The most telling line in this version of Ghost in The Shell is: “Your uniqueness is a virtue. Embrace it, and you will be at peace.” Delivered here by iconic Japanese comedian, TV show host, actor, and arthouse director ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano, it is a bold statement coming from a live-action Hollywood remake of a Japanese animated film. The source material for the mid-nineties animated classic, directed by Mamoru Oshii, has spawned many direct sequels and spin-offs, and heavily influenced the 1999 mega-hit Hollywood blockbuster, The Matrix, is in fact a 1989 Manga (loosely translated, “Mobile Armoured Riot Police: The Ghost In The Shell”) which I am guessing was liberally influenced by William Gibson’s cyberpunk novel, “Neuromancer” (long has this been trying to find its way to the big screen), and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (the latter weirdly -barely- adapted from Philip K. Dick’s novella “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”)
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The Japanese port city in Ghost in the Shell visually resembles the future Los Angeles of Blade Runner (which, again I am guessing, was inspired by Tokyo’s visually dense Shibuya’s district and Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira) commensurate with what can be realized on screen at the present moment with $100M. Even the cyber-surgery sequences seem lifted somewhat from HBO’s Westworld, itself a re-envisioning (inverting?) of the 1973 Michael Crichton movie.
What can we read from this line about ‘uniqueness’ in a property that is so very much a copy of a copy of a copy? To that, I quote another line in Ghost In The Shell, “We cling to memories as if they define us, but they don’t. What we do is what defines us.”
This begs the question: What does this version do to define itself?
Paramount Pictures does an competent job translating some pretty challenging animated sequences from Ghost in the Shell to live action. I was particularly impressed with how ‘horrific’ the imagery is of technology taken to the nth degree, from roadways to voluntary surgeries. Rupert Sanders has a knack for extremely busy images that are terribly cool and cooly terrifying, enough so that he might possibly revitalize a flagging genre with this one (along with Blade Runner 2029 later this year). This is in sharp contrast to Sanders beating a dead horse with his previous CGI fairy tale, the forgettable Snow White and The Huntsman, which borrows a key scene from Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke is a way that is far more egregiously pointless than anything he does with Ghost In The Shell.
Cyberpunk has been taking a backseat in cinema for a decade or more, while writers and directors seem more preoccupied with artificial intelligence over techno-enhancement. Fundamentally, this version of the story eliminates the A.I. gambit of the Puppet Master, the instigator and surprising conclusion of the story in the original Ghost In The Shell, where an A.I. attempts to solidify its ‘genetic longevity’ by merging with an existing cyber-enhanced human, The Major. This version keeps the detective story, but replaces the A.I. plot with a case of stolen and repurposed identities. This is key to understanding that Ghost In The Shell 2017 is in fact a complete re-envisioning and re-evaluation of its own source material; not the mere facsimile that is implied by re-staging several key sequences from the original film or the goose-bump inducing score that plays over the end credits. (Strangely, the usually memorable Clint Mansell, is muted to the point of anonymity for the film proper.)
It is not perfect, but the current film is actually about something. The writers directly address the complex ‘appropriation’ questions swirling about the films raison d’etre, well, beyond easy commercial bank. It also takes the oft-used phrase in remake/reboot/sequel culture of ‘you raped my childhood’ and injects it, not into subtext, but makes it, whole cloth, the text of the story.
*SPOILER ALERT* The Major is in fact a Japanese girl’s brain shell with a white woman’s visage and silicone body, via expensive corporate funding.
The film’s repeated notion of The Major giving verbal ‘consent’ regarding modifications, upgrades, or operating conditions regarding her body (and mind) is very much a piece of the progressive, social justice, culture that hangs thick and gooey in the virtual air of Twitter. That the large corporation later informs The Major that (like the banal complexity of a software EULA) her acceptance of consent was moot, is a superb encapsulation of the cynical nihilism at the heart of cyberpunk. Identity, culture, and even government is owned by the corporations, and it is up to the individual to do something to define themselves in the ever-fecund Venus Flytrap of technology. The film’s most coagulated moment is actually a brief face to face between Motoko and her Japanese mother. It is one of the few sequences that slows down enough in its visual splendour – notably taking place in a spartan tiny apartment and its open balcony. One human, one post-human sizing each other up and doing a tentatively intimate, social ritual over the course of a cup of tea. If Sanders has a weakness in his directing is that he doesn’t sprinkle more of this in amongst the ploy for visual and action beats, here is a film that deserves to be longer. And, if I think about it, Mamoru Oshii’s animated version at 1 hour 17 minutes could have used a bit more meat on its cybernetic exoskeleton and a bit less expositional dialogue, I will be the furthest person from calling the original perfect, it benefitted largely by mixing a lot of hard sci-fi smarts with studio Production I.G.’s visual panache.
The entire swirl of there-and-back-again cultural appropriation, frankly, is more of a strength than something to get all up in arms about. Consider the trajectory of the American Western and Japanese Chanbara ping-ponging from John Ford to Akira Kurosawa to Sergio Leone (and Sergio Corbucci) to Sam Peckinpah to George Lucas (Star Wars is mostly an analog of Hidden Fortress) to John Hillcoat down under with The Proposition, to Kim Ji-Woon’s Kimchi Western to Takashi Miike one two punch of 13 Assassins and Sukiyaki Western Django, to Quentin Tarantino, the current master of cinematic re-appropriation. Tarantino, love him or hate him, actually gets it: I mean were people upset that white Uma Thurman was cast in Kill Bill, or black Jamie Fox was cast in his own ‘southern state’ re-envisioning of Django: Unchanined? Sharing is caring, folks. Or am I over simplifying here?
In the end and in the utter absence of A.I. shenanigans, Ghost In The Shell more than anything resembles 1988’s Robocop in story (an unwilling corporate funded cyborg comes to grips with its retained humanity in an effort to control its destiny going forward), it even embraces the bloody violence, and don’t tell me that the Spider Tank here does not conjure images of the ED 209 as much as it does the Spider Tank in Oshii’s film, or that corporate baddie CEO Cutter is a chip off the old Dick Jones block. However, in adaptation philosophy Rupert Sanders is more akin to Karyn Kusama, and her valiant attempt to sand off some of the sharper edges of Peter Chung’s MTV animated exercise in chaos into a cogent, softer, live action feature. Co-incidentally, they both feature a blonde actress sporting a black wig. And to be clear, I quite like Aeon Flux 2005, and I quite like Ghost in the Shell 2017.
Lastly, because this article seems to be following strands as much as reviewing the film, consider Ghost In The Shell a treatise on the post Lost In Translation career of Scarlett Johansson. She has clearly made her peace in the confusing Japanese technological wonderland, as she dives into Ghost In The Shell with an easy perfection. Along the way, she was a junkie who evolved into a super-being in Luc Besson’s Lucy (notably with Dane actor Pilou Asbaek as her side-kick, wearing sunglasses in that one rather than hard-implanted camera lenses). She was a hapless clone escaping her corporate prison/fate in Michael Bay’s Clonus/THX1138 pastiche The Island, she was a charming A.I. that evolved beyond her original purpose in Spike Jonzes’ Her, she was an alien who discovers human empathy, only to pay the price for it in Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin, and she has long been caught up in a black leather jumpsuit in Marvel’s Avengers franchise, although, oddly, has never been given her own standalone film.
If you still think there was a more culturally appropriate choice for the screenplay of this version of Ghost in The Shell – say, Rinko Kikuchi or Misaki Ito, for instance – well, you might be ignoring the unique facts of this particular case. Embrace it, and you will be at peace.