The Missing Ghost: A Review of Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Perhaps the most exciting thing on my non-existent anime calendar of the year is the release of the new Ghost in the Shell (GITS) movie. Unless you live under a rock, you would have heard of the controversy surrounding casting Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi – giving a white woman a role as an ethnically-ambiguous-but-presumably-Japanese cyborg. Some blogs attributed the movie’s poor reception to this controversy. However, after seeing the film, I think that Scarlett Johansson is least of the movie’s problems. Rather, the storytelling is the bigger problem as it fails to capture the original anime’s core concepts.

Who is ‘ Major’?

Within the source material, GITS tells the story of Public Security Section 9, a fictional counter-cyberterrorism organisation that closely works with the Diet (Japanese Parliament) in the mid-21st century Japan. Major Motoko Kusanagi (‘Major’) is a full cyborg except for her brain and spinal cord. Although she is the first of the kind, she takes on the appearance of a generic, mass-produced model.

To this day, I still struggle to understand the casting controversy. It is true that this anime is set in futuristic Japan, a racially homogenous country. However, anime is a fluid medium. Although most stories are set in Japan, the characters do not have to be ethnically Japanese. Major’s background is deliberately vague in the original films – her partial backstory is revealed only in Stand Alone Complex. Even then, her ethnicity is not exactly mentioned. Thus, every director of this franchise designed her appearance differently. Major’s ethnicity should not be the sole focus of the casting process.

Major in the Film

I have no problem with Scarlett Johansson as Major; to be honest, I think she gave a fairly convincing portrayal. However, my complaint lies with how Major was characterised in this adaptation.

In the original film, Major is a strong, intelligent female protagonist who is dedicated to her work. While she does frequently ponder over individuality, existence, consciousness and various philosophical points, she rarely let those question take precedence over her role. In essence, she is the ultimate leader and fighter. However, in this adaptation, we start off with a fearless leader who quickly transforms into a mess midway through the film. From that point onwards, she is guided by her sense for revenge. Personally, I think Togusa, who is known to be the most emotional person in Section 9, had more confidence and was more suave than Major. Rather than having a strong female lead, we ended up with a wayward character.

The Discourse

The development of Major reveals an underlying problem with this adaptation. Her main motive for the second half of the film is to uncover her origins and take revenge on HANKA Robotics, who designed and developed her shell as a prototype. The main reason being HANKA abducted her and her friends to experiment on and then used her as a military weapon. The central conflict is between corporation and individuals – typical Hollywood-style. When Major finally reconciles with her past,  she is suddenly empowered to find her resolution. There is a strong underlying message that having individuality is empowering.

This is a clear departure from the original franchise. Originally, Major has no past to rely on, as her past information is rarely, if ever, presented. Since Major is connected to the cybernet, her memories, actions and individuality can be altered, and this leads to many philosophical questions. The most prominent of which: if your emotion, knowledge, capabilities can be altered or manipulated, how can you be sure that you are real? The source materials delve into this, in great depth, presenting and analysing the relevant discourses.

It’s fine to diverge from source materials. However, the divergence here is quite problematic. The genre of cyberpunk films embraces the advent of technology; nevertheless, it is clear that this film rejects this idea. Since so much of the discourse in GITS is based on the premise of widespread acceptance of cyberization and the advent of cybernet, this new adaptation essentially destroys any potential for discussing the nature of humanity, artificial intelligence, memory, consciousness and reality. In the end, the message is typically Hollywood, promoting the western idea of the importance of individualism and the evils of the giant corporation. This is a significant departure from the more nuanced exploration of individualism, consciousness, identity, artificial intelligence and so forth in the original franchise.

Other things I still don’t understand

I found it strange that Chief Aramaki is the only person who speaks Japanese in the film. Even if everyone can quickly translate Japanese with their cyberbrain, is it necessary to have only one person speaking Japanese?

Furthermore, why is the studio so insistent on giving the Major a backstory? From what I understand, Major’s parents died. In the original franchise, her backstory is never the focus; rather, her work with Section 9 is the main focus.

Finally, I do not understand why the many philosophical discourses have been left out. While it’s not everyone’s piece of cake, the original film gave the audience sufficient viewpoints to allow them to form their own opinion. The TV-series made the discourse comprehensible through the adorable Tachikoma machines (quirky killing machines and budding philosophers). Rupert Saunders could have easily picked and focused on any of those discourses within the original franchise. Instead, Saunders took the visuals, characters and some plots of the original film, gratuitously slapped on a very strong, but Hollywood, message of individualism and called it Ghost in the Shell. The visuals may be stunning, but, GITS’ central themes – i.e. the ‘ghost’ – is missing from its extravagant shell.

Conclusion and Final Verdict

The new Ghost in the Shell adaptation is a visually stunning movie. However, it betrayed the essence of GITS. Instead of starting an interesting conversation about the future of technology, this movie sells the typical Hollywood message about individualism. I found it rather disappointing, but at least there won’t be a sequel to be more disappointed in.