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I’m a huge fan of Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime adaptation of Masamun Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell. That film was iconic – influencing movies such as The Matrix (where do you think they got the ‘digital rain’ from?), I, Robot, Minority Report and more. Critics continue to rave about it. Perhaps, then, it was always going to be a hard task to review a Hollywood rendition. I just wasn’t prepared for how hard it would be.
Part of the appeal of the original Ghost in the Shell was its protagonist: Major Motoko Kusanagi. She was quietly feminist (if you ignore her oddly flesh-coloured catsuit) and truly transhumanist. Moreover, the film’s subject matter (sex-less beings merging in cyberspace in order to reproduce without the usual human anatomy) seemed, to me, profoundly queer – and is more topical now than ever. Yet the style-over-substance Hollywood adaptation by Rupert Sanders takes everything that was original about GITS, guts it, and repackages it using an overly familiar action formula.
In the first GITS movie, Kusanagi floats to the surface and towards her reflection (in this case, presaging her union with the Puppet Master, who sees itself reflected in her). She hears whispers in her ghost. It’s never quite clear whether she’s speaking or something else is speaking through her. This is an example of the subtle way in which philosophy and cyber-existentialism are woven throughout the film, but also of the way in which the film keeps you guessing.
Another example is a section in the film that sweeps through the city, revealing a number of traditional practices jostling alongside futuristic ones, and a blankly staring Kusanagi detached from all of it. She’s a bystander in her own city and among her own species. It’s quite clear she’s leaving the human race behind. There’s a speculative tone that carries you through the film even when it’s quiet and really quite still. It has action sequences, but on rewatching these, it’s surprising how few there are. The film doesn’t need to rely on explosions or loud noises. It’s a film about hybridity and evolution more than it’s about girls with big guns.
Kusanagi is fascinating not because she is consumed with a desire to define herself – nor because she’s a kickass woman (although she is this, as well). In fact, we know very little about her or her background, and that’s part of what attracts us to her. She is frequently dehumanised in front of us – such as when we see her built from the inside out in the opening credits. We are encouraged to see her not as a sexualised, gendered body but as a machine that can think and can wonder.
She is the antithesis of Hollywood solipsism in that she literally seeks to merge with another being. It’s no surprise, then, that Hollywood got this movie so wrong.
First of all, we’ll have to address the white elephant in the room – even if only briefly. The claims of white-washing starting early in the production of the film, and weren’t helped by claims that the studio was considering applying digital yellow-face to the actor (whether that was true or not). The defences made about the casting largely miss the point.
Lots of people mention that the Major has a generic shell – which is true. But that shell has been presented using Japanese conventions, not Western ones. There’s evidence in the comics and the original films that the Major’s shell looks Asian. For example, the ‘white’ body abducted by the Puppet Master in the original movie isn’t actually blond or light-skinned. It’s covered in the same protective ‘skin’ that Kusanagi is in the opening sequence of the film, where she too had apparently light skin and blond hair until it flaked off. Therefore, it’s not evidence of her whiteness but of her generic-ness.
That said, could I have looked past this in an otherwise great film? Sure. I loved Mad Max: Fury Road, which is also somewhat white (save a couple of mixed race women and a few black men in the crowd scenes). That said, Fury Road at least had a point with its white predominance: the villains represent a very monstrous, degenerate form of white patriarchal society. By painting their skins white and invoking the Viking afterlife, they’re reminding us of the racist mythology of both the Nazis and neo-Nazis.
NuGITS certainly could have done something with its casting. We could have seen Japanese Kusanagi from the beginning, for example, so that this doesn’t become a laboured plot point. As it was, having Scarlet Johansson realise she’s secretly an Asian woman inside, and so late in the game, seemed like an own-goal. It didn’t feel authentic, drew undue attention to itself, and only highlighted the fact that every major role in the film is played by a white person. (Most of the speaking parts are white. When a robo-prostitute is fetishised by ScarJo in a brothel, she’s mixed race to complete her ‘othering’. Honestly, the film couldn’t have failed harder in this regard if it had tried.)
It felt like that part of the story had been tacked on to address complaints about the casting, even if that wasn’t actually the case. By doing so, it makes the film even more uncomfortable than it had to be. Compare it to the far cleverer Get Out – where white brains are put into African-American bodies – and GITS fails hard.
Now that that’s out of the way, though, we can get to the other issues with the film. In terms of plot and themes, the movie is far less nuanced than any of the anime adaptations. There’s a very Hollywood focus on ‘discovering yourself’, whereas the first movie did the opposite: literally focussing on the Major’s unconscious quest to leave her old self behind and become something new. Shoehorning stereotypical Hollywood themes into a Japanese story doesn’t really work, and leaves the whole feeling rather cheapened and clunky as a result.
Perhaps an American film can’t cope with the same themes – but, as I said earlier, there’s plenty else to explore. Transhumanist asexual reproduction, for instance, is a very topical theme. In an age where we’re more connected than ever, and where we’re challenging notions of gender and essentialism, Ghost in the Shell should have been this generation’s Blade Runner. Instead, it was Robocop-meets-Bourne.
Okay, so what are the positives?
The film is mostly attractive. It tries to make a unique urban landscape for itself, even if it isn’t always successful. It has some stunning scenery, creepy sex-bots and enough visual Orientalism to make it feel like more than just a rehash of every cyberpunk movie ever. If the plot had matched the impressive look of the film, it could have been wonderful.
It also offers plenty of nods to the original movie – literally copying some scenes almost exactly from the anime – but the comparisons aren’t always favourable. The characterisation is mostly cookie-cutter, and the villain a nonentity, but there are gestures towards a larger and richer world that was just beyond the director’s grasp.
Ghost in the Shell could have been interesting. In fact, it could have been sublime. I hoped it would be good, cheesy fun (an Avengers, perhaps, or at least one of the earlier Transformers movies). Instead, it feels like it’s going through the motions.
Let’s not hold our breath for that Akira adaptation.