Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Anime has the curious reputation, as a Japanese art, of rarely idealizing the look of Japan. Character designs range from the fair-skinned angles of a German’s washboard abs (you could grate lettuce on some of these guys) to the tanned fisherman’s gut beneath the teeth that strained Mickey Rooney’s lips in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Even the grandfathers of the medium, Osama Tezuka (“Astro Boy”) and Tatsuo Yoshida (“Speed Racer”), adapted Disney’s big-eyed waifs and rosy-lipped child heroes more readily than the people in their own families, when crafting the medium that would become the culture of anime.

I mention this to preface in reverse the claims that casting Scarlet Johansson in the new Ghost in the Shell constitutes “whitewashing.” I’m not saying that it doesn’t, but if it does, it runs deeper than American marketing in a medium that when left to its own cultural devices still draws heroes as wide-eyed blondes. What director Rupert Sanders and DreamWorks have done with Ghost in the Shell, if it is a cultural invasion, is more potent than catering to an international market (or their idea of it). The new film is not merely less of an adaptation than these Hollywood reboots normally are, but a narrative of totally reverse images, an inversion of its material to an extent that its entire symbolic framework has been hacked by the virus of three-act Western superhero stories. It’s the same as itself just to the extent of imitation. Its ghost is gone, leaving only the shell of its story for easy international consumption.

The introduction makes promises with the original anime’s music theme, and a use of CGI that takes its time with the hard-candy details. The creation of Major Kusanagi (Johansson) is inviting and mythical like a slow performance of porcelain dolls. Cinematographer Jess Hall makes an admirable effort to mine this neo-industrial stage for its wonderful uncanny awe, from that operatic opening to a faux-geisha disjointing her hip and arching up the wall like a spider against a light show. Some of Ghost in the Shellwould make Blade Runner proud. But through all this, Major is still stuck in the shell of a character that asks no complex questions of her spirit. Her simplicity actually serves better to mark the spirit of her new creators at DreamWorks.

The film’s new moral — “We cling to memories as if they define us, but they don’t. What we do is what defines us” — shows the studio’s hand forcibly turning Major into Batman, who I believe said something almost identical in Batman Begins. This statement is problematic in general (memories don’t oppose actions on any dichotomy I’m familiar with), but it helps me here by being the new film’s entire divergence in miniature.

The act of searching for one’s name, of fitting in with your friends, of being able to justify your existence by comparison to a norm, is the basis for the Western three-act superhero origin story, which Sander’s Ghost in the Shell communicates with a moral that could have been said, albeit less eloquently, by John Wayne. Reaction to adverse past experiences is how superheroes and cowboys discover who they are (often literally, as in, who their father is, or where they came from). Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell was not about a person struggling to understand their self and their role in society, but about the search for consciousness beyond society, in an automating, de-spiritualizing world.

Observe the rest of the cast around Major, demonstrating in their own way the lengths to which the new Ghost in the Shell will go to soften the uncanny effect of its original. Batou (Pilou Asbæk), we are informed, is an enhanced human, not her questionably mortal cyborg partner. Togusa (Ng Chin Han) says quite clearly that he’s mostly human and proud of it. Only Dr. Dahlin (Anamaria Marinca) has anything like the oppressive uncertainty of the original, by appearing human and then challenging the limits of that definition with her visor-like removable eyes. Beat Takeshi Kitano is a somewhat racially alleviating presence, but in his few scenes he elevates Ghost in the Shell more with his self-serious pseudo-Western cowboy intensity, than his epicanthic eyes.

The original villain too had a kind of sly omnipotence that challenged your ideas of individuality and social identity. Here, played by Michael Pitt, he’s a supervillain in black cloak and impudent snarl who will certainly, at some point, demand revenge for something stolen from him by a big company. He confuses Major with questions of her literal identity, but that’s because she’s a vulnerable human merely playacting as a robot. She comes to remember another “herself,” just as Jason Bourne and Inspector Gadget do. But she never wonders what machines are, or what a spirit is, or whether all of this can be transcended. The clumsy memory of Oshii’s original gave the Wachowski Brothers every good idea they had for The Matrix. This Ghost in the Shell could only inspire another Robocop sequel.

This colonization of Oshii’s narrative by a safe and acceptably Western premise may be born of no greater malice than box office appeal. In the face of the controversy surrounding this film’s aesthetic, I offer the possibility that it should be more offensive to the West than to the East, by supposing that there can be no great understanding and no transcendent dimension in a work that must sell to “stupid” American superhero junkies who will only watch white people. Of course, this isn’t true (the film flopped with critics and audiences), but who Ghost in the Shell is “against” is as beside the point as the color of the protagonist. What we should rather observe is the colonization of a highly spiritual narrative by the virus of sameness, to take a radically uncanny puppet show that results in a rising-above-the-earth and use its elements, with enough stylistic accuracy to hide the whole scheme from view, to make a story about justifying nostalgia to one’s hometown.

The oddest thing about this movie is how artistically faithful it is to material that it has undermined spiritually and philosophically so as to destroy it, such that it could not have done better with the greatest malice. I doubt Sanders detects the true irony of speaking in complex terms without including any of their essence, and including the words “ghost” and “shell” so frequently in the script that to repeat them again to demonstrate the irony would be itself a disservice. Even those who have learned to tread the offenses of the Hollywood machine must view Ghost in the Shell at an academic distance that verges very nearly to cynicism, to treat something so pretentious as nothing more than a lightshow across a shapely bum (which Johansson hefts at the part with admirable enthusiasm, both cheeks forward). But it doesn’t deserve her, being unfaithful to the point of inversion.

It is unique only in forcefully adapting its story to its idea of sameness, so much that I’m going to call that its aesthetic.

Cast & Crew

Rupert Sanders

Shirow Masamune (based on the comic “The Ghost in the Shell by)
Jamie Moss (screenplay by)
William Wheeler (screenplay by)
Ehren Kruger (screenplay by)
Major Scarlett Johansson
Batou Pilou Asbæk
Aramaki (as ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano) Takeshi Kitano
Dr. Ouelet Juliette Binoche
Kuze (as Michael Carmen Pitt) Michael Pitt
Togusa Chin Han
Ladriya Danusia Samal
Ishikawa Lasarus Ratuere
Saito Yutaka Izumihara
Borma Tawanda Manyimo
Cutter Peter Ferdinando
Dr. Dahlin Anamaria Marinca

Official Trailer

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