After an avalanche of controversy about whitewashing and cultural appropriation, the live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell is finally here. Does the film capture the mystique of the manga and anime it is based on or does it successfully forge its own path?
In a future Tokyo, where thousands are enhanced in some way by cybernetics, Major (Scarlett Johansson) is the first of her kind – a human brain/consciousness, or “ghost,” encased in a robotic body, or “shell.” For all intents and purposes, she looks human, but she is not and is having trouble remembering her life prior to the terrorist attack that led to her second existence. Major is part of the government anti-terrorist organization, Section 9, which is headed up by Aramaki (“Beat” Takeshi Kitano). They are investigating a skilled hacker named Kuze (Michael Pitt), who is taking control of people with cybernetics and using them to assassinate targets associated with robotics company Hanka. Along with her partner, Batou (Pilou Asbæk), Major tries to solve the mystery of Kuze and her own past.
If you’re a fan of Director Mamoru Oshii‘s 1995 anime adaptation of Masamune Shirow‘s manga, you might have read that plot summary above and thought, “That’s not Ghost in the Shell!” It’s close, but not quite the same thing. Of course, one could argue, “That’s why it’s called an adaptation.” It’s a reimagining of a classic for a different audience. It’s also probably why a lot of the philosophical themes of the anime are missing from this adaptation. Instead, the story becomes a kind of Bourne/Robocop pastiche as opposed to dealing with the heavier themes that American audiences don’t like dealing with in their action films. Director Rupert Sanders and his team of three screenwriters tease that they’ll be answering the “What is human” question, but the film quickly devolves into Major’s search for her past, so the story becomes far less of “What am I” and much more of “Who am I.” Of course, by doing this, it makes the film far inferior to the anime, but also makes it feel more like a retread of earlier, better films. The action is very good and the visuals are absolutely stunning, but the story has been done before. So, what results is a decent action movie that has a pedestrian script and is shackled by its PG-13 rating.
Now, let’s talk about the controversy surrounding this film. Obviously, the story takes place in Japan and the original character in the anime/manga is Japanese, but the studio and director cast white bread Scarlett Johansson in the part. Why? Well, while it would have been nice to see a Japanese actress in the role such as Tao Okamoto or Rinko Kikuchi, this is film being directed mainly at American audiences, so it makes sense to cast an American actress who has had box office success domestically (notice how the Japanese actresses I mentioned were in big American films such as The Wolverine and Pacific Rim. I just don’t know a ton of Japanese actresses, but that’s a separate discussion). Some argue that because Major’s body is robotic, she can technically look any way she wants, which is actually something explored at the end of the anime. However, the argument gets a little murkier in this film where it is revealed (spoilers, I guess) that Major was indeed a Japanese woman in her previous life, so why make her a white woman as a robot? You could argue that the main players at Hanka are also white, so they made Major in their image, but that brings up another question: Why are there so many damn white people living and working in this future Japan anyway? So, it’s a complicated argument, but the final answer is: money. The studios thought they would make more money with Johansson in the role and it’s a gamble that, at least in America, hasn’t paid off for them yet. Again, I would have loved to have seen a Japanese actress in the role, but I’m pragmatic enough to understand why the studio cast the film the way they did. They wanted as much name recognition on this thing as they could get, because even though anime is wildly popular in the States, it’s still kind of a niche thing when considering the reach of wide release films.
The cast does a decent job here, but as I stated above, the script doesn’t do them a whole lot of favors. Johansson definitely plays the role as a woman uncomfortable in her own body, but I felt she was a bit too robotic in her delivery. Major still has a human brain, so while she might feel like an alien, a little more personality wouldn’t have hurt. Hell, the operating system she played in Her had more warmth and that character was literally a computer program. I liked Asbæk a lot as Batou, but I also really liked the character from the anime. He looks a hell of a lot like the animated character and he plays him well. “Beat” Takeshi is great here. He has a great presence that can’t be ignored, like you know there’s a total badass simmering under his calm demeanor. Peter Ferdinando is fine as Cutter, the head of Hanka, but his motivations are never totally clear. I’m not sure why they didn’t just steal the motivations from Section 6 in the anime, but who knows. Juliette Binoche is very good as the scientist who serves as Major’s mother figure throughout the film and while it was great to see Chin Han as Togusa, I was sad to see the character’s role reduced from the anime.
Overall, 2017’s version of Ghost in the Shell is fine. It’s the result of what happens when studios take something people love and try to make it for the masses. It could have been much, much worse, but it’s a decent action flick that won’t hurt your brain too much, while the anime and manga it’s based on will make you think much more.