Shadowmancer: A #ThrowbackThursday Book Review

I first read Shadowmancer back when I was in middle school. On the surface, it seems like this novel that takes place in a sleepy little English countryside fishing village would be the last place for an 18th century apocalypse to occur. In fact, Shadowmancer is similar to the gospel of John or the book of Revelations in its rich complexity and imagery. There are layers upon layers of metaphor and subtext as shown in this passage:.

The sky grew darker and darker and the full moon was blotted out by thick black cloud as streaks of lightning flashed from sky to sea, exploding in the water. A lightning sword hit the ship. The mainsail cracked, then crashed to the deck, sending startled crewmen bolting from their hammocks.

As they rushed on deck, another sail crashed down, splitting the deck in half and sending shafts of splintered wood into the air. The ship lifted and dropped with each wave; a crewman was thrown through the air and into the cold sea, never to be seen again.

“A direct hit,” shouted Demurral, laughing and rubbing his hands together in glee at the sight. “One more strike and the Keruvim will be mine.”

He raised the statue into the air and chanted more magic. “Wind, hail, lightning, thunder and wave.” The sea rose at his command, each surge growing higher and higher. Breakers like black fists smashed against the ship, almost engulfing the vessel.

Two local villagers, Thomas Barrick and Kate Coglan join up with a mysterious African man named Raphah to stop the main villain, Vicar Obadiah Demurral, from destroying the world. Demurral rules over the local villages with an iron fist, but the power he lords over the villages isn’t enough for him. He dabbles in dark magic that gives him the power to raise the dead, creating creatures called the Glashan, and steals the Keruvim (the MacGuffin of the story) with the hopes of using it and its other half in a ritual that will bring on the apocalypse.

Thomas starts out as your typical village street urchin. With his father dead and his mother in the hospital, he calls the vicar out on his hypocrisy and greed, lamenting his own poor status. He gets pulled into the action when Raphah rescues him from drowning. Although he is uncertain, Thomas is resolved to help Raphah on the mission to get the Keruvim back from Demurral. A young village girl, Kate Coglan gets thrown into the adventure when she tries to kill a Glashan, a zombie that Demurral raises from the dead, using the power of the gold Keruvim.

Raphah, the mysterious African from Cush, arrives in this small English countryside village to get the Keruvim back to his people. He’s the oldest of the trio and helps exposit important information regarding the dark magic and otherworldly creatures shown in this story. Prejudices towards Africans are prominent and he even gets branded as a slave, but his determination to do God’s will makes him a compelling character.

What makes Shadowmancer compelling to read is the attention to detail and the overall atmosphere. Whenever I open this book, I find some new detail I missed, another piece of the puzzle that adds depth and it entices me to read the book again in search for more. Most of all, I love why this book was written. In an interview with Christianity Today, GP Taylor said:

“I was out there talking to a church group about the threads, the dark and sinister threads through children’s literature. At the end of one of these nights, this woman came up to me and said, I think you should write a children’s book, but have the main theme of a God who’s triumphant. On the way home this stuck with me.”

Shadowmancer is a complicated, challenging read that fantasy fans will definitely find intriguing because of its dark atmosphere, threatening villain, and the timeless storyline of three unlikely heroes who, despite overwhelming odds, help to defeat the dark forces that were bent on destroying their world. I recommend this book for fans of dark fantasy and young adults who love a good Gothic atmosphere.

Much Ado About Nothing (2012 Joss Whedon Version): A Movie Review

much ado

Did you know that after he filmed Avengers, Joss Whedon made a modern adaptation of a Shakespeare play? It’s not surprising when you look into Joss’s personal history with Shakespeare. The cast of Buffy would often talk about how during the summer, they would hang out at Joss’s house and read Shakespeare plays. (Incidentally, I would gladly eat a heart in the marketplace to be a fly in the wall for those summers.)

This adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing has a wonderful cast.  Whedon alumni actors include: Clark Gregg and Ashley Johnson from Avengers (Johnson was the cute blonde waitress that Captain America saved), Nathan Filion and Sean Maher from Firefly, Reed Diamon and Fran Kranz from Dollhouse, Tom Lenk from Buffy, and Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof from Angel. Angel fans, grab your tissues because this will be the only chance to see Fred Burkle and Wesley Wyndham-Pryce get the happy ending they deserve.

There are many interesting things in this adaptation, aside from the fact that it’s set in the modern era. First of all, the film was shot in black and white, giving it the feel of an Old Hollywood movie.  The beginning of the film showes that Benedick and Beatrice were involved, which would explain their coarse behavior towards each other. When Hero and Claudio meet, it’s implied that they knew each other before Claudio went off to war, hence why they rush to get married so quickly.

Speaking of the war, it’s never stated outright what kind of war Benedick and Claudio came from, but it’s implied that it’s a mafia war, as Don John and his cohort are seen being led to Leonato’s house in zip-tie handcuffs. The mafia war implication serves as a reason for why Hero allegedly sleeping with someone else before her wedding was such a big scandal. She was accused of sleeping with the enemy!

The film highlights the main story arc between Claudio and Hero, putting their relationship to the test. When Hero fakes her death, she is seen watching Claudio’s remorse at her funeral from a distance. In spite of the fact that Don John tried to ruin Hero’s reputation and relationship, Claudio was ready to atone for his idiocy. (They even have a joke that involves a black woman glaring at Claudio while he says “I’ll hold my mind, were she an Ethiope.”)

In spite of how people may perceive the play, this is actually the best adaptation I’ve seen. Putting my fangirl bias towards all things Whedon aside, there’s this tendency for people to think that Much Ado is essentially a romantic comedy. It isn’t. The implication that Benedick and Beatrice were involved, but never married is there in the text. When Don Pedro asks Beatrice about Benedick, she says:

Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile; and I gave
him use for it, a double heart for his single one:
marry, once before he won it of me with false dice,
therefore your grace may well say I have lost it.

It also serves as the reason why she can’t marry Don Pedro. It’s a back-in-the-day thing, but since Benedick and Beatrice were involved, he had to marry her in order to make their relationship legit. It’s not a “boy meets girl” romantic comedy. It’s about two relationships that fell apart and need to be set right. Of course, since this is a modern adaptation, it’s also clear that Beatrice and Benedick still have feelings for each other.

Did I mention, by the way, that I love Amy Acker in this movie? She is a wonderful Beatrice and the chemistry she has with Alexis Denisof sizzles. They both have scenes that involve slapstick, the characters hiding or jumping around to eavesdrop on their friends’ conversations. It’s hilarious to watch. They may not have the strength that Kenneth Brannaugh and Emma Thompson put into their performances in the 1993 film adaptation of this play, but you can argue that this adaptation feels more intimate.

Even though not all the actors in this film have the nuance and gravity of classically trained Shakespeare actors (looking at you BriTanicK), the major actors all gave memorable performances. My favorite is Nathan Fillion’s version of Dogberry, who comes off like Richard Castle meets CSI Miami. He says all his lines with perfect seriousness, which makes scenes like this all the more hilarious:

Marry, sir, they have committed false report;
moreover, they have spoken untruths; secondarily,
they are slanders; sixth and lastly, they have
belied a lady; thirdly, they have verified unjust
things; and, to conclude, they are lying knaves.

Overall, I highly recommend Shakespeare fans and Joss Whedon fans to watch this film. I also recommend to listen to the commentaries on the DVD. There’s with just Joss Whedon, who explains how they filmed the whole thing at his house. He is amazing with commentaries. Then there’s the cast commentary which basically has you laughing from start to finish.

Now, can we have an adaptation of another Shakespeare play with the cast from Buffy? Like say, James Marsters and Sarah Michelle Gellar in A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

Moana’s Vocation: An Analysis

Moana’s story is unique in many ways. While the villains may be lackluster, the music is amazing. My favorite thing about Moana, though, is how the movie portrays what it means to have a vocation. While The Crown shows how the vocation of queenship negatively affects the people in Queen Elizabeth’s life, Moana’s story is a more positive portrayal.

As I’ve stated before, many people figure out their vocation at a very young age. Moana’s vocation is twofold: She needs to be the chief of her people, but she is also called by the ocean to voyage out and return the heart of Te Fiti to where it came from. She quickly learns, thanks to her grandmother, that in order to truly be the chief of her people, she has to answer the ocean’s call first, because her people were descended from voyagers, but forgot about that part of their life because of how dangerous the ocean became.

Answering the ocean’s call meant leaving her family behind, much like those who pursue religious life do. Men go to a seminary or monastery and women go to the convent. In the process of becoming a priest, a nun, or a brother, they are required to learn a lot of things. Out in the ocean, Moana learns how to be a good wayfinder, thanks to Maui’s mentoring.

Throughout the movie, Moana is tested in her resolve to stick to her vocation. She first gets tested when she gets hurt on her first attempt to sail beyond the reef.  Maui constantly tests her patience.  She faces obstacles such as the Kakamora and Tamatoa. She even loses her resolve when Maui decides to leave after Te Ka nearly defeats them. In spite of all that, the spirit of her grandmother returns and asks Moana “Do you know who you are?”

“I Am Moana” basically summarizes what it feels like when a person discerns his or her vocation. A Catholic can interpret that “still small voice,” the voice that calls Moana, as the Holy Spirit, reminding her about what she needs to do.  When she decides to be the one to take the heart to Te Fiti, she goes back to the ocean and gets the heart back, restoring order to the ocean and her home and even giving Maui a new sense of purpose.

When Moana returns home, the people of Motunui become voyagers again and it’s clear, from how the movie ends, that Moana’s adventures are just beginning. It shows that a vocation is something you have for life. For Moana, that means continuing the tradition of her voyaging ancestors and being the a good leader to her people.

I highly recommend Moana because it’s an excellent movie with a positive message for kids. It shows them that following your heart doesn’t mean being a rebel. It can mean becoming a leader and growing in wisdom.

Beauty and The Beast-A collaboration with Catholic Girl Bloggin

beauty and the beast

Author’s note: This is a collaboration with Catholic Girl Bloggin. Spoilers for the movie ensue. CBG’s stuff will be in blue, my stuff in purple.

Cue the music, Jay!  (Our friend Jay plays the Belle/Little Town theme)

CGB: (Walks out of little cottage) Huh, I didn’t know I lived in a cottage.  (Shrugs, smiles at quaint little cottage) I’m not complainin’.  Oohh, there’s tulips on the side of the cottage!  Well, anyway….(Begins singing) Little film, it’s a brand new remake.  All-star cast and some brand new songs.  Little film, starring Emma Watson.  Everybody says…

Critic 1: IT SUCKS!

Critic 2: IT SUCKS!

Critic 3: IT SUCKS!

Rad-Trads: IT SUCKS!

All together: IT SUCKS!

CGB: There go the critics with their gripes like always.

MsOWrites: Seems like they’re never satisfied.

Both of Us: Because way back when we were kids, Disney made a princess flick.  And it was one that we both loved.

Nostalgia Critic: Good morning, girls!

MsOWrites: Good morning, NC!

Nostalgia Critic: Where are you off to?

CGB: We’re doing a review.  It’s the remake of the classic Disney movie.

Nostalgia Critic: That’s nice.  But honestly?  It was meh.

CGB: Well, we haven’t even seen it yet.

MsOWrites: We might be in for a pleasant surprise.

Nostalgia Critic: It still sucks, though.

Critics: Look there they go, they’re just so optimistic.   Can’t they see that the original’s the best?

Critic 1: Emma Watson’s auto-tuned.

Critic 2: The supporting cast was underused.

Rad-Trads: And let’s not forget the token gay LeFou!

(Two hours later)

MsOWrites (crying): Oh, wasn’t it amazing?

CGB: Are you crying?  Because so am I!

MsOWrites: I never do…but yeah, I’ll make this exception.  There’s just so much of this film that’s good and true…

CGB: It would certainly please JP2!  Let us do a review, just me and you!

MsOWrites: We could show both the Catholic and secular world why it’s good!

CGB: Let us begin!

The Hits

CGB: So how did Hermione Granger do playing everyone’s favorite “most peculiar mademoiselle”?  My answer: Emma Watson is a wonderful Belle! This Belle is a lovely reinterpretation of the original character, mixing her trademark book-loving nature with an inventor’s vibe. I really appreciate that Emma Watson’s Belle actually feels different from Paige O’Hara’s Belle from the 1991 classic.  O’Hara’s Belle is dreamy, optimistic and overall innocent. Watson’s Belle is grounded, pragmatic and even bohemian in more ways than one.   

One of my biggest concerns was that Emma Watson would come off as an overly confident character, but luckily there’s a sweetness and humility to this new Belle.  Also Watson’s Belle has more agency in this film than she did in the original; locking herself in the dungeon while pushing her father away, telling the Beast that he has to stand so that she can take back to the castle and so on. Finally, I’m going to add brownie points for that one scene where she teaches a young girl how to read. Brilliant!  

The Beast’s character is pretty much the same as he was in the original; starts off as mean, coarse and unrefined, but ends up becoming so sweet and almost kind. Here, though, his temper is not as jarring as it was in the original. The sympathy factor of his character is shown in the prologue and continues throughout the movie so that we, the audience, are easily able to refrain from judgment before we get to know him. His pain and torment are palpable as his growing feelings for Belle begin to break down the inner walls he has placed around his broken, guarded heart.

Kevin Kline is a wonderful Maurice! I really appreciate that they dialed down his quirkiness big time and made him into a more complex character. He’s warm, gentle, thoughtful, though he’s a bit overprotective of Belle. I can just see him hoisting little Belle onto his lap and reading to her by the fireplace.

Luke Evans is aving the time of his life playing Gaston, and I had a great time watching his Gaston. The usual arrogance of the original character is still there, but we see his progression towards evil. Also I do like that he’s not impractically buff like in the cartoon, but that his toxic masculinity is displayed by his ignorance and overcompensation.

Now, given that I’ve brought up Gaston, you’re probably waiting to see LeFou mentioned here. Before MsOWrites and I get into the whole “gay LeFou” thing, let me talk about the character of LeFou in general.  Josh Gad’s LeFou  is definitely an improvement from the cartoon character.  His “hero-admiration” toward Gaston explains his loyalty to him and he is actually the smarter of the duo. In a way, he serves as a manifestation of Gaston’s effect on people; how Gaston is able to grab and hold the attention of women and men alike, which was always the point of Gaston’s character to begin with.

My favorite song from the movie? EVERMORE!  Oh my goodness, what a beautiful song!  It’s like someone took Augustine’s Confessions, some passages from the Book of Psalms and a hint of the Song of Solomon, then threw them into a blender and then somehow they just mixed into the most melodic purée.  Also the song really sums up a wonderful theme in this film: That people come into our lives who touch our hearts so much that when they leave us, just their presence will remain in our memory forever.  They illustrate this when Maurice is singing about Belle’s mother, but the theme comes full circle with “Evermore.”

MsOWrites: First of all, the opening scenes were stunning in their visuals.  We actually get to see the prince and the residents in the castle and watch the Enchantress cast her spell.  As much as we all love the stained glass narration from the original, the prince’s character arc is to learn what true beauty is, which is kind of the whole point of the entire story in the first place.

The scene with Pere Robert wasn’t as elaborate as the bookshop scene in the original, but there’s a good explanation. It wouldn’t make sense for there to be a bookstore in a town that doesn’t have that many people who can or even want to read.  However Pere Robert is a priest with a personal library. He doesn’t have as many books, but he generously loans the books he does have to Belle.

I appreciate the nuances that have been added to the story. For one, when Belle asks Monsieur Jean if he has lost something again, he responds, “I believe I have.  Problem is I can’t remember what!”  This is actually a small hint at how the spell on the castle also extended to the entire town. Yeah, her spell not only turned the now-adult Prince into a hideous CGI goat-man, but also did what the neuralyzer from Men in Black does to people.   It does feel like a convenient cop-out, but it works within the context of the story.

In defense of the songs, I thought these new versions of songs we all know sounded just fine.  They had a more Broadway stage vibe to them, which makes sense given that this is an event musical film.  The auto-tuning was necessary for the actors who weren’t professional singers and the background music of the songs are faithful to the original music.

The Misses

MsOWrites: So about that magic book thing…yeah, it kind of creates a plot hole.  If it can just transport the Beast anywhere he wants, then why wasn’t he using it all the time prior to Belle’s arrival? Also, why didn’t Belle use it to get back to the village and return to her father? The book is used once and then we never see it again.  What?

CGB: Remember how filled with wonder Belle was when she sang about the beauty of books to those sheep? What?  You don’t sing to sheep?  I do it all the time!  Alas, that’s not the point.  

The point is that Hermione–er, I mean–Emma Watson could’ve sung that part about, “Oh, isn’t this amazing?” with a little more enthusiasm.

Speaking of which, Obi-Wan Kenobi (from the Star Wars prequels) plays Lumiere, but there is a bit of a catch: Ewan McGregor himself has stated that he has never seen the original film.  GASP!  Anyway, once I learned that, his performance in this film kind of made more sense.  I’ve seen this movie twice and I didn’t really care for this Lumiere during either time I saw it.  In fact, I think because there was so much focus on getting Belle, the Beast and Gaston right, the supporting cast feels less colorful.

An Unexpected Theological Truth

Both of Us: We consider ourselves students of Mother Teresa.  Throughout her ministry to the poor in Calcutta, she deemed every person she helped as, “Jesus in His most distressing disguise.”  That credo is on display in this film and in the original, as well.  We are going to focus on this film for the sake of argument.  While the Beast most certainly doesn’t act Christ-like in the beginning, Belle does when she chooses to bring him back to the castle after he rescues her from the wolves.  As their relationship develops, he begins displaying Christ-like characteristics such as mercy, understanding and kinship.  One of the many, many beautiful realities of Jesus is that when we follow Him, He brings out the best in us even during difficult times.  With this in mind we see how once she begins ministering to him, Belle becomes the best version of herself and the same happens to the Beast in return.  There is a saying that difficult people show their need for love in unlovable ways and the Beast is a manifestation of that adage.

We challenge you to think of the “Beast” in your life and ask yourself if he/she is in need of mercy and forgiveness.  Sometimes Christ comes to us in the form of an unpleasant person who we can either wash our hands off and avoid at all cost, or show them compassion and forgive their faults just as Belle does with the Beast.

The Elephants in the Room

 

#1. This film has a gay agenda!

MsOWrites: Let’s address the biggest elephant in the room first. There was a lot of hype and backlash about a “gay scene” in this movie involving the character of LeFou. While it’s true that LeFou is shown to have feelings for Gaston, the actual gay scene is just two seconds long.

Neither of us are promoting gay marriage. However, we do agree with the idea of representation. We need to acknowledge that there are people out there who are attracted to the same sex and treat them as people instead of a stereotype.  This advocating of representation also applies to those who identify as asexual as well.  (I’m looking at you, Riverdale!)

Trust me when I say that Disney isn’t the only name in “children’s programming” to include a gay character.

CGB: While I already talked about this on my own blog and my Facebook page, but I’ll just rehash some of my thoughts here.

The original film makes it very clear that Lefou, as well as every woman and man in the entire village, is hopelessly enamored with Gaston. In addition, Gaston presents himself (quite loudly and boldly) to be THE ideal man, THE symbol of masculine perfection. Lefou, being Gaston’s right-hand man, would most likely be the one who gets the most sucked into the–I guess we can call it–the cult of Gaston.  It’s not just LeFou, it’s him and all of the village who are swept up in it, which explains why everyone immediately goes along with Gaston’s “let’s-kill-the-Beast” tirade with no questions asked.

Also, let’s look at Lefou himself. What does he personally gain from being around Gaston all the time? They’re not brothers or related in any fashion, and there’s no indication that Lefou owes him money or anything; in retrospect, Lefou has no real reason to associate himself with Gaston at all. One could make the argument that there is a social benefit to being around Gaston, but Lefou is never established to be a self-serving character who is trying to get ahead in society by being around the “right people,” so that wouldn’t hold up.

Simply having a character who happens to be gay in a film is not in and of itself promoting same-sex marriage.  How it is presented is what matters.  LeFou never actively hits on Gaston and there’s no gay wedding at the end.  There will be those who say, “You give [gay people] an inch and they’ll take a mile!”  However, that inch has to make sense.

You can be a faithful Catholic who staunchly defends the sanctity of marriage and acknowledge that there are LGBT people who are created in His likeness and image.  In fact, that’s basically what we’re supposed to be doing.  We are supposed to bring all people, gay or straight, to the Gospel, not chase them away from it by foaming at the mouth over a fictitious character who happens to be gay.  As Christians, we are called to rise above our outrage culture and be a people of the better way.  Love without truth is permissiveness and truth without love is brutality.  Only the truth spoken with love brings hope and enlightenment.

#2. This film is uber-feminist!

CGB: I’m pretty sure I’ve made it clear by now that I identify as a pro-life feminist (I would emphasize, but the label itself is pretty self-explanatory).  With this lens, I observed that the feminist undertones of this film were centered around the theme of the anti-intellectual village.  For one, notice how only the boys go to school and the girls are the ones learning to keep house. This establishes how Belle is the outsider woman who chooses the solace of books over the conventions of the little town. It is not wrong to use film to point to the very bleak reality that there are still countries in our world where girls are not allowed to read or even go to school.  I would argue that it would probably behoove American feminists to focus less on promoting abortion and more on calling attention to the injustice of depriving girls an education.

MsOWrites: The main issue that Belle has with the villagers is that they choose to stay in their simple, provincial ways. Belle is shown doing laundry by having a horse pull a barrel full of soap and clothes. When I heard about Belle being an inventor who created a washing machine, I actually expected to see her make some kind of steampunk contraption. The invention that Belle created was actually something all the villagers could use. But instead of being open-minded about a better way to do their laundry, they destroy her invention. They also berate her about teaching a young girl to read.

There’s a similar argument going around that Belle, her father, and even the local priest are members of a “literate caste.” Keep in mind that Belle and her father fled Paris in the midst of the plague and that priests are more often than not assigned to minister to small towns. And at the time, priests were well-educated. It’s not that these three deliberately kept their books away from everyone else. They have a school for young boys, but LeFou admits to being illiterate and they would rather side with the amoral war hero (Gaston) over the kind music box maker (Maurice). The townspeople chose to be ignorant throughout the film. You can basically argue that they’re Luddites.

#3. STOCKHOLM SYNDROME!  ARGH!

CGB: Do keep in mind that Belle voluntarily takes her father’s place with no pressure from the Beast to do so. Also, a person with Stockholm syndrome would NEVER argue with their captor

MsOWrites: Belle is a willing participant in her own captivity.  The Beast never truly has power over her, even when he tries to flaunt his authority. Besides, they fall in love after they spend time together and learn more about each other. Here’s a video that goes into more detail. Short version: No, Belle doesn’t have Stockholm Syndrome.

In short, my best friend and I love this movie. Families, go out and see it for yourselves. If you feel more loyal to the original, it is available to buy now. And for anyone who wants to compare this live-action movie to the live-action version of Cinderella, I want to end this blog post with a song, featuring my favorite actress, Sarah Michelle Gellar!

Ghost in the Shell-A Guest Review by A.R.K. Watson

ghost in the shell

Author’s note: This is a review of Ghost in the Shell written by my friend A.R.K. Watson. She’s a huge fan of Ghost in the Shell as a whole and is an anime fan like me. She’s not Japanese, but she did study abroad in Japan for a year and considers herself a fellow Japanophile. So believe me when I say she is the right person to talk about this movie.

Ghost in the Shell is the latest cyberpunk movie to hit the big screen. It is also one of the first western adaptations of a manga and anime since the atrocious Dragonball Evolution movie. It sits in that golden trifecta of reaching anime, cyberpunk, and action movie audiences. It has the potential to be great and also the potential to bomb.

So does it bomb?

No. I am happy to report that it does not in fact bomb.

But you, dear reader, don’t care so much about whether the hoity-toity reviewers will like it. You want to know if you would like this movie.

The answer: it depends on your expectations.

If you are a massive fan and have seen the 1995 movie, read the manga, seen the TV show Stand Alone Complex or other combination of sequel movies and TV shows

This movie was made for you. Right down to some adorable scenes with Batou and basset hounds. Go see it and squeal politely into your hand in the theater so as not to disturb your neighbors. The biggest drawback is while the Tachikoma do make a cameo appearance, their delightful personalities get no screen time. If the movie gets a sequel, we can hope that our dear little spider bots will get a chance to rise up and take over the plot.

If you have never even heard of the original anime or manga until this movie came out Get ready for a beautiful film that draws and improves upon the atmospheric beauty of Blade Runner, with the themes and ambiguity of Total Recall and the cyberpunk aspects of The Matrix. Be warned that like The Matrix, Ghost in the Shell does not have very expressive characters. Unlike The Matrix where Keanu Reeves played the stoic hero, we get Scarlett Johansson instead. It’s not a bad trade off. In fact The Matrix is a good benchmark for discerning whether you would like this movie or not. If you liked The Matrix, you will likely enjoy this movie for its big concepts, beautiful scenery, and graceful action scenes. If you hated The Matrix then this might not be the movie for you.

If you are a fan of Ghost in the Shell ,but have only seen the 1995 movie

You probably won’t like it. Visually this movie often steals scenes shot for shot from the movie but the plot, the villains, the themes are all drawn from the TV show Stand Alone Complex. There is no puppet master or subsequent nirvana-like themes. If the themes and message of the 1995 movie are where your heart truly lays then you will be disappointed. Does that make this a bad adaptation of a movie? Some people will disagree with me, but I don’t think this is a bad adaptation. I cannot explain more, though, without getting into spoilers. If you still want to see the movie, you might consider reading my Spoiler Section below just to set your expectations in the right spot before seeing it. Suffice to say that the message and themes are still faithful to its Buddhist roots and the wider Ghost in the Shell universe.

Now, on to the actual review.

I. The World

Visually this movie is breathtaking. Scenes are taken shot for shot from the 1995 movie and from the Stand Alone Complex TV show. I was afraid this would make the scenes boring for me, a fan who has seen these scenes on multiple rewatchings. It did not. There were enough changes and alterations to keep me interested and thankful that I took the chance to see this film on the big screen where I could really appreciate it.

II. The Characters

Scarlett Johansson does a good job. Seriously. Hate her or love her, I cannot fault her acting in this. In the manga and anime, Major Motoko Kusanagi is not the most emotive, expressive, or empathetic character. She’s very stoic to be honest. I’ve read many a review that criticizes Johannson for this stoic-ness, but she couldn’t have done differently without her role feeling too different from the Motoko I know in the anime. There’s something about the strength in Johansson’s acting that compells me to the point that, at times, I felt more engaged by her character than the anime version.

Pilou Asbaek is perfect as Batou, the male lead in this movie. He did an even better job than Johannson. Pilou Asbaek conveyed Batou’s strength as well as his subtle emotional vulnerability. Also they gave an origin story for his cyber eyes that is tied to his secret/not-so-secret crush on Motoko. It was adorable and was one of the moments I had a hard time not making fangirl squee in the movie theater. (In case you can’t tell, I totally ship it!)

“Beat” Takeshi Kitano portrays Chief Daisuke Aramaki. He’s basically this movie’s version of Director Nick Fury from Avengers and he does an okay job. I liked that they have him deliver all his lines in Japanese, but there were a few times where Takeshi seemed too stoic. He almost looked bored when he delivered his lines. But overall, I think he did a decent job. He even gets an action scene, which was pretty cool.

The other characters are all very background though. I would have enjoyed seeing more of Togusa, Ishikawa, and Saito but I understand why they couldn’t fit everything in. I really hope there’s a sequel because I would love these characters to get more development!

About the Whitewashing

Yes, yes I know. You’ve heard this so many times you are sick of it I’m sure. But it needs to be addressed.

Yes, casting Johansson as the Major is whitewashing. It is bad. They should’ve cast a Japanese actress.

No, the approval of the casting by Japanese citizens does not make this okay. This isn’t just about doing justice to the original content. As the Japanese people in that video explain, a diverse casting is in keeping with the aesthetic of a lot of anime and Johansson does actually look like the Motoko in animation.

This is about the USA and the Hollywood version of a Japanese story. In Japan, the Japanese are the majority. Any westerner regardless of color or race is a minority and suffers the subsequent institutionalized inequalities that come with that. Anyone not racially Japanese, for example, can never gain the right to vote regardless of whether they become a citizen or not. So perhaps if Japan were to make their own live action version of Ghost in the Shell, it would be more appropriate for them to cast Johansson. Even then, it would still be a little creepy given how the Japanese often over idealize white people. Its almost exactly the same way some American guys just love Asian girls in that overly creepy way.

But Japan didn’t make this movie. Hollywood did. This is the same Hollywood in which Asian actors and actresses face greater hurdles to land roles, where they are usually the sidekick or best friend. This is the Hollywood where Asian actors are pressured to spend a ton of money on tutors to lose their accent and then asked to lean into that same accent on set in order to make the role more “ethnic.” It isn’t the Japanese citizens who are the final word on whether or not the casting is inappropriate—it’s American Japanese citizens who are.

By now I’m sure you are saying, but Watson, you saw the movie, are you saying I shouldn’t? Perhaps, but not before considering two more points.

  1. This movie is actually diverse. If it weren’t an adaptation I think people would notice that more. Of the named characters I counted six white people and seven persons of color, and that’s not even getting into the great efforts this movie took to involve Japanese crew. They even recast Ishikawa as a Black man. While I do still wish they made Motoko Japanese, if you boycott this movie solely based on whitewashing the main character, those many POV actors won’t get the acclaim they deserve.
  2. They do give a story reason for the whitewashing in the movie. I will tell you what that is in the spoiler section, but for now I can only say that the reason is in keeping with the wider themes explored in Ghost in the Shell and it made sense in the context of the story. Will the reason please everyone? No. I wasn’t particularly pleased myself, but it does leave a plot opportunity open to fix the issue in a sequel. Major Motoko is, after all, a cyborg. She is already emotionally disconnected to her body. Changing faces would be no problem and she is even given a plot reason to seriously consider doing so.
  3. Giving this movie no success at all will do about as much for encouraging more live action anime adaptations as if you decided to spend your ticket on an adaptation where all the actors were white and the writers clearly didn’t even read the original source material. I guess I don’t want this movie to have all the success. I just want it to make just enough money for Hollywood to realize that this is an untapped audience and that we might give them our money if they would take the time to get it right.

It’s because of this last reason that I decided to see the movie. I cannot say I regret going. Despite everything this movie truly is the big budget faithful adaptation of an anime that we’ve been waiting for.

Spoilers Ahead! Beware!!

Saw the movie? Awesome!

From here on out I will assume you know what I’m talking about and thus cut down on the summary. You’ve seen the movie and you know how you feel about it. I just want to take the time to point out two aspects you might not be aware of if you haven’t seen the other Ghost in the Shell media or if you’ve only seen the 1995 movie. The last bit is my final and very conflicted word on the whitewashing issue in light of the “twist.”

About the Villain

Peter Ferdinando’s portrayal of Cutter, the Hanka Robotics’ CEO ,was trite and boring. Also, how the hell did a white man start running an obviously Japanese company? Forget him!

The real interesting villain is Hideo Kuze, played by Michael Pitt. Kuze is inspired by the villain of Stand Alone Complex season two. I say “inspired by” because there are a lot of differences, but I think that this is where the live action movie actually improves the storyline.

What they got right—Michael Pitt does look a little similar to the Kuze in Stand Alone Complex (S.A.C. for short) ., if perhaps you mashed him with the rogue A.I. Roy Batty from Blade Runner. Just like in the original anime, he is going on a revenge spree and he does have a human created neural network, though in S.A.C., the network was very voluntary and much less creepy. It’s also never fully explained or explored; much like it is in this movie, so I suppose I can’t blame the 2017 movie for being confusing when the original content is as well. The TV show version also gives Kuze a backstory in which a personal connection to Motoko Kusanagi is implied, but we are given scant details and it never felt genuine to me. Apparently they were childhood friends who helped each other deal with being full cyborgs before he got shipped off to war and framed for war crimes he didn’t commit. The anime version of Kuze was definitely not a teenage runaway. Honestly though I prefer the 2017 backstory for Kuze. He’s a much more emotionally interesting character here than he is in S.A.C. and it makes him and Motoko all the more interesting for it.

The many lives of Motoko’s backstory

In the anime and manga, Motoko’s backstory has already gone through some subtle changes but in no version was she a teen runaway or a victim of human experimentation.

In the original story, Motoko was always someone who became a cyborg at a very young age and with the full consent of her parents or guardians. In the TV show Stand Alone Complex, her backstory is that she was the victim of a terrorist attack when she was in elementary school and suffered a coma. In order to have a normal life, she was moved to a fully synthetic body and grew up as a cyborg. In the more recent movie series, Arise, her back story was changed so that it was actually her mother who was a victim of a terrorist attack when she was pregnant with Motoko and one of the EMP’s on the scene saved the consciousness of unborn Motoko by transferring it to a cyber brain. In that version, she grows up with absolutely no memories of having a human body.

I think you can see where the 2017 movie got its idea for “Meera Killian’s” terrorist victim backstory can’t you?

I must say too I actually like the changes made to this version of Motoko’s backstory. Meera/Motoko still has lost most all her memories of having an normal body so if they make sequels to the movie they can still explore that body-mind dissonance that is so fascinating in the original story, but with the added drama that bringing her birth mother into it entails.

While it is implied in the anime that she had a normal childhood other than the cyborization, we never actually meet her parents, be they natural or adoptive. Motoko is very James Bond like in that she rarely shows deep emotion and serves more as the show’s unshakable noir-type investigator. I found myself more emotionally engaged by this version of Motoko than I have ever before. That scene where Motoko meets her mother is a perfect example of two actresses with some really good talent. Johansson did a great job but Kaori Mamoi, who played Motoko’s mother, blew everyone in that movie out of the water in just one scene.

Also I have a Catholic joke for you nerds out there. Motoko’s fake name in this movie was Meera—as in the Irish version of the name Mary. Did anyone laugh when our Marian cyborg said, “I was made for justice” or was that just me and my apophenia?

Again with the Whitewashing

For all that I still have problems with casting Motoko as a white woman, I also love the message that this movie sends against whitewashing. The exploration of the way that the cyborization is inhuman is pure cyberpunk. By casting Motoko as white and calling to attention her stolen memories and stolen race, the movie makes it very clear that treating a person as just a mind or disembodied soul is disrespectful. Cyborization is itself the ultimate white washing, and it isn’t just that it would be less common for companies to issue Black cyber bodies—even the so-called Arian model cyborgs would likely be the idealized version instead of the reality. Body diversity even within the white population would be erased and replaced with whatever the current fashion says is the ideal body type. Full cyborization is a tragedy. The original manga and show knew it and so does this film, most of the time. Even when the original content portrayed Motoko as someone whose life was saved by cybertech, the grief Motoko experiences for her dead body never really leaves her and I’m glad that the live action movie found a new way to explore the same theme.

Then again, if they don’t recast her as Asian in the sequel that whole message will mean nothing won’t it?

Regardless, I am not sad I saw this movie. It truly was the big budget Hollywood adaptation of an anime that Japanophile nerds have been waiting for. So I did it. I went. I gave my money and I even sort-of recommend it. But, hey if the amount of racist stuff in this world is getting you down it’s totally a worthy move to take a day or moment off and just save yourself the mental health. If that’s the case do yourself a favor and go see Moana.

Now it’s up to Hollywood. Give us a sequel and/or different adaptation and give us a Japanese casting already!