Ghost In The Shell has – for the most part – inspired many a sci-fi films in both Japan and Hollywood and is virtually renowned for its innovation in both the anime and film worlds from it debuted in 1995.
So when Paramount announced they would be giving the anime its first live-action adaptation, we were all mixed-up inside. Never mind the controversy, which I felt was beefed up even worse by knee-jerk reactionaries and – dare I say – some race-baiting by some fans and the creators alike. But can you blame us?
I made a special effort to approach Ghost In The Shell with a blank RAM and see what Rupert Sanders film would have to offer in ways of innovation yet homage to the original GITS film.
After leaving the cinema, there were a few moments I reflected on with goose-pimply chills. The other emotions were a bit more of wonder why certain decisions were made that differed slightly from the original. And on further analysis, my conclusions for these decisions reveal something quite telling.
So without further adieu, let’s deep-dive into this thermoptic beauty. With your consent, of course.
A human mind infused in a cybernetic ‘robot’ body. The first of her kind. Major serves as a weapon and shield in the elite Section 9, a institution charged with investigating cyber crimes. And the death of foreign dignities and top ranking Hanka officials by a hacker known as Kuze leads Major on the hunt for the terrorist. However upon coming face to face with Kuze, she finds both their fractured past are linked and Hanka – the company that built them – is at the root of their distorted memories. And she must piece her memories together to find her truth.
As a narrative goes, it’s pretty solid. But I feel Michael Pitt‘s Kuze had more potential than he was used for. Kuze was presented to fans as a version of The Laughing Man from GITS: Stand Alone Complex. So this means he was to be a bad ass hacker. Who could hack the mind of a garbage man, but couldn’t get to Hanka officials in the same way. Scratch that. Cyber Terrorism, of Kuze’s implied calibre, would include advanced tactics of warfare to unravel and chip away at Hanka.
We’re talking stock market manipulation, hacking and leaking of damning documents, hacking people to do your bidding, including killing Hanka officials. This continued use of others to destroy Hanka from the inside out would seem more in line with what Kuze could have been. So when Major, being a cybernetic organism herself, sees this wanton manipulation of people like her, she’d be angered and motivated enough to take Kuze out with gusto. Classic projection and transference. If it is so easy to manipulate a cyber-enhanced person, can Major claim to be an independent sentient human or a mere tool?
And when we called Ghost In The Shell a beauty, we were not lying. The cityscape coming up to Major atop the skyscraper in the “Jump” scene was pretty much the only scene that put the 3D IMAX setup to good use. Projection technology in this universe produced a haze of neon ads that, though didn’t scream neo-Tokyo as much as I thought it would, felt particular stunning and well-designed. There was a bit of repetition with these graphics in other scenes, but the cityscape – at night in particular – made for an immersive futuristic landscape where the line between man and ‘robot’ is definitively blurred.
Concept Artists did justice to the overall character design they had domain over and visually there were some arresting scenes. From the network of human monk-like minds built by Kuze to the visual representation of
Motoko’s Major’s deep-dive. Though that Water fight felt a bit green screen-y compared to everything else.
And can we all get a little emotional seeing Major rip the top of that tank off? The flexing of the back as machine sinews ripped to her crying out for Kuze after the headshot? Awesome. But me thinks Kuze built himself a network to upload his essence up to. Which begs one to wonder, was Kuze’s aim to find the truth of what Hanka took from him, get revenge on Hanka or buy enough time to build a network robust enough to house the upload of his being on the interweb? All three. Lot to juggle.
The Geishas were also a nice visual touch. Whether this was done unintentionally or to comment on the fetishism of Japanese culture by the West is still anyones guess. In any case, peoples concerns never stemmed from the visual aspects of this GITS film.
Race is still an issue. In a post-Donald Trump and Brexit world? Poppy-cock. But it seems it’s something we’ll have to tackle. It’s easier and better done here than in the real world anyway. Scarlett Johansson got cast as Major with a moan and groan from the interweb that usually brought yay and naysayers from all corners. And I’ve seen all the arguments:
“ScarJo is a famous actress, they need her to sell the movie”
“There are tons of famous Japanese actors that could have sold the character more”
“You guys weren’t complaining when they cast Michael B. Jordan in Fantastic Four”
So, without ruffling too many feathers (fuck that, let’s ruffle), here’s the deal. Scar Jo did her job. Posture was a bit weird at times. Felt like she moved her mouth and cheeks an iota too much for the little dialogue she’d say in certain scenes. But she did what was expected. Quite the emotive cybernetic human she is.
But let’s not pretend for one second that there isn’t a custom in Hollywood for whitewashing. And it becomes particularly irksome when the argument erects the weak self-defence mechanism that claims it’s Scar Jo’s fame, not whiteness that was the ultimate decision for being chosen. When her fame is the fruit of a system that for decades made selective, racially-motivated decisions that allowed some to rise to the top and others to wade into oblivion.
From Hattie McDaniel being banned from entering the Oscars to Bruce Lee’s frustration with Hollywood to #OscarsSoWhite. All still relevant issues.
So when a film like Ghost In The Shell, a piece of world cinema that portrayed a neo-Japan on the brink of an identity crisis as man and machine fused, an ode to the narrative and people that inspired the Matrix should be one of those ultimate necessities and could have been achieved in many ways.
And in some ways it has been through casting, albeit of secondary characters. Takeshi Kitano’s Aramaki was slightly offsetting as I likened him to the mental might of Section 9 who had powerful connections to Japan’s upper echelon. But seeing him get down and dirty with a badass revolver was an acquired taste… a taste which I ended up loving in the end. Emptied spent shells from the gun barrel like a boss!
I particularly like Pilou Asbæk’s Batou, look and acting-wise. And the overall Section 9, minus Togusa. We still love you, Ng Chin Han, but I saw you fitting more so on the “HANKA” side of things. But as a creator and fan, I’d have at least tried to keep the main character as she was originally conceived. If the Ghost In The Shell anime was not so intrinsically-tied to a nation’s identity, with a narrative being executed in – albeit – Japan, then swapping out all the characters for different races and genders wouldn’t be a major issue.
Maybe it’s too much to ask whoever has a bit of clout to take a calculated risk and place a little faith in the power of the narrative and a talented actor who just so happens to not be super-famous. Because ultimately, all decisions depend on the creator’s motive and intent. And that is where we begin to see this polaroid picture has a few phantoms of its own.
The Ghost In The Shell anime was an existential minefield. Motoko’s long monologue on the boat after her deep sea dive had us wrestle with the idea of a human soul.
Does one’s “ghost” really exist or is it something we told ourselves to feel unique?
If it is real, can it be quantified?
Does having a synthetic body mean the soul no longer can truly exist within it? Does it erode whenever you add a new part, replace an old one, transfer you mind and thoughts like data?
And if people could literally take control of you, wipe everything that makes you you and make you do things against your will and nature, how can one claim a soul has any value if individuality is but a fleeting thing that is a hack away from being manipulated, tarnished or destroyed?
This Ghost in the Shell, however, does not question whether the ‘Ghost’ is real or not. Quantifiable or an imagining. Major has her original brain in her new synthetic body. The Ghost here is more to do with her thought and sentient independence than it has to do with her soul.
Major’s brain and her synthetic body are merged, and she takes a solution that ensures her brain doesn’t reject her body. A nice touch that was not explained to us right away. Thanks for making us wait for it and not give us the CSI-explain-everything-treatment.
The existential dilemma is not one of the soul and whether it exists or could exist in a Frankenstein-assembly of a cybernetic body and human brain. It is about sentient thought, the power of the mind and the action it is a precursor to. The instances of Major giving consent to certain actions done to her and in her name speaks to the mind being the highest authority of the body.
After all, “action is humanity’s virtue”. A distinction that was illustrated in the text on screen that introduced us to the neo-Japan. This brave new world. Which happens to not be too brave at all. As this choice of switching the existential musings from the “soul” to “thought’ is a calculative decision which has very far-reaching consequences…
The distinction of “ghost”, having the meaning switch selectively from “soul” to “thought and free will”, on closer inspection is by no coincidence or accident.
In Ghost In The Shell, Major is haunted by a glitch of a burnt out temple image, which she first sees as a flaw in her code. But upon meeting Kuze, who has the same temple image branded on his skin, we begin to realise this glitchy simulacrum holds greater significance for both Kuze and Major. It is a memory of an eroded past. The one thing that could not be fully deleted from Hanka’s implantation of false memories. So Major spends the first half of the film in search of Kuze (why she is so blood-hot hungry for his death as opposed to his capture is a whole other issue).
But in the plot point that brings Kuze and Major together face-to-face, Major sees that there pasts are connected, and Hanka is the root. So Major goes on the hunt for the truth. And we discover Major is not the first brain-implanted cybernetic hybrid, but the recent success in a line of failed experiments. And her memories of her and refugee parents drowning out at sea at the hands of terrorists are false memories given to her by Hanka. A false memory to gaud her into fighting terrorists for the government. Surely has no topical reference to the current refugee crisis that is the fault of both terrorists and Anglo-hegemonic interference in precarious regions.
Finding out her past was a lie, Major confronts guilt-ridden chief scientist at Hanka Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) who ultimately gives Major a key to her true past. Major, after escaping Hanka cooperation travels to an apartment where a Japanese woman speaks of her daughter who was a runaway and had a penchant for being anti-establishment. Motoko. Major’s true name and past. Major was face to face with her mother.
But what perplexed us is this. Major risks all to save Kuze in the end from the Spider Tank. Kuze tells Major to join him in this celestial network away from the world that betrayed and used her. And she opts out. Because she belonged in this present world. But why did she come to that decision? It was never about what her memories revealed to her, but rather it was Major coming to the decision that her memories were no longer important.
The “soul” and “memories” connote connections to the past. Something to cling to. Identity. Race. Culture. The “mind”, “free-will” and “sentience” connote the present and ultimately the future. Life in the now. This is where Scar-Jo’s Major can only exist in Ghost In The Shell‘s neo-Japan.
And that is the ugliest part of this film. The creative, subtle yet crude way they chose to fry and reboot the idea of Major Motoko Kunasagi. It first begins outside the constructs of the narrative. The co-sign and particular casting options. But the true work begins within the narrative.
Nevermind Japanese people on mass are robots or gruesome black-teethed, unnaturally-skinned amalgamations of poor cybernetic bodies. They were baddies, and the design was cool for what they were. Hell, forget the fact we never truly refer to Scar Jo’s character as anything other than “Major”. But what do we see of Motoko Kusanagi? The true Motoko Kusanagi? The one who was a rebel and anti-establishment and protested with her runaway brothers and sisters in a temple-like structure in the outskirts of the main city? A glitchy, blurry-faced memory. And a name engraved on a tomb stone. Because her past is irrelevant despite her spending half the movie in search of it. Well, in search of the truth by way of her memories. Motoko’s Japanese heritage is also irrelevant. The name – obsolete.
If you knew your whole life was a lie, that you’ve had your past and history stolen and then you found out the truth… wouldn’t you feel compelled to make a return to that past, in some way or the other. To reconnect with that piece of your missing self? And with Major’s resources in Section 9, wouldn’t she want to be close to how she looked like before the lies and betrayal?
Reconnecting with her mother is a start. But the nail in the coffin figuratively was Major and her mother of a time past being at Motoko’s grave. A solitary gravestone with the name Motoko Kunasagi engraved stands as the only testament of the original Motoko. And Major tells the mother that she no longer has to come back to this cemetery. One could see that as Major saying that Motoko is alive within her. But that isn’t it. Remember this GITS is not about the soul. Major doesn’t readopt her true name after discovering her past. What that grave grave scene represented was the death of the name Motoko Kusanagi, and any direct connection to Japanese culture and spirit it conjures up in the viewers’ minds.
“Action is humanity’s virtue”. What we do in the now. It has nothing to do with one’s past, culture or history in this Ghost In The Shell. The very things that tie us to a specific piece of land in this brave new world. The things that spur individuality but commonality amongst the different yet connected peoples. We all have our culture. It’s being able to accept the differences and connect on the similarities is what truly define’s humanity’s virtue.
Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell manga and anime is like a huge G-spot. Hit it from any angle long enough, you’re bound to get great results. And while Ghost In The Shell did far better than one could ever hope for for a Hollywood adaptation, the soul of the original is lost in translation. Not entirely a Ghost-less shell. But there is some chemical erosion.
Kuze’s ‘terrorist’ acts barely peaked anything ominous on the “nationwide” arena, so his impact did not reach its full potential in my opinion. Scarlett Johansson had brief moments of shine despite being a softer yet insubordinate Major. Like Aramaki would have shut that shit down if she disobeyed a direct order time and again in the anime. Hell, who really was in charge of Section 9?
In the end, the film did take cues from the original and tried to build a story that was unique yet somewhat removed from the GITS of 1995.
The discerning tibetan bell-like chimes were replaced with electronic music (not necessarily a criticism) and that emotive-evoking quintessential intro music used in the anime was only good for the credits. The merger of a more traditional and electronic sound design would have spoke volumes to the duality interwoven throughout the narrative, i.e. man and machine.
Ultimately, it all boils down to this – can the Soul of the original survive when placed in a new shell of a live-action adaption? Potentially, yes. But in this instance, there was a lot of corrosion that could not be ignored.