In this piece, I deep-dive on several facets of the Ghost in the Shell universe and thoroughly discuss the live-action movie. Read at your own risk.
Whenever a movie is widely considered a critically-acclaimed classic, I never fail to find it underwhelming the first time I view it. Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey and, most recently, 1995’s Ghost in the Shell have all fallen victim. Part of it has to do with hearing over and over and over from every source that these movies are the best movies, which sets my expectations unrealistically high. The other part stems from my white boy brain of (below?) average intelligence not being able to fully grasp their monumental and multilayered themes when I watch them. For the most part, when I endure a work of art I’ve been told repeatedly is truly groundbreaking, I assume I’m too dumb to understand it if I find it unsatisfactory. I rarely leap to thinking it’s overrated or boring. Usually I just don’t fully get it and move on.
I watched the 1995 anime Ghost in the Shell for the first time in 2016 when I was 28. When the credits rolled I thought, “…That’s it?” I was glad I had experienced it, but wasn’t necessarily moved by it. I’m both not sophisticated nor culturally versed enough to understand a lot of it in the ways I’m supposed to, and I came to it so late that it had been usurped by several other movies/video games/TV shows that use its ideas for inspiration.
Ghost in the Shell, which originated as a manga, stars Major Motoko Kusanagi leading an elite public security task force called Section 9 in near-future Japan. Kusanagi is comprised of a completely cybernetic body with a human brain controlling it. Although 1995’s Ghost in the Shell was the first movie version of the manga, it interestingly eschews an origin story for Kusanagi. Instead of focusing on how she was created and her background, the anime hits the ground running with Kusanagi’s task force chasing a Super Wizard-Class Hacker (wink wink) called the Puppet Master. On the surface it’s an action crime caper, but Ghost in the Shell has about 600 layers of philosophical themes about technology, the intersection of humanity and machines, and what it means to be human simmering beneath the surface. As I mentioned, being the American white boy of average intelligence that I am, a lot of the looming philosophical themes flew right over my head. And the humanity and robot themes seemed dated to me, but I have to remember that despite my late-to-the-game viewing, Ghost in the Shell pioneered some of these themes two decades ago.
When word on the street confirmed a live-action Ghost in the Shell was in the works, my interest in the property reignited. After the first trailer debuted in November 2016, I was suddenly interested in diving back in.
Luckily for me, Ghost in the Shell expanded into several versions after the 1995 anime debuted. A television series consisting of two 26-episode seasons called Stand Alone Complex came first in 2002. A proper sequel to the original anime film Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence arrived in 2004, and almost 10 years later a 4-episode prequel series, Ghost in the Shell: Arise, debuted. A few other movies (such as the horribly titled Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie) have popped up here and there, but most of them recap events from the Stand Alone Complex series into shorter, slightly more digestible form. Needless to say, I had a full plate of Shells to crack into.
I made it my mission to work through most of what I could from the ever-expanding universe before capping it all off with the live-action version once it hit theaters. I pulled most of it off, and have consumed 30 hours and 43 minutes of Ghost in the Shell-related content according to my calculations.
Despite my binge, I still wouldn’t consider myself an expert on the subject. But I’m far far more acquainted with the subject matter than I was three months ago. I can tell the difference between a Tachikoma and Logicoma, for starters. And on a good day I can name off every member of Section 9 and their corresponding special skills off the top of my head.
Like any manga-turned-anime-turned-animated series-turned-live-action film, Ghost in the Shell contains several different timelines and some of them don’t fit together neatly. That’s OK. I have no qualms with having more than one origin story and different timelines. We live in a world where live-action Spider-Man has been rebooted three times with six movies in a 15-year span, after all.
I have never sampled the manga, so I can’t speak to it. Given the movies and series, Major Kusanagi has two prevalent origins. In Season 2 of Stand Alone Complex, it’s vaguely established that an all-human Kusangi survived a plane crash when she was a child. After spending some time in a hospital, she chose to have her body augmented in an experimental cybernetic surgery to regain all of its function. Most importantly, she could fold paper cranes with a single hand.
Meanwhile in Arise, she’s rewritten as a fetus taken from her dying mother’s womb and raised into a fully cybernetic body.
I admire Ghost in the Shell’s universe for not over-focusing on how exactly Kusanagi became what she is. When her origins are brought up, it’s more passively observed than intensely focused on. This is a welcome switch from, say, Batman where every fucking movie made about him has to show a lengthy sequence of his parents getting killed in case you forgot about it from the past 10 movies that also showed it.
For whatever it’s worth, after my deep dive into its universe, Stand Alone Complex and Innocence are my favorite works. Where the original 1995 movie bobs back and forth between intensely serious and boringly philosophical, Stand Alone Complex functions more like an episodic crime procedural. It injects a healthy amount of philosophy as well, but it has consistent pockets of lightheartedness, action, clever writing and existential mystery. There’s something in it for everyone. Then again, considering Stand Alone Complex’s two seasons span more than 20 viewing hours, more room for varied tone exists. Twenty hours of Zack Snyder-esque intensity would be unbearable.
Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is, first and foremost, one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen. Its animation, which blends CGI with traditional anime, is quite honestly jaw-dropping. The tone, set design and story that focuses almost entirely away from Major Kusanagi are masterful. Innocence does something I love with sequels – it uses its predecessor as a jumping-off point for a new detective story in the same universe rather than being a simple Part 2.
After that, Arise excelled at bringing superbly animated fluid action to the franchise and reboots Kusanagi into a new, young-looking character, but it didn’t stick with me as much as the other entries.
I suppose this all brings me to 2017’s live-action Ghost in the Shell, which is why I leapt headfirst down this robotic rabbit hole in the first place.
Ghost in the Shell (2017) had several uphill battles to fight as soon as word got out that it was in production. From the get-go, any well-received film getting rebooted garners a negative reaction. People like the old one and a new version just gives it room to be marred or misunderstood. The fact that this was a case of anime being lifted to live-action only intensified it.
Secondly, and more importantly, was the decision to cast Scarlett Johansson as the lead role of the Major. This serves as a prime example of whitewashing – Hollywood’s preference to cast a potentially bankable white person in a role originally written or intended for a minority character. In this case, Major Motoko Kusanagi was originally written as Japanese in a very Japan-centric story. Casting someone non-Asian removes assets of story connectivity and inclusivity for the potential payoff of a more recognizable face. And with a recognizable face comes the potential for more box office earnings. This isn’t the first example of whitewashing, nor will it be the last, I’m sure.
Scarlett Johansson is a totally bankable action star though, especially in overseas markets. It’s easy to see why director Rupert Sanders reached out to her as his preference to lead the movie. Physically, she looks similar to how Major appeared in the 1995 anime, and she’s a bonafide experienced action and sci-fi actor. She’s been a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for seven years, and her most recent headlining action movie, 2014’s Lucy, grossed $463 million — 72 percent of which came from foreign markets. Given the notion that foreign markets aren’t as off-put by seeing Hollywood whitewash roles, I’m sure Ghost in the Shell’s producers are hoping for another Lucy-like home run overseas.
That would also explain why the cast and crew premiered the movie in several overseas areas before bringing it to the United States. On an alarming note, general critic screenings for Ghost in the Shell in the U.S. didn’t happen until the day before its domestic release. In a world where it’s not unusual to see movie reviews published weeks before the premiere, this plan smelled a little fishy. It’s almost as if Sanders and Co. knew American audiences would be the most critical and resistant to this movie and wanted to keep it from them as long as possible. In the span of a single day between early reviews hitting and the American screenings, Ghost in the Shell’s Rotten Tomatoes score went from a Fresh 67 percent to a Rotten 49 percent. And it’s only declined since then. Woof.
I don’t think it’s a particularly great look for Johansson to play a role originally written for a Japanese woman, but the blame shouldn’t be placed on her alone. Although the actor portraying the role tends to take all the heat for dumb Hollywood decisions — the director, producers and writers are more to blame, yet they’re conveniently left out of the conversation most of the time. Sanders and Johansson’s flimsy defense was that the role was rewritten as a white woman for the movie. This is true, but it doesn’t necessarily make it OK. They can also fall back on the fact that Major is a cyborg, ergo kind of, sort of genderless? In an attempt to bolster these claims, the 1995 anime’s director Mamoru Oshii has flatly stated he thinks Johansson is right for the role. Make of that what you will, as the marketing team sure used it to its advantage.
The unfortunate consequence that comes with casting Johansson is that, even if the film itself ends up being fantastic, the haze of its controversy will never go away. It’ll always be the “but” that quickly chases each compliment.
The entire movie’s marketing campaign led me to believe the issue wouldn’t be remotely addressed in the movie itself. After the first wave of criticism at Johansson’s casting sparked, it became evident they were erasing “Motoko Kusanagi” from the film entirely and just calling her “Major”. It would be pretty unfaithful and insensitive to have Johansson portray someone with an Asian name, so they stuck that Band-Aid on.
However once the film gets rolling, it reveals they renamed her completely to Mira Killian. They kept the initials but gave her a Western name. This name only comes up a handful of times in the movie, but the fishy smell returned as this detail was left out of any and all marketing beforehand. Had audiences learned that they slapped a Western name on her, someone probably would’ve lit Paramount Pictures on fire.
Instead of leaving it there, the movie decides to take it an interesting step further and give a climactic reveal that before Johansson’s version of the Major was assembled, she actually was Motoko Kusanagi and her brain was wiped and placed into a white woman shell. I never dreamt they’d be dumb enough to literally brainwash the Asian out of the brain before implanting it into a shell and use that as a plot point to try and make it make sense. Things get especially awkward when the movie reveals that Kusanagi’s Japanese mom is still alive. You get a strange scene that attempts to be heartwarming by featuring Kusanagi’s Asian mom hugging her now-white cyborg daughter. It’s just… weird?
That is the underlying origin story to Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell, though — which is totally original from any source material and what the entire movie works toward revealing. Motoko Kusanagi was a young Japanese woman living as an anti-technology advocate when she ran away from home to live in a refugee-like area in the city’s dark depths. Hanka, a government funded technology company kidnaps these runaways and runs experiments to transplant their brains into cybernetic bodies. They intend to place them in Section 9’s task force once they have the perfect brain-to-body take. Kusanagi is that perfect take, but her brain is wiped during the experiment to make her easier to control. She’s manufactured as a weapon and told she was the only android produced. Once she’s released, she begins an assignment to hunt Kuze – a criminal hacker – and eventually finds out that Hanka lied to her and seeks revenge. Much like the original anime – if this story had been produced 20 years ago it would’ve felt fresh. At this point, it’s been done to death.
There’s a fascinating premise to the idea of a minority race being captured and injected into a caucasian shell, but this movie is too tone-deaf to explore it. Perhaps in more capable hands it could be successful, but Ghost in the Shell doesn’t seem super interested in diving into the anime’s premise on technology and humanity in a sophisticated way. Instead it exists as homage – a greatest hits, if you will – of moments from the Ghost in the Shell universe packed into a movie so obviously produced to make money it almost hurts.
And if it earns enough money to qualify as a commercial success, Ghost in the Shell is the kind of vehicle that could spawn several sequels. Unfortunately if more are made and Johansson keeps coming back, the controversy surrounding her casting is only going to get worse. The movie tries to address it and wash it away, but borks it so heavily I can’t even figure out why they tried. Hollywood might not be a charity, they say, but whitewashing certainly isn’t a good look for any movie — especially when that movie danced around the topic for its entire press run only to directly address it in the film in an incredibly stupid way. Why, in god’s name, didn’t they just ignore it and leave it alone?
Instead of following in the philosophical footsteps of its 1995 anime blueprint, Ghost in the Shell (2017) chooses to focus the entire movie on Major’s origin while serving as a checklist of nods to the universe. As someone who’s been binging anything and everything Ghost in the Shell-related, I appreciated the nods.
The thermoptic-suit building jump from the 1995 anime is here. The shelling sequence is reproduced nearly shot-for-shot. Part of the market chase concluding with the cloaked water fight sequence also appears. A hastily-paced Yakuza club fight (a potential nod to Innocence’s Yakuza shootout) exists. Major rides a motorcycle and has a red jumpsuit – nods to Arise. Geisha robots, which appear in both Stand Alone Complex and Innocence, play a big role early on. Part of Innocence’s interrogation with the android autopsy specialist is here – complete with her lighting a cigarette with a Zippo lighter. Batou has a basset hound, and Stand Alone Complex’s Kuze is the main villain despite him having almost no relation to how he was portrayed in the animated series. They might as well have named him Johnny Android.
These aren’t the only moments lifted from the universe, but they’re some of the major ones (pun intended). I would’ve preferred to see a Tachikoma at some point to lighten the mood a little. Although this live-action version keeps a similar tone to the 1995 anime, it has that Snyder-esque weight of constant grave seriousness. I know Major is an android trying to discover her past identity, but would it kill her or anyone in the cast to emote any happiness ever? She cracks a single joke in the entire movie and the rest is grim sincerity. I didn’t want this to be a comedy by any stretch, but Stand Alone Complex and Arise both effortlessly weave in sharp, light moments among the existential dread. Siphoning some of that over to the live-action version would have made it even more palatable.
Another aspect it swipes from the Snyder-verse is dark, murky action. Some sequences, such as the skyscraper penthouse shootout and the water fight, are great. The rest is just mediocre. In one instance Major is attacked by dudes wielding cattle prods, and I think the fight sequence would’ve been impressive had it not been in a dark hallway with only stun-rod sparks to light it. The quintessential Major vs. Spider Tank battle also appears, but some shots are so dimly lit it’s almost like they darkened them on purpose to cover up the CGI effects that’ll no doubt be outdated in a few years.
Despite the inconsistent lack of skillfully executed action, it’s impossible to ignore how half the movie’s budget must have gone into CGI for world-building. This isn’t a bad thing, nor does it come off as cheesy or fake. Rupert Sanders has created a beautiful and believable version of what our technologically advanced future could look like, but hasn’t inhabited it with characters that I care about. Money and hard work can buy beauty, but the film lacks any kind of stylish edge. November’s debut trailer for the movie had style in spades compared to the full-length movie. To its credit, I’d prefer a dearth of style to it trying too hard to be stylish. There’s a happy medium in there, but after about 30 minutes Ghost in the Shell stops shooting for it entirely.
I can’t fault the actors here, though. Whitewashing aside, the cast is competent, which features Pilou Asbæk, Michael Pitt and Takeshi Kitano. They’re all doing the heavy lifting to carry a flimsy script, which is overwrought and irritatingly tells the audience what controversies to ponder without the competence to let the story breathe with enough mystique to dare the audience to think on its own. Then again, this is exactly what I expected. Packaging Japanese-style anime philosophy in a live-action product for an international audience is so difficult it might even be impossible.
Rupert Sanders left his Ghost in the Shell primed for sequels, as any hungry studio would have him do, so I hope we see a day where this universe gets expanded further in live-action. Although the film doesn’t handle its awkward theme of wiping an Asian woman’s brain and transplanting it into a robot body particularly well, a sequel could go in any direction, much like Innocence.
In an ideal world, if Ghost in the Shell were meant to evolve in live-action it would take the form of a Netflix-esque series based on Stand Alone Complex and proceed as serial entries. And hopefully with an Asian lead. That, or a more competent director (Denis Villenueve, Danny Boyle, Alex Garland) would be able to turn this into the thought-provoking sci-fi mind-bender it’s meant to be. But with big-time Hollywood studios at the helm looking to cash in, it’s a fat chance we’ll ever get that. Unfortunately Ghost in the Shell feels less like a labor of love and more like a product studios threw an ungodly amount of money at in order to rake it back in. Only time will tell if that happens.
Despite my luke-warm reception of the live-action movie itself, Rupert Sanders stated in interviews that he hopes this movie will get people interested in the Ghost in the Shell universe. And you know what? It worked. Although his vision for Ghost in the Shell might be in the bottom tier of everything that’s been produced from the universe, I still got those 30 enjoyable hours of ingesting anime movies and the episodic series from it. So, mission accomplished then, Mr. Sanders? You might have produced a mediocre version of something that could have been great, but at least you helped open my eyes to the world of Ghost in the Shell. The net is vast and infinite.