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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.