Some two decades ago, in what seemed like another life, I was browsing through a comic/magazine rack in the mall when I found a booklet, likely a bonus add-on to a larger magazine, that featured a sample chapter of a futuristic Japanese manga that had the English title of “Ghost in the Shell”, starring a good-looking and sexy cyborg government super-agent that could turn invisible. That booklet also included revamped designs of the manga’s characters as they would appear in a Japanese anime film adaptation for 1995, directed by Mamoru Oshii.
I wouldn’t get to see that movie until a few years later on cable, and it blew me away with the depiction of a future where cybernetics and online connection have become so ingrained in society that it begins to blur where the physical and biological ends, and the mechanical and digital begins. This was encapsulated in the philosophical and existential self-examination of Major “Motoko Kusanagi”, cyber counter-terrorist operative of a future Japan’s Ministry of internal Affairs – Public Security Section 9, and pretty much a brain with a human consciousness (termed “ghost”) contained in a full cyborg prosthesis body (termed “shell”).
Granted, I’d learn from further surfing on the net that the protagonist’s characterization has marked differences between film and the original manga, as I noted from playing the licensed PSX videogame which draws from the latter. While I’ve never gotten to play the more recent games nor seen the later anime series and OVAs, I’d like to think I had a solid layman’s knowledge of this sci-fi world setting as they were laid down by the manga creator Masamune Shirow.
Last year when online entertainment media became abuzz with the Dreamworks live-action adaptation of “Ghost in the Shell” starring Scarlett Johansson, I approached it with righteous caution, recalling the rather laughable example of “Dragonball Evolution” in 2009. Heck, the very casting of Johansson as “the Major” was a significant point of contention, a Caucasian movie actress portraying a character generally taken to be Japanese despite the “neutral” ethnic features of her cybernetic body. Remarkably, despite the furor by certain quarters in the Hollywood industry (including some prominent Asian or ethnic Asian actors and actresses), the casting of Johansson was not so commented on in the property’s original home of Japan, where the 1995 movie’s director Oshii was actually rather impressed.
Now onto the Hollywood “Ghost in the Shell” film, directed by Rupert Sanders and produced by Avi Arad (of the early “X-Men” films), the best way to describe it all would be a crystallization (positively) or a mishmash (negatively) of the whole franchise’s most iconic visual cues. The basic framework of the plot is from the 1995 film, although certain scenes are also cribbed from the “Stand Alone Complex” anime series, while the relative “newness” of the Major at her covert-ops job is a nod to the “Arise” original video anime. Listing the mythology gags found in the cinematography would take too long, only that they’re presented, at least in my opinion, in a workable if not dynamic manner. And I almost forgot to mention that this film also borrows an element from another signature anime film, 1988’s “Akira”, which is usually grouped with “GiTS” in the best sci-fi manga/anime stories ever.
Next, let’s look at the plot, a one-and-done deal that takes points from all media iterations of the now-classic manga (Masamune Shirow started it in the late 80’s). We’re introduced to a woman named “Mira Killian” (Johansson) who wakes up in a lab to cyber-scientists telling her that she survived a terror attack that killed her family but needed to have her brain transplanted to a cyborg shell (an intro sequence lovingly recreated from the anime). She accepts her new condition out of having nothing else to do, accepting her assignment to Section 9 as a counter-terrorist operative.
A year into her new existence, Major Mira begins having strange memory “glitches” that may hint to her largely forgotten past, a situation exacerbated by Kuze (Michael Pitt), a cyber-hacker and serial killer that Section 9 is pursuing, who has a vendetta against the robotics company that created her body. With the help of her colleagues in Section 9, and alternatively separate from them, she digs deep in real life and online to uncover the truth to her past. And all this is done in some lush cyberpunk urban backgrounds touched up by brilliant CGI to stand for a future East Asian country (never explicitly stated as Japan, but close).
The casting of support characters for the film also raised eyebrows with some actors portraying government agents with presumably Japanese names (Danish actor Pilou Asbæk as the Major’s work partner Batou, for example). Fortunately some sense prevailed in having some Japanese stars on board (like “Beat” Takeshi Kitano as Section 9 Chief Aramaki). But really, the whole “whitewashing controversy” thing is guaranteed to get viewers who actually come into this film ending up watching it with a predisposition for accentuating the negatives.
I did my best not to lock myself in that mindset to view the movie with a neutral “as is”. And thank goodness for it, because without dwelling on the bad press, Dreamwork’s “Ghost in the Shell” was great at what it set out to do, the lowest descriptor for me being that it was “so okay, it’s average”. But I’m feeling generous and will say the whole experience was cool. Must be my nostalgia goggles going gaga at everything from the old translated into the live-action new, with the necessary twists (the Major’s actual identity in this version) to avoid becoming a full retread. By the time I saw the ending shot being one last recreation of a signature scene done all the way back from that manga snippet I saw in a comic shelf during the 90’s, I knew my ticket was worth it.
Photo courtesy of kungfumagazine.com