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!

A Night at the Movies: Avengers- Age of Ultron

 

So yesterday, I finally went to the movies to see Avengers: Age of Ultron. Whenever I go see a movie, I’m usually able to still think and talk like an actual person. Some movies, however, have the power to leave me breathless. Serenity was one of those movies. Avengers: Age of Ultron is another one. It’s no surprise, though, given that they’re both directed by Joss Whedon.

I’ve been a fan of all things Whedon since my college days, but it’s not until recently that I learned about the kinds of cinematography he likes to use and the themes he carries with him. So for this post, I’m going to look into the movie as a fan of Whedon and showing where he made his mark and what I think of it.

SPOILERS ABOUND. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED

First of all, Whedon is very fond of the one-take. He did this in the opening shot of the Angel Season 5 episode “Conviction” as well as the opening shot of Serenity. So it’s no surprise that the opening shot of Avengers: Age of Ultron is a breathtaking single shot, ending with the money shot shown in the trailers:

moneyshot

I need this as a poster for my room.

 

Although this movie stands well on its own, you have to have seen some movies to get what’s going on here 100%. Aside from the first Avengers movie, the action prologue continues on the storyline of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The team of Avengers located the HYDRA base that was teased in Winter Soldier in the hopes of infiltrating it and getting Loki’s scepter.

When HYDRA’s men start attacking the town nearby, Tony sends out his Iron Legion, created from Iron Man 3. However, the robots aren’t received with open arms. It’s shown that the town does not like Tony Stark. This becomes important later.

We also see, in the action prologue, that the team developed a way to get the Hulk under control. In a scene reminiscent of Dollhouse, Black Widow uses a trigger phrase to calm the Hulk down and change back into Bruce Banner.

Inside the HYDRA base, Tony Stark downloads any information he can get. Then he discovers a secret passage where Loki’s Scepter was kept hidden. Scarlet Witch plants a seed of fear in his mind, giving him a vision of his friends dead and the Chitauri invading again. Driven by this fear, Tony takes the scepter and returns with the other Avengers to Avengers tower.

avengersaou312

You’d think that Tony would learn something after learning about “Phase 2” in the last movie, but Tony has major PTSD issues. So when he and the rest of the Avengers team return to Avengers Tower, he and Bruce examine the scepter and discover an artificial intelligence in the stone. Tony decides to use the artificial intelligence to create Ultron, a global defense artificial intelligence. Cue Science Bros montage!

avengersaou317

After the Science Bros montage, it’s time for a party. There are cameos from James Rhodes, Sam Wilson, and Maria Hill. Pepper Potts and Jane Foster, however, are way too busy with their own lives to appear in this movie. Thankfully, their boyfriends are not above bragging about them. Stan Lee makes his cameo as a WWII veteran chatting things up with Captain America. He asks Thor to give him some Asgard-level liquor and ends up getting dragged out of the party in a drunken stupor, slurring his catchphrase “Excelsior!”

Eventually, the Avengers have their own little after party where they play around with Thor’s hammer, as seen in one of the trailers. It was a hilarious scene, but I barely had a moment to breathe before Ultron made his entrance and crashed the after-party. It’s sad that Ultron was evil right from the start. The usage of Pinocchio’s “I’ve Got No Strings” from the trailers plays out here as Ultron’s units awaken, culminating in the building in Sokovia lighting up with a snippet from the original version in the best usage of soundtrack dissonance.

Once Ultron uploads himself onto the internet and into his robot drones, he meets Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver inside of a church.

avengersaou305

Throughout the movie, Ultron makes a lot of biblical references and has a major God complex. This is something that Joss has done before, such as creating The Anointed One in the early seasons of Buffy. But in actuality, Ultron reminds me a lot of Angelus, with his desire to break the Avengers on a personal level, childish demeanor, and desire to ultimately destroy the world.

Quicksilver-and-Scarlet-Witch

I will also use this scene to indulge in a bit of Slayerette fangirl squee. Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch remind me a lot of Spike and Drusilla. Like Spike, Quicksilver is blonde with a hot accent who doesn’t exactly think of the long-term consequences. Like Drusilla, Scarlet Witch can hypnotize people and prey on their worst fears. The two of them have way too much chemistry to be just siblings, but that’s just the actors, I guess. However, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch’s motivations in this movie are revenge-based instead of wanting to cause chaos. They have a grudge against Tony Stark because his weapons killed their parents. Never mind that it was probably someone who stole Stark’s weapons. The name on the weapon was Stark’s, so he became the target of their vengeance.

The three of them go to the base in Africa where vibranium is developed by an arms dealer named Ulysses Klaue. The Avengers show up at the base, but Scarlet Witch gets into most of their heads.

avengersaou350

 

Of course, Hawkeye saves the day with a “No sell! So last season!” move, electrocuting Scarlet Witch with one of his arrows. However, that comes after a lot of hallucinations. Thor hallucinates Heimdall falling into a state of decadence and also gets glimpses of four gems. Captain America hallucinates that he’s in a USO party, where Peggy Carter is waiting to dance with him. Coming off of Agent Carter, I start bursting into tears. But by far, the worst hallucination was Natasha’s. Instead of showing her worst fears, Natasha relives the worst moments of her life: being trained as an assassin and “graduating”from her training by being sterilized.

Eventually, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver escape from the factory and Scarlet Witch implants her fear spell into The Hulk. Hulk is then seen rampaging in the city, prompting Iron Man to use his Hulkbuster suit. The battle is long with a lot of collateral damage and the Avengers are forced into hiding.

Clint flies the team over to his house on a farm, where it’s revealed that he has a wife and two kids, with one more on the way. My Clintasha ship sunk fast with this scene. It’s also in this quiet scene where Natasha and Bruce share backstories. Bruce tells her that he can never have kids because the Hulk renders him sterile and Natasha reveals that she was forcibly sterilized.

avengersaou326

The whole Bruce/Natasha ship along with Natasha’s backstory is the reason tumblr and twitter got all up in arms over Whedon. I was honestly surprised to see Natasha flirting with Bruce at the party, but the fact that Natasha was sterilized is not anti-feminist. It’s called backstory. She was trained to be an assassin. I saw in Agent Carter an earlier version of the training that Natasha went through. It makes sense that Natasha would be sterilized as part of a “graduation” ceremony because they want their assassins to put the mission first. Women like Natasha would be sleeping with many men as part of gaining information and babies, sad to say, get in the way of that.

Meanwhile, everyone else mulls over what to do. Hawkeye has a lot of quiet moments with his wife. Thor goes off to England to consult with Erik Selvig. Stark finds out that Nick Fury is still alive. Fury proceeds to motivate the team into stopping Ultron. Bruce looks at a picture of a butterfly that one of Hawkeye’s kids drew and realizes that Ultron wants a human body  and they know someone with the technology to create that.

Cut to Seoul, where Ultron puts scientist friend Helen Cho under the influence of the Mind Gem and asks her to create a body that he can upload himself into. In the process, Wanda uses her mind reading powers and sees that Ultron wants to destroy the world, not just the Avengers. Wanda snaps Dr. Cho out of the mind gem’s control, but it happens too little too late.

avengersaou306

The fight gets taken to Seoul as the Avengers fight to get the “cradle” as they call it to safety. But once the cradle gets taken back to Avenger’s Tower, the first thing Tony wants to do is upload JARVIS into it. He gets into a fight with Captain America over it. Ultimately, Thor comes in and literally charges the body inside the cradle to life. JARVIS comes out of the cradle with the Mind Stone at the center of its forehead. He isn’t JARVIS anymore, either. Thor explains that he went to London to consult Erik Selvig about the hallucination he saw. After a fanservicey trailer scene, Thor receives a vision of the Infinity Stones, foreshadowing the oncoming Infinity War. The Avengers debate as to whether or not Vision should help them out, but that question gets resolved as Vision gives Thor his hammer.

Everyone in the audience gasped at the cutaway shot that shows Vision easily holding Thor’s hammer. I had no clue that the little Hammer Pick Up scene at Thor’s party would actually be referenced again later. It was enough for me to believe that Vision was on the side of good.

The Avengers go back to Sokovia where Ultron plans on raising the capital city to the sky, using it as a meteor to destroy the world. The race is on to get all civilians to safety. Many Avengers are quick to put civilian safety as their number one priority (take that Man of Steel), including Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. Fury arrives in a Helicarrier in one of the best Big Damn Heroes moments since, well, Firefly. In the midst of this fight, Hawkeye helps Wanda as she gets into a mental breakdown, overwhelmed at the fight.

“You step out the door, you’re an Avenger,” he said.

Cue Wanda stepping out just in time to save the day.

There’s this epic shot of the Avengers fighting off all the robots as they protect the flying city from falling that left me breathless and overwhelmed, but it was gorgeous cinematography.

There’s also a wonderful scene where Bruce saves Natasha from Ultron’s lair. She kisses him and then pushes him over the edge to bring the Hulk out. Fans are also up in arms about Natasha being a damsel in distress, but  I’ll let it slide because Natasha was still active even while she was captured. The two of them move on to help out with the Battle of Seoul.

Throughout the movie, lines that are called “death flags” are scattered throughout, making everyone think that Hawkeye was going to die. However, as everyone continues to rescue civilians, it’s actually Quicksilver that dies instead. (So yes, Quicksilver is also like Spike in the sense that he died helping to save the world. No, I’m still not over it!)

The city starts falling, but Thor and Iron Man work together to shatter the city and Vision confronts Ultron’s last body. It’s here that we see Joss Whedon using Vision as another Ubermensch. Ultron represents a dark version of the Ubermensch, but Vision is the more straightforward version.

In the midst of the aftermath, the Hulk goes into a stealth jet and disappears, even with Natasha wanting to communicate with him. The movie comes to an end in upstate New York with a new base and a new Avengers team.

First of all, the credits were amazing. I want that statue that appears at the end. It’s something worthy of Michaelangelo. And the mid-credits scene? Yep, I am definitely hyped about Infinity War now.

So now for my overall analysis.

I feel like this movie was amazing. It’s just a heck of a roller coaster ride. I feel like some of the characters were a bit underrused and there’s a reason I felt breathless at the end of it. The movie gives you very little room to breathe because everything happens at a breakneck pace.

I’ll admit that Bruce and Natasha’s romance wasn’t well-paced in this movie, but I feel like Joss did his best given the number of plots he had to juggle in this movie. It actually made a lot of sense once I thought about it because they have a lot in common aside from not being able to have children. I’m also okay with her being captured because, as said before, she wasn’t particularly in distress. It could’ve happened with any other character.

Joss puts all the female characters in the movie in active roles. Helen Cho is more than just Asian eye candy. She plays an essential role in the creation of vision and she doesn’t die. Iron Man and Thor compare their girlfriends instead of their own accomplishments. You see Maria Hill playing an active role in keeping things running smoothly. But the breakout female character in this movie is actually Scarlet Witch, who starts out evil but earns her redemption within the movie just because she doesn’t want to destroy the world.

I know that Joss isn’t perfect. But I still respect and love him as a person, which means that I’ll be that fan who will defend Joss Whedon when it comes to his wonderful line of female characters.

Whether you’re a Whedonite or a Marvel fan, I highly recommend that you see Avengers: Age of Ultron. Just make sure you remember to breathe after it’s done.

Still images are copyright to Marvel Entertainment and Joss Whedon and are used for editorial purposes only.