‘Ghost in the Shell’ Review: Controversy and mediocrity haunt this hollow anime adapation

All style and no substance, Hollywood’s superfluous remake of a cerebral anime classic fails to quell valid concerns of whitewashing.

Created in 1989 by writer/artist Masamune Shirow, Ghost in the Shell was a popular cyberpunk manga which has spawned countless media adaptations, ranging from video games, animated television series and feature-length films. Though the different incarnations of the Ghost in the Shell property have varied in tone and story, one constant has always remained – protagonist Major Motoko Kusanagi. Deadly as she is beautiful, this Japanese cyborg law enforcement agent who commands a counter cyberterrorism task force was ripe with big-budgeted Hollywood potential.

Well, in theory at least.

A live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell certainly had all the makings of being a critical and commercial success – myriad action sequences, timely philosophical themes, a visually arresting setting and a compelling ass-kicking female leading character. Instead, the 2017 Rupert Sander’s directed Ghost in the Shell serves as a sad – albeit pretty to look at – reminder of Hollywood’s disgraceful tradition of marginalizing Asians and Asian-Americans.

(Warning: Spoilers below)

The first sign of trouble for Paramount’s Ghost in the Shell remake was the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major. Because Johansson is caucasian, the Japanese character of Major Motoko Kusanagi was changed to Major Mira Killian. The news of Johansson’s casting caused the rabidly devoted fanbase of Shirow’s franchise to accuse Paramount Pictures of whitewashing one of Japanese cinema’s most beloved characters.

[Editor’s Note: “Whitewashing” is a Hollywood casting process where white actors and actresses are cast in historically non-white roles.]

Alas, a Johansson-led Ghost in the Shell is what we have.

Mostly informed by director Mamaoru Oshii’s 1995 anime film of the same name – a seminal moment in the long and rich history of Japanese animated cinema – Ghost in the Shell is set in a near future where human-technology integration has become commonplace. The story follows Major Mira Killian who, as a child, is the lone survivor of a cyberterrorist attack. Her corporeal being mangled beyond repair and with no hope of survival, Major is chosen by Hanka Robotics – the leader in human augmentative technology – for their secret project which transplants the brain and soul – the “ghost” – of a human into a cybernetic body – the “shell.” As one can imagine, Hanka Robotics sees the successfully augmented Major as more than just an advancement in science and begins training her to become a counter-terrorism agent. 

The decision to cast Scarlett Johansson as Major (above) instead of a Japanese actress led to a firestorm of controversy among ‘Ghost in the Shell’ fans and others.

 

Years later, Major works in spec-ops team Section 9, a department of defense unit which battles terrorism. Life becomes complicated for Major and her colleagues Batou (played by Pilou Asbæk) and Chief Daisuke Aramaki (played by Japanese film legend “Beat” Takeshi Kitano) when a Hanka business meeting becomes the target of a homicidal robotic geisha which the team discovers was hacked by the mysterious Kuze (played by Michael Pitt). As more and more members of Hanke Robotics are murdered, Major begins to experience “glitches,” leading her to question the validity of her memories and past.

While Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell adeptly explored the themes of what it means to be human and the unreliability of memories, Sander’s film more-or-less does away with the cerebral nature of the source material and instead focuses its time and energy on being a dry and predictable procedural where Major must uncover her true past.

Much has been made about the reveal where Major discovers her identity of Mira Killian was a false memory implanted in her by Hanka Robotics and that she was originally a Japanese teenager named – you guessed it – Motoko Kusanagi.

One wonders what compelled Paramount to include this storyline swerve. If they were so set on making Major white then just have her be white. While insulting to the source material, it wouldn’t have been nearly as bizarre of a choice than having Johansson serve as the host to a Japanese soul. This decision reeks of the filmmakers trying to have their cake and eat it to. Paramont gets their A-level actress and fans of the source material would have their anger assuaged by the knowledge Major is – wink, wink – actually Japanese. But that’s not the effect it has. In reality, the discovery Major Mira is Major Motoko is akin to Paramount pouring salt on a wound. 

‘Ghost in the Shell’ was created by Masamune Shirow and began as a manga. It has spawned multiple anime films including the 1995 classic of the same name (above).

The entire film has a weird and uneasy relationship to anything Japanese about its Japanese source material. Ghost in the Shell has always been a product of Japan. The imprint the country’s culture leaves on Major’s story is indelible – though Sander’s and others try their best, and largely succeed, in erasing it from their remake.

What remains of Japanese culture in Ghost in the Shell is merely visual. The filmmakers love geishas, robots and the neon lights of downtown Tokyo, but anything culturally deeper than that is never examined nor cared about. Japanese culture is treated as a mere aesthetic.

Worse than that, is the filmmakers of Ghost in the Shell conflate multiple Asian cultures. As film critic Karen Han pointed out in her op/ed “Erasing Motoko: The Question of Race in ‘Ghost in the Shell,” the setting of the film’s source material was a fictional yet distinctly Japanese location named New Port City. However, in Sander’s film, Han said New Port City is a place where “The skyline is reminiscent of Hong Kong, the housing complexes are typical of East Asian developments, and though all audible ads seem to be in English, there’s Chinese, Korean, and Japanese text visible in the huge holograms that float throughout the city.”

Perhaps these issues wouldn’t be so glaring if this movie was even remotely entertaining. It’s unfortunate that as downright gorgeous and innovative visually as Ghost in the Shell is – the last time a film’s world felt so unique was James Cameron’s Avatar – the story and its pacing is utterly boring. Despite the beauty of seeing giant holographic ads the size of skyscrapers flicker across the New Port City skyline, and no matter how mindbogglingly technical the practical and computer effects are, one cannot escape the fact Ghost in the Shell is just a highly problematic and mediocre film wrapped in a glossy shell of gun metal gray and neon pinks, purples and blues.

The actors of Ghost in the Shell all deliver serviceable performances – the best being Pilou Asbæk who anchors the film as the protective and at times humorous Batou. Michael Pitt is appropriately creepy as Kuze – the unnatural cadence he gives his cyborg character is sinister. Johansson is quite good if you can come to terms with her being Major. Her intentionally robotic performance is unique to see in a lead performance and, as always, she is more than believable in action sequences. However, there’s a definite sense of déjà vu one feels while watching Johansson kicking faces and brandishing guns. Perhaps after starring in Lucy, portraying Black Widow in multiple Marvel movies and now starring as Major, it would be wise for Johansson to branch out into other types of roles.

Ghost in the Shell is the worst kind of remake. It will anger most fans of the original source material and, even worse, it’ll undoubtedly baffle newcomers as to why the property was ever beloved in the first place. The question of “Why?” will hit you in waves throughout the course of it. Periodically you’ll be overtaken by the beauty of the visuals but, over and over again, you’ll be questioning why this film was even made in the first place. Nothing of substance is added to the franchise’s mythology and it’s not unique enough to stand out from prior iterations of the property.

Sadly, its raison d’être is merely for profit.

And as the totals of this weekend’s box office suggest, there be no soul in this hollow shell of a film.

Rating: PG-13

Length: 106 minutes

Director: Rupert Sanders

Stars:

Scarlett Johannson – Major Mira Killian / Motoko Kusanagi

“Beat” Takeshi Kitano – Chief Daisuke Aramaki

Michael Pitt – Hideo Kuzo

Pilou Asbæk – Batou 

Juliette Binoche – Dr. Ouelet

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