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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.