Exorcising Ghost in the Shell
The numbers are coming in, and the Scarlett Johannson headlined Ghost in the Shell live action film is taking a boot to the teeth.  While some critics have given it the inevitable puffy reviews that get splashed across advertisements for it, the majority who are in the know about the original property it was based on have panned it. So where did the film go wrong, and is the whitewashing controversy really the only reason this film lost on its opening weekend to a CGI animated talking baby?
To start, we have to establish what Ghost in the Shell is. Not the movie, but the property that spawned the 1995 animated film that the new live action film is so very loosely based on. To me, the original manga was a science fiction-espionage/black ops thriller, set in a world where the technology for androids and cyborgs was settled, but where the social and spiritual ramifications were not. It was also a world where artificial intelligence existed, and was evolving, leading to more complex philosophical questions about the nature of life and what constituted a soul. It was a complex work, much more so than most manga aim for, and was successful because of that multilayered nature. It was a story that took on more context as you matured as well, when I was sixteen, it was all about the door kicking, fuchikoma tank battling, crazy cyborg action. Now at 38, it’s a thoughtful, if sometimes simple, examination of the effects of technological progress on the nature of how we perceive reality, set in a world where corporate and government interests constantly butt heads.
So, in heady days of 1995, the animated movie was released to become an instant hit. I saw it advertised in trailers on anime VHS tapes we were renting (Yay! I’m old!), and I faithfully bought a copy from HMV because I’d loved the manga. Now, I’ll be honest; I didn’t like it. I understood that the distinctive art style of Masamune Shirow didn’t always translate well to animation (the Tank Police series of 1988 and 1993, and Appleseed film in 1988 were good examples of attempts that still fell short of his style), but I didn’t like the movie. It was a truncated, boring, and poorly built exercise in philosophical floundering. It missed out on what made the manga great in favour of trying to appear “smart”. Maybe they were trying to capture some of the feel of the 1989 and 1993 Patlabor films. I don’t know. All I do know is that the 1995 Ghost in the Shell film, while being eye-candy, was a shabby take on the source material.
Which brings us to the first major failing point of the 2017 live action Ghost in the Shell. Instead of looking back to the original manga for inspiration or guidance, they looked to the 1995 movie. Then they started fucking with the already altered formula. Major Motoko Kusanagi, Section 9 doorkicker, assassin, and fuchikoma riding badass who ultimately choose to take the next step in consciousness, and arguably cyber-evolution, by merging with the Puppeteer AI, is reduced to an agency-less, brainwashed, kidnapped child, forced into being what she is, but ultimately “consenting” to it. It’s bullshit of the highest order. On top of that, the setting is altered so that she’s representative of an emerging technology, which greatly reduces the impact of the story, and its directions. By choosing to draw on a combination of the S.A.C. anime series (which is best described as an alternate reimagining of the original series), and what I can only imagine were sweat soaked fever dreams, mixed in with generic “cyberpunk”, one of the coolest female protagonists out there is reduced to being another agency-less, abused woman who ultimately accepts her fate.
Villains are another failure point in the 2017 adaptation (and I use that term loosely). The Puppeteer and Kuze were very different threats, and by conflating them into an escaped cyborg bent on revenge, the film flushed more potential down the drain. Kuze was a commentary on the betrayal of soldiers and failures of the UN missions in the 1990’s; driven to seek revenge against the government for their part in a refugee crisis. He was a nuanced terrorist threat, sympathetic in his own way, and his death at the hands of American agents to prevent him becoming more of a hero figure to refugees can be taken in a number of ways. The Puppeteer on the other hand, in addition to the evolution and philosophical questions about life and souls, was wrapped in the shroud of black ops secrecy and inter-departmental struggle between Section 6 and Section 9. Realistically, they are two entirely different plots, and two different movies, but with the new film, they were mashed together, given a generic “I was an experiment, now I must have revenge!” plot. It’s weak at best, and a childish treatment of much better material at worst.
The scandal that has plagued this film since its announcement concerns the ongoing issue in Hollywood with whitewashing. In recent memory, there have been numerous flops in the box office, all of which owed at least part of their failure to the persistent need for Hollywood filmmakers to make the characters “white” (unless you’re a villain). Dragon Ball Evolution, The Last Airbender, Prince of Persia, Gods of Egypt, and Exodus are good examples. All had various issues around writing and storytelling, but all shared the same core issue. Characters were “race lifted” to being white, usually with an argument that the film “needed mass market appeal” or “there weren’t good enough/recognizable enough XYZ actors” or “we cast the ‘best’ person for the roll, we’re colourblind” arguments.  This of course, flies in the face of recent studies that indicate that diversity results in better numbers.  The 2017 Ghost in the Shell film fought this accusation tooth and nail during filming, only to reveal literal “race lift” in the film. It then proceeds to fail to address that at all.
Now, it’s important at this point to address the most common defence of Motoko’s sudden whiteness and European name of “Mira Killian”, her “shell”. In the original manga, her shell was a heavily upgraded off-the-shelf generic model, used so she would draw minimal attention to herself as a black-ops agent. It was, however, Japanese (albeit with purple hair and eyes). How do we know that? Well, she’s a Japanese national, engaged in black-ops and spy work in Japan. Looking “white” would be detrimental to that. Additionally, in the original manga, there’s no indication that her name is assigned or was generated because she couldn’t remember her “real” one, also, when she leaves Section 9 and pursues work elsewhere (cyber-security for Poseidon Industries, and her own interests), she retains a Japanese name. So while yes, she could take over a non-Japanese looking “shell” or hack and control a non-Japanese with a cyberbrain (and she does in the second manga series), that’s a weak argument, especially in the light of the film’s ultimate reveal that she was Japanese to start.
Overall, this film is failing for many reasons. Failure to understand the source material. Terrible writing, directing, and production decisions. An adamant need to “white” the place up is just the most obvious and glaring issue. In the end, basing the film on another film that missed the train, and then feeding the story and character elements through the generic plot creator with the settings to “near future scifi”, “Japanese-ish”, “kinda-Blade runner-y”, and “mangle a foreign property because our audiences can’t grasp anything complex”, resulted in a lacklustre film with none of the amazingness or depth of the original work (which itself was inspired by Blade Runner). Unfortunately, the takeaway from this film for the studio won’t be anything I’ve talked about here. It will be “foreign properties just don’t translate to our audiences”, probably followed by “it did okay overseas, so we must not have made any mistakes”. Then the inevitable backlash will come from people unfamiliar with the original source material who liked the movie, backed by the anti-diversity team who honestly believes that “race” and “whitewashing” aren’t problems in Hollywood. I wish I could say this was the last time this will happen, but it isn’t.
The film banner image here is used under fair use for review purposes.
An excellent review. I’m glad you mentioned how her cyborg body needs to blend into the environment as a Japanese woman. White people in Japan tend to draw lots of attention and the idea of all these white “secret” agents, just running around in a mostly homogeneous city didn’t sit well with me. It’s an argument I hadn’t seen from anyone against her whitewashing.
I’m also glad you compared it to the original manga, which a lot of people seem to forget about, having only watched the movie. The manga is much, much deeper than the film made from it. I knew it would be dumbed down for Americans, but I didn’t expect it would contain such incredibly lazy writing.
That’s my thing now. Attacking Hollywoods lazy plot generator style of writing.
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A very good review. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex remains one of my fav anime series and that trash of a live action movie threatened to ruin everything about it. And I never thought of the original movie that way before but it does explain my own disinterest compared to GitS:SAC. I love GitS for its philosophy and thought on what makes people people.
I also agree that there is no way Motoko’s name, even though she doesn’t remember her original one, was randomly generated by the government. It’s the Japanese equivalent of calling yourself “Jane Excalibur”! It’s very, very attention catching.