly off from what we remembered​ from the anime.

    TBH I don’t plan to go to cinema to watch this. I may do it later at home when I can pause and think.

    Funny thing is my sci-fi friends are totally divided into two factions here – familiar with the anime and refuse to watch it, and not familiar and eager to watch it. I kinda feel it tells the deep trouble of this movie. You see, the Warcraft movie is not the greatest adaption; but the wow-players (myself included) and people who don’t even play video games I know both love it. I’m not sure how successful an adaption could be if it couldn’t attract the original fan base.

    • Interesting. I wonder how big the fanbase is, just in terms of numbers. I mean, for example, the die-hard Trekkie audience is (I suspect) a very small percentage of the audience for the Abrams era films, I think.

      • It’s hard to know the numbers in Japan, since I don’t really read Japanese and I’m out of the league for a long period to remember where to find the information.

        For western audience, I think myanimelist is a good reference. Ghost in the Shell (1995) has a 6000 fav and is in the watching list of 250000 members. (https://myanimelist.net/anime/43/Ghost_in_the_Shell)

        But two factor to be considered here:
        1 GIS is a complicated and philosophical world and usually attracts mature audience, which rarely use this kind of website;
        2 GIS has different adaptations, and their popularity differs.

        From what I could remember when around 2010 I was recommended the anime series aired in 2002, the anime series including S.A.C and S.A.C 2nd are far more popular than the 1995 movie in Japan and other easter asian countries, although I’m not sure about the western audience.

  4. All the issues surrounding the racial casting, and yet the movie actually makes that a point? It does sound really interesting. At the very least, it can’t be any worse an adaptation than Dragon Ball Evolution (grrrrr…).

    Have you considered watching the original Ghost in the Shell? It’s one of the most beloved animes ever and THE key inspiration behind the Matrix. I think you might find it interesting, or at least better than this movie.

    • > Dragon Ball Evolution

      I’m grateful for the live-action DBZ. Without it we wouldn’t have had the Honest Trailer version which is the funniest trailer they ever did.

      • Not to mention Toriyama would not have returned to the franchise and made Battle of Gods, Resurrection F and Dragon Ball Super, so at least there were some positive consequences from there.

    • It’s on my list of media to watch.

      I do have to delve a bit into anime at some point. It is a cultural blindspot for me. Friends rave about Death Note, for example.

      And it does delve into the race thing, but in a way that feels like it really deserves a much greater focus. It’s clear the film is aware of the issue, but it seems wary of making “too big a thing of it”, if that makes sense. It deserves more credit than it has been given, but I still think it falls well-short of doing the subject justice. Which is kinda frustrating, because a lot of the criticism misses the nuance while being largely correct in terms of substance.

  5. I had watched the tv anime show only. So going into this movie, I was uncomfortable with the whitewashing. Most of the Asian American population in the US are living in Southern California, so it’s just speaks to Hollywood sleaze and laziness that they hired a popular white actress to play Motoko Kusanag, instead of getting someone practically on their front lawn. Some of the excuses I hear are pretty terrible, like “her body is modeled off a white person”. Well, Jo just can’t pull off Asian-in-a-White-Body, she has no accent or no ability to speak Japanese, and the scene with the Major and her Asian mother was extremely awkward.

    Overall, the movie was alright at first (loved the Blade Runner aesthetic), but once the zero-dimensional evil CEO showed up, the movie became forgettable. I mean, why bother kidnapping people to steal their brains? Aren’t there paraplegic people out there who would volunteer for such a program? How did Hanka Robotics last so long with a CEO is a murdering thug that commits such obvious crimes? He murders an employee with his own personal gun and blames it on someone else, how long does he think that lie will last? Especially in the future when everything probably comes with a camera? How would he even explain murdering the Major? She’s a government employee, there would be a paper trail. In fact, how did she become a government employee with a fake backstory? And companies can just land tanks in the lawless zone and blow things up? They don’t run background checks?

    The company can just abduct people to perform deadly experiments, and the government is fine with this, and even works with such organizations? Once the CEO has been charged with being an Enemy of the State, he thinks killing Chief Daisuke Aramaki will someone solve anything? This CEO can just send deathsquads to murder government agents no questions asked? Since Section 9 is an anti-terrorism agency, wouldn’t that just make Hanka Robotics look like a terrorist organization if they succeeded? Wouldn’t taking personally control of the Spider-tank just make him more culpable in any criminal investigations? Shouldn’t he try and avoid that? The movie doesn’t start with the idea that corporations/CEOs having way too much power, and yet, that’s how the movie ends.

    And the movie just sorts of forgets that Kuze is also committing murder and serous crimes. Sure he’s a victim, but that’s no reason to start mass murdering and using human bodies as a computer network. Should the fact that Hanka Robotics have one of their projects running around causing mass murder (one victim being the President of Africa) cause some repercussions on the company? Is the message of the movie an implication that all of Hong Kong will become a lawless zone in the future?

    • I just thought of something else, so what if the Major is accused of murder? In police custody, the CEO can’t touch her. Or was his plan “I can take it from here boys, I’ll be sure to bring her back for the trial, pinky swear!” and then just murder her? And again, he shot his own employee with his personal firearm. The gun has his fingerprints on it, there will be gunpowder reside on him, and the Major doesn’t even have fingerprints. It sure looks like the movie would resolve itself if the Major had just surrendered to the police and let the murder investigation find the CEO guilty.

      • Being honest, I have less of an issue with that, given that the world is an implied oligarchy. I have no doubt a suspect in custody could disappear, their paper work shuffled in the right direction and their records tweaked just enough. After all, the mortuary technician (who didn’t seem to be specifically assigned to the Major’s unit) seemed to be implicated in the corporate crimes.

    • Yep, the horror of what Kuze is doing tends to get glossed over. Which is a recurring issue with the film, I suppose. It’s a movie that definitely could have used more thought being put into how the pieces fit together.

    • After more time, more plot holes have emerged in my head. Wasn’t the “evil plan” just to develop advance technology to make money? Kuze has murdered all but one scientist that worked on this secret project. So presumably all knowledge of the project dealing with robotic bodies rests with Dr. Ouelet. But the evil CEO just murders her. He’s completely tanked his own project and chance for his company to profit from this highly dangerous research project, just solely because she didn’t follow his orders? What is the CEOs motivations here? He’s just caused a colossal mess because he can’t think 10 minutes ahead..

  6. I made a simple review on the movie too. And we almost have the same feeling about it. This is very thorough indeed.

    I felt unsatisfied on this and I have seen the anime series just last month.

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