Ghost in the Shell has been a series that always intimidated me and inspired me. As a child, wrapping my head around the themes and politics driving the movies and Stand Alone Complex was nearly impossible. Even now, reading the original manga has me reading every footnote to further educate myself on the intricacies of Shirow Masamune’s vision of the future.
But as an adult, I soon realized how beautiful and philosophical the original Ghost in the Shell was; as technology becomes more advanced, personal boundaries between people become more and more blurred. Motoko, with a doll-like expression, fears that, whoever she used to be, has been erased by cyber enhancement. I compare it to Loki’s Socks: the more you patch up the sock and replace it, does it remain the same sock or begin existence as something completely different? The thought of someone’s identity being blurred by technology terrified and intrigued me. But it also felt like the next step of human evolution, especially with our world today and social media.
Then came along the live-action Ghost in the Shell movie. The film cobbles together characters and ideas from many of the franchises films and TV series into an origin story. Unlike the world of the original franchise, the Major is the first of her kind, the only fully cyberized human being. In Stand Alone Complex, Motoko’s tragic backstory is touched upon briefly, but it is never the center of the story. As I mentioned, as an origin story, it was a good idea to focus on this aspect of her life, but it never goes to the philosophical implications of the original film. The plot of an amnesiac is nothing new, and maybe that’s why the original series brushed over it.
Be warned, spoilers ahead. You sure you want to continue? Okay.
The biggest concern with the film was the white-washing of Motoko Kusanagi. The world of the live-action Ghost in the Shell screams Blade Runner, which in itself had its own distinctive Japanese flare. However, with a diverse cast, the mixture of Eastern and Western influence isn’t too jarring. That is until the film reveals that Scarlett Johannson’s character, Major Mira Killian, is really a Japanese woman named Motoko Kusanagi that was implanted in the shell of a Caucasian person. White-washing is literally a plot element in the movie. Another white cyborg in the film, a man named Kuze (a mixture of the Puppet Master from the original movie and Kuze from Stand Alone Complex 2nd Gig), is also revealed to be originally named Hideo. However, if the twist had more of an emotional impact, maybe, just maybe, it could have worked, but the Major doesn’t go through any type of identity crisis upon learning the truth nor does Kuze.
The twist is slightly reminiscent of the plot of Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, which in turn borrows most of its plot from chapter six of the original manga. In those stories, children were kidnapped in order to copy their ghosts into androids in order to appear more lifelike. In the movie, the plot is more like brainwashing in order to create soldiers. However, instead of delving into this further, the movie becomes a typical revenge plot where the heroine was being played all along.
But hey, the movie sure is beautiful. As I mentioned earlier, the world gives off a Blade Runner vibe though a bit more glamorous. Sometimes, I felt like the movie tried a bit too hard to be futuristic, with a few background characters wearing over-the-top sci-fi clothes that made me chuckle. Also, I swear I’d crash my car if I saw a holographic, giant fish swimming down the street. Besides that, the aesthetic was nice, especially the designs of the geisha robots.
As a fan of the series, the references and nods were both the highlight of the film and detractor. Visually, scenes like the Major jumping from atop a building and coming up from diving in the sea were beautifully recreated. However, the scene with the garbage men, one of my favorites from the original film, felt poorly acted and choppy near the end. However, I did prefer one scene over the original film, and that is the penultimate scene where the Major tears open the giant spider tank: in the live action movie, it served a purpose, but the original movie led to Motoko’s arms being torn apart with her being helpless until Batou saved her. Other nods, such as Batou’s love of dogs, helped breathe life into a film that mostly just feels soulless.
Speaking of other characters, beyond the Major, Batou, and Aramaki, the rest of Section 9 felt unnecessary. Granted, some characters were just as minor in the original film, but the lack of screen time for Togusa was really disappointing. In a world of cyberization, Togusa was the every man, a person that we could relate to. But in the live-action movie, he merely pushes conversations along. It’s a shame because I thought his actor, Chin Han, did a pretty good job with what little he had.
Ishikawa, Borma, and Ladriya (a gender-bend of Paz, I assume) didn’t add much either beyond a joke or two, and you never get any sense of comradery from them either. I would have loved more moments with them. Beat Takeshi’s portrayal of Aramaki, head of Section 9, was decent. Whenever he wasn’t being a bad ass, he appeared tired, whether he was giving orders or just observing from his chair.
Depending on the iteration, Motoko Kusanagi is a completely different woman. In the manga, the Major is sassy and unafraid of unleashing a joke or two. In the original movie, the Major is more subdued, serious and doll-like. In Stand Alone Complex, Motoko is a strong woman that can still crack a joke every once in a while. The manga even says at the end of the first chapter, “The only thing certain was that there had been a need to resolve a crisis, and that the woman (or women) known as Motoko Kusanagi (obviously an alias) was extremely talented.”
So, which Major is Scarlett Johannson? If I had to choose, she fits more with the original film’s Major, but she doesn’t completely come across as emotionless. She allows herself to let out her emotions but retain a somewhat cold demeanor throughout the film. If anything, she fits more as another of many facets of the Major’s character rather than a specific portrayal. Granted, ScarJo felt a bit awkward in some scenes.
Overall, for a Hollywood anime adaptation, Ghost in the Shell is decent. Hell, if you aren’t a fan of the original franchise, you might really enjoy this movie. But those who have experienced it before and know its true potential, the live-action movie is a shell missing its ghost.