The Ghost in the Johansson

(Zero spoilers below)

I knew nothing of anime before I saw the original Ghost in the Shell, directed by Mamoru Oshii. The only exposure I had had was Dragon Ball Z right after school, on the huge flickering TV we had at boarding school. It was something we both ridiculed and loved, as with many things at that age.

I thought I’d be watching a movie, but what happened was, I got exposed to a wide landscape of novelty. On the subject of what an animated movie can be, but also what can happen if said movie has a philosophical underpinning on the scale of Ghost in the Shell.

I thought GitS would be representative of all Japanese animation, but I was left thoroughly disappointed. Even the movie it gets put in the same box with, namely ‘Akira’, would not even at its greatest moments, end where the Ghost in the Shell universe begins.

My interest was piqued from day one but over the years, as more GitS movies and series came out that arguably stood in the first movie’s shadow, I became a die-hard fan to the point where I started doing research on the historical and cultural background, and tried to trace the references therein.

You can imagine then, perhaps, that when it was announced that Hollywood would be making a live-action adaptation, my emotions went all over the place. Mostly down, in fact, when Scarlett Johansson was revealed to be taking up the lead role of Motoko Kusanagi.

Rarely had I needed a God to pray to as badly as I did then.
Suck on that bit of sacrilege.

Fast-forward to my ass in a comfortable theater seat, kicking back and taking in Rupert Sanders’ (known from forgettable tosh like ‘Snow White and the Huntsman’) interpretation of a cult classic.

The fact that I enjoyed it alone nearly knocked me out of my chair. And in spite of what critics might say, I really did- Enjoy it, I mean. Despite Johansson’s poor choice in movies to cast, despite the monster that is Hollywood, despite Sanders’ lacking vision, against all odds, I thought the movie was fantastic.

First of fucking all, they left out the kissing scene that they put in the trailer. I kid you not, there was a scene where the supposedly asexual (though not fully androgynous) military android Motoko made out with a prostitute, that they put in the trailer but not in the theater version. I managed to repress a little victory clap when the camera cut away without it ever happening. If anything would destroy everything she represents, it would be lesbian smooching.

What did annoy me about the storyline is the many ways in which the Major got her ass handed to her. After a while it began to look like she was acting as little more than cannon fodder, and after near-death experience #3 there was little of Motoko Kusanagi’s previously undying professionalism left.

I think I’ll leave my thoughts on the plot there because if you’re anything like me, you do not want this movie spoiled before you go see it.

So how does one transfer a concept this complicated, over the bridge, from one vastly different culture into another, without it looking awkward?
The unique solution they came up with, is to reference the original works to the point where they are shot-for-shot parroting the anime. What appeared to be more than half of the scenes were identical, if not similar, to various scenes in the original movies and series. If they weren’t, they borrowed concepts like robotic geishas or Basset hounds in about every single take.

While a teeny tiny part of me wanted to be furious about them ripping off the thing they were trying to imitate, I couldn’t help but feel overjoyed with every nod, every wink to Oshii.

And holy shit, who could be mad when the scenes in question just looked so incredible.

The fight in the shallow canal, the dive in the wetsuit, the tank (oh my god the tank), to see the admittedly aged animation come to life so vividly was a headrush unlike any other. I applaud the director of photography, the CGI animators and the prop builders because the end result looked literally breathtaking.

As usual, the adaption from east to west came with a great deal of whitewashing. Originally Japanese characters were shamelessly turned Caucasian (the transfer to an android body used as an excuse). The makers did compensate somewhat though, by for example, adding a black woman on the team (no black main characters exist in the original and very few women) and having the previously distinctly western looking Togusa be played by a Singaporean (yes I looked that up) actor.

It’s ironic (though not necessarily wrong) that this movie would get this type of criticism because the very concept of a human mind in an artificial body (aka the ghost in the shell) draws huge question marks with anything and everything related to identity, including race, gender, sexual orientation and to some extent, nationality. If given the chance to be anything, where would humanity take it?

What I love about the original but which was sadly somewhat missing from the remake, was the brutal, complete disregard of ethical considerations before getting to the point where mind and machine merge fully. Instead the makers skip to and start at the point of near-completion and then try to unravel what complications might arise. Not moral ones, but technical ones.

It might not be fully obvious, but when you, upon exiting the theater, pause to think about who the real bad guys of the new movie were, you might conclude that it did actually have a big moralistic message regarding the man-machine interface. We western crowd need that sort of message in our movie for it to be a success, sadly. Where the Japanese fearlessly went beyond, we still need that confirmation that our fears for a robotized society are justified. Again: Ironic for a movie of this kind to actually do that.

All things considered, the new GitS was, as expected, a dumbed-down version of the original. That much was unavoidable. But what it lost in depth and intelligence, it made up for with its mind-blowing cinematography and unique approach to the Americanization of Japanese culture. This remake is to the anime what Watchmen was to the comic, and what Tenacious D’s lyrics were to the greatest song in the world:

A tribute.

I salute you, cast and crew. Despite its shortcomings, I give this movie a solid 8/10, 3 points of which go to visual effects alone. I suggest you go see this movie tomorrow. In fact, I think I might, too.

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