When I heard Ghost in the Shell was being made into a live action movie by an American film company, a familiar dread and joy descended. I was a Japanese anime-obsessed kid, and still feel a close guardedness about these stories. I knew it could be magical – or it could be a disaster. Turns out it was a bit of both.
Ghost in the Shell is a 1989 manga (Japanese comic) by Masamune Shirow. Its first adaptation, a 1995 movie directed by the visionary Mamoru Oshii, is still considered an anime masterpiece. This new live action adaptation, directed by Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman), though technically based on Shirow’s manga, borrows much aesthetically from Oshii’s adaptation.
We follow the story of Major (Scarlett Johansson), a cyborg composed of a human brain (ghost) implanted into a synthetic body (shell). As part of Section 9 – an elite anti-terrorism bureau – Major investigates the assassination of the head of the robotics company that created her, leading her down a path to uncovering her own identity.
Ghost in the Shell is guilty of some ogrish oversimplifications. The original circular narrative has been pushed into an audience-friendly open-ended story. The complex politics and philosophical mindbending I had hoped for are lacking. The villain Kuze (Michael Carmen Pitt), is aesthetically great, though not very interesting. But these changes come at the expense of many aspects of the movie that are great.
New Port City, a place of gray skyscrapers and digital projections, is fully-realised, coherent and believable. Major’s character is well-explored, as is her sidekick Batou’s, played by the perfectly-cast Pilou Asbæk (Game of Thrones). Unfortunately, the rest of Section 9 hardly gets a look in except for when they need to show up for an important save-the-day moment.
Okay. I know we now need to talk about the white elephant clogging up every conversation on this movie: Scarlett Johansson.
The backlash against casting Johansson as Major was huge. The reaction was largely knee-jerk, and though perhaps valid on some levels, is more complex than a simple “Asian character turned white” clickbait headline.
Japan’s relationship with its own identity is unique. Much of its art – especially manga and anime – is informed by their status as a post-apocalyptic society (in their case, post-WWII). Ghost in the Shell is set in a fictional Japan where firm national identity is lost, or at least evolved. Major’s mind may be Japanese, but her body is post-Japan – a cultural blend built on a Japanese base, mirrored by the setting of New Port City.
Modern Japan has adopted elements of Western culture, including a trend of white Hollywood faces promoting beauty products. Ghost in the Shell projects this reality into the future. It doesn’t pretend that it’s fair because the multicultural makeup of the cast is never addressed or excused. Casting Johansson, in fact, goes some way to acknowledging the incorporation of Western beauty standards into a culturally changing Japan, which less than a century-and-a-half ago was still an isolated culture.
Johansson’s portrayal of a cyborg character is subtle and effective. Major’s expression in Oshii’s 1995 movie is eerily blank in many scenes, and there is a clear effort on Johansson’s part to emulate this. Ghost in the Shell calls attention to the irony that while Major’s body is often exposed, it is not a sexual object, nor is she a sexual character. I found this at once jarring and refreshing.
Before watching, I fully expected to have the novelty of a woman’s form thrust at me, but Sanders takes care to show us that though a body can be outwardly aesthetically attractive, we have the ability to disconnect desire from that body. Batou’s uncomfortable reaction to her undressed body is because he is reminded that his friend is a cyborg. The camera neither lingers on curves nor allows us to view Major as a submissive character. Her body is an extension of the identity problem that the movie deals with, albeit vaguely. That is not to say that sex and gender is ignored. Elements of the movie, like creeps in a digital strip club, robotic geishas, and men in charge for the most part, paint a picture of a society that is, like ours, a little bit broken.
There are problems with Ghost in the Shell. Absolutely. In many ways it was inevitably doomed, having to satisfy the hardcore fans as well as unfamiliar audiences. It had to navigate minefields of culture and gender politics.
For me though, in the end, it was joy that won out over dread. Seeing flesh-and-blood (or silicone-and-circuits) versions of these characters brought on a heavy dose of nostalgia. Like all good cyberpunk, it was a beautiful and broken piece of movie. If nothing else, it will promote discussions around the philosophy it glossed over and the controversies it created. And discussion is always a good thing.