Tentacle-Free Anime: "Ghost in the Shell" [Live-Action] (2017)
- by Kazekun, 6 April 2017
Well, you know what we're here to discuss. Do you really need me to point it out? Hollywood has released yet another live-action anime adaptation despite the pleas from fans. But, is it actually any good? Deep breath, everyone. Today we're talking about...
I've been trying to figure out how best to go about this review. What I specifically wanted to focus on and in what order. What merits this film bolsters, but at the same time completely flubs. Amidst all the controversy surrounding the release of this film, with claims of whitewashing with the casting of Scarlett Johansson (ScarJo) in the role of Major Matoko Kusanagi, everyone seems to have forgotten that, at the end of the day, this film is attempting to tell some kind of story. What is that story? And does it work?
To its merit, GitS does keep the heart of the original narrative intact. It's a journey about discovering the truth of one's humanity and taking back one's own identity. Forging a new path for oneself in the face of those who would obstruct your ability to choose. And, at the end of the day, to ask yourself what makes you human and not just a weapon. Or in this case, a ghost in a shell.
Unfortunately, the way this film goes about telling that story is by focusing on one of the least interesting aspects of the Major's life: who was she before she became the Major? And doubling down on that decision, and this is where the film does admittedly get hard to defend, we discover near the end that the Major was in fact a Japanese woman taken from her home and forced into a lab experiment that saw her brain placed into the synthetic body of a white woman played by ScarJo.
Controversy aside, narratively this makes little sense to explore as I find it hard to believe that any scientist, no matter how evil, would find it fitting to take someone of one race and purposely place their brains into a body that represents another. Now in the anime, the reason why we never explore her past is because it defeats the purpose of who Major is as a character and also downplays one of her most interesting features: a cyborg who can download her brain into any other cyborg body no matter the race or gender. Which is an ability put on little display here in the film.
In this, the story falters quite a bit and for me the “twist” definitely does not work. As its own story it has promise, but once you find out that Major has been race-swapped the whole thing becomes instantly more unbearable to watch the longer it continues. In my personal opinion, it was a dumb decision and really those making this film should have just stuck with old faithful: is the Major human or man-made?
That all being said, I will contest that Ghost in the Shell is in fact one of the better live-action anime adaptations that Hollywood has given us, and it also beats out some of the big-budget Japanese live-action anime adaptations I've seen. I'm mostly looking at you, Attack on Titan. And I would not count this out as a completely unwatchable film.
While big creative decisions are made for the character of Major that hurt her more than they help, for a lot of the rest of the characters we get more or less pretty good adaptations. I will admit to Batou being a bit more exuberant than I'm used to him being, and Chief Aramaki gets a lot more action in this than he normally does in the anime. But overall, the characters remain likeable and keep the spirit of their predecessors. Batou is loyal to the bone for Major and will do anything for her.
Chief Aramaki runs Section 9 with a guiding and understanding hand. And even Togusa, though he doesn't get a ton of love, gets in on the action. I found myself enjoying more of the elements of Ghost in the Shell that felt familiar because, for me, there is a reason that those things already worked. The film seemed to be firing on all cylinders when I could sit there and picture certain decisions with characters and moments as an anime. Or similar decisions that a Japanese animator would probably have made.
And certainly on the topic of animation, this film is stylistically gorgeous. I really enjoyed way the future was made to look in this film. From the giant holograms on the sides of buildings to the colorful cyberpunk aesthetic the city and its inhabitants draw from. Truly, with the exception of some CGI budget flubs, it was a visual feast the entire time I was watching this film. I also really enjoyed the multiculturalism of the future.
There are a ton of callbacks to the original Mamoru Oshii films as well. From Major's famous dive-bomb off of a building using her tactical camouflage suit to Batou's adoption of a cute little Basset Hound. From Major's body being ripped apart while attempting to take down a Spider-Tank to the inclusion of the Lawless Zone – the really orange and yellow city area from the film Innocence we discussed.
As far as adaptations go, GitS does a really good job at spending more time feeling like an adventure in the life of Major rather than something else entirely.
The only other areas of the film's narrative that I didn't enjoy was the addition of a generic revenge plot with the revelations of who the Major really is. The big bad guy in this movie being far less compelling than that of our A-Story bad guy, Kuze. And Kuze himself flubbing out at the end as a man secretly trying to prove to Major who she really is by doing a lot of bad things in order to attract her attention. It felt kind of lazy story wise in my opinion.
The verdict is already in that this movie is sort of a flop in the box office. That whole whitewashing thing really bit them in the ass and actually working that middle finger into the story certainly did not help. However, I would like to stress once again that Ghost in the Shell is not a terrible movie and definitely not the worst adaptation we as fans have received. It's more fun than it is cringe-worthy, and though the CGI can look pretty rough at some points, overall its pretty gorgeous to look at it.
It's simply too bogged down by baffling creative decisions that add to a long list historically made by the West (and the East in some cases) in not completely understanding the medium in which they're attempting to adapt. Some movies make these creative liberties work. For example, KITE surprised me with how well its changes worked. Others, like Dragonball Evolution, simply exist to boggle the mind at this point in how literally any of it got past the scripting phase. And arguably the brainstorming phase.
Ghost in the Shell, for me, sits directly in the middle. I will never understand why they chose to focus on what they did with the character of Major, but I also can't completely hate it for all the other fun decisions that were made in making sure that, at the very least, somewhere the spirit of the franchise was kept alive. And with that, I think I answered those original questions. Does this film work? In some cases no, in others, yes. It all depends on who you are as fan and a viewer.
I support the push to give more Asians and Asian-Americans leading roles in a big-budget Hollywood films. But I don't hate this film for what it did. I hate, more than anything else, that it's still going to be several more years before any of us anime fans will get a really good adaptation from America for which we can be proud of. That's a blockbuster anyways. We still have Netflix's American Death Note adaptation on the horizon. And we'll see how that goes.
Final Score: 3 Failed Synthetic Body-Swapping Experiments out of 5
Have you seen the America Ghost in the Shell? Was it as bad as you expected, or a pleasant surprise? Let us know below!