I have been a fan of Ghost in the Shell for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I loved the original film for its visuals, its attitude, how gritty it was, and how it contrasted with Western animation. The subsequent films and TV series made my home life very enjoyable as an adolescent, with each offering something different while forming part of a whole. As I studied literature and philosophy as an adult, I learned to appreciate the franchise even more with its questioning of identity, ontology, gender, mind and body, capitalism, technology and ethics in a post-human, digital world.
In other words, I have grown up with Ghost in the Shell and its instalments. As I have grown and learned, I have seen things in it that I didn’t notice before. I could even say that it has helped shape the person that I am now.
More broadly, Ghost in the Shell (1995, based on the manga by Masamune Shirow) has enjoyed a swift progression from cult hit to cinema classic. It has received widespread acclaim from critics and has gone on to inspire other films such as The Matrix and AI: Artificial Intelligence. It has earned its reputation.
So, when I heard that there was a live-action adaptation in the works, I was curious to see how it would turn out. How would this Japanese anime classic transition to American live-action?
Unfortunately, there has not been much in the way of fanfare leading up to the film’s release. Ghost in the Shell (2017) has been subject to torrents of derision for its whitewashing of the characters, particularly the protagonist Motoko Kusanagi (played Scarlett Johansson and often referred to as ‘the Major’), originally Japanese in the manga and anime. Right from the start, expectations were low.
I just want to be clear on one thing: I am not putting this film on trial. I’m not the type of fan who walks away from an adaptation, scoffing, ‘Well, the original was better.’ If anything, I try to see an adaptation as being a response, a window rather than a mirror. Comparisons will be made with the original, but I will also examine the film in its own right. It is with this mentality that I have approached this live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell.
Like the original, this adaptation (directed by Rupert Sanders) depicts the closing gap between humans and machines in the not-so-distant future and follows the Major – a special police unit leader and highly skilled hacker and combatant – whose brain has been placed in a cyborg body. A hybrid of organism and machine, she leads her unit against various cyber-criminals and terrorists that threaten the safety of the film’s vast, sprawling metropolitan environment.
This adaptation certainly has its highlights. Right from the start, the film is a visual marvel. Its neon colour palette is the driving force behind the overall sci-fi aesthetic and taps right into the film’s mood. What’s more interesting was the setting itself, and how it has been figured in terms of its cultural identity. We have a city that is not inherently Japanese or American, or anything in particular. The setting in this adaptation is a blend of cultures and identities, reminiscent of Hong Kong and Shanghai, perhaps indicative of a likely globalised future.
The visuals are a feast, but we have seen them too many times. Blade Runner, The Matrix, Minority Report and many others have all been given this exaggerated neon-future aesthetic. Moreover, the aesthetic qualities are unleavened by the characters and plot. Absent are the quirks, eccentricities and moral nihilism of those who play the foils, such as the male cyborg Batou (Pilou Asbæk), Chief Daisuke Aramaki (‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano) and the all-too-human Togusa (Ng Chin Han). What we have here is a potentially great ensemble merely going through the motions.
The plot isn’t much better. What could have been fertile ground for themes such as identity and gender is little more than a buffer for the action, engineered to cram in as many chases and gunfights as possible. The themes are present in the story, kind of. The Major’s exploration of her identity only serves as a basic premise, rather than a prominent theme signposted throughout the story.
Getting back to the characters, the whitewashing of the film has drawn a huge backlash (though the cast is largely international and multiracial), with the decision to cast Scarlett Johansson polarising fans on both sides of the Pacific. The decision to edit her face digitally in order to appear ‘Asian’ is one that I don’t understand, but I don’t blame her for this adaptation’s shortcomings. Her performance was acrobatic, in congruence with the film’s emphasis on the visual. She wasn’t brilliant, but it’s hardly fair to pin this film’s shortcomings on Johansson alone.
[Aside: To be blunt, I’d like to see what Johansson could do with a better script in general, but that’s neither here nor there.]
It is true that concessions need to be made with adaptations, and I wasn’t expecting a live-action approximation of the animated films. However, if you’re going to import a currently-existing franchise with legions of fans and critics, you could at least maintain the most crucial aspects that gave the original its essence, its raison d’être.
Given how this live-action adaptation has turned out, I have to ask: where exactly were they going with it? What is it supposed to be about? Is it about Ghost in the Shell, or the person directing it? Frankly, I would have appreciated it more if it was just plain terrible, but it’s not even that. It is a film seemingly trapped in East-West adaptation limbo, not really going anywhere in a hurry.
For all its flaws, this adaptation wasn’t entirely bad. It wasn’t necessarily good, either. It paints a pretty picture, but one we’ve seen too many times. The characters are present, but they’re not really ‘there.’ Philosophical ideas and issues are raised, but only on a superficial level. I say all of this in the contexts of Ghost in the Shell as a film in itself and in comparison to its animated predecessors. It is cinematic equivalent to beige. Ironic, considering the exaggerated colour palette of the film.
I don’t really know what else to say.