Ghost in the Shell 2017
Ghost in the Shell 2017 is a patchwork of ransacked imagery used to tell yet another story where Scarlett Johansen gets used by the powers that be.
Understand that I’m not just talking about the stuff it lifts from the 1995 anime, the 2004 sequel, Ghost in the Shell: Innocence, or even the stuff it takes from the second series of Stand Alone Complex and GitS: Arise, although that is certainly present. The imagery it co-opts is broader, taking a story that is deeply, fundamentally about the rise of Japan as a consumer electronics superpower, about the modernisation and global identity of East Asia. It twists the core philosophy at the heart of Ghost in the Shell, a story about connectedness, society and finding one’s identity within it and turns it into a story about revenge, isolation and taking ones identity away from society, by force if necessary.
Let’s start with the easy part, the imagery it directly borrows from the animated franchise before it. GitS 2017 is wall to wall visual references, almost to the point where it feels like the storyboards for the movie were just stills taken from the animated franchise with a few scenes of Johansen’s Black Widow thrown in when choreographed violence was needed. Iconic scenes from the 1995 movie are lifted wholesale, although in such a way as to remove the context of the original. The stunning cyborg creation scene from the opening credits of GitS 1995 is here, although it is not assumed to be a routine process. In the original the scene exists to illustrate how such precision, impossible engineering is commonplace now, like watching footage of an automobile assembly line. In the new film it exists to show something exceptional, one of a kind. In GitS 1995, in SAC, indeed, in every other iteration the idea of a fully cyberised body is normal. High end perhaps, maybe not commonplace, but normal. A neat analogy for the increasing effect technology has on our daily lives. Throughout the new movie Johansen’s Major is constantly told how special she is, how remarkable her body is and how, one day, everyone will be like her. Thats a theme that kind of runs through this new release. It doesn’t seek to normalise its technology, but instead pushes it to the fringes, so it’s either the preserve of criminals, corporations or military organisations, or indeed a combination of the three.
The hacked sanitation worker/ market shootout/ alleyway chase scene from the first film is also recreated, lovingly crafted whilst missing the original point entirely. In the original the sanitation worker and the assassin were two distinct characters, both co-opted by the Puppet Master to carry out brain hacks of key individuals. They are both revealed to have had their memories hacked and replaced with a surface level ruse designed to fool them just enough so that they believe this false reality. The 2017 movie also uses this idea, though it casts the two patsies as the same person, (which is admittedly understandable for the sake of brevity). What it does differently is that it treats their memory hack as a remarkable, never-before-seen intrusion. It’s evidence of a definite, malevolent and specific agency rather than just another aspect of a reality where people have had their own brains and thoughts digitised and interconnected. Not a natural societal outcome, but the will of an individual. Its that Eastern collectivism vs Western individualism played out.
While we’re on the subject of the remake’s approach to how it speculates on this futuristic technological scenario I was reminded of a particular episode of Stand Alone Complex. In the new movie the Major is revealed to actually be a young woman with an anti-technology political leaning forced against her will to inhabit this new, cyborg body (more on THAT later). It intrinsically casts technology as this malevolent force that is imposed upon people, that the forward thinking amongst us would reject this sort of thing. By contrast, the second episode of season one of Stand Alone Complex, Runaway Evidence, paints the idea of taking an artificial body as a thing to be desired, as something that can help people. In the episode, Section 9 tracks a multi-pedal battle tank that has run amok. At the end of the episode it is revealed that the tank is actually being controlled by a the brain of a revenge-seeking young man who, dying of a wasting disease, was refused an artificial body by his parents on religious grounds even though it would save his life. The central message is that technology can be helpful and that to deny it to those who could benefit from it on, shall we say, less empirical grounds is cruel, wrong even.
There are so many other visual and narrative references. Innocence gets plentiful nods, from the Yakuza shootout, murder geishas, the doctor, Aramaki’s office, even Batou’s love for dogs (they had a basset hound in there too, but they got the bloody sub-breed wrong). The major’s red jumpsuit in the night club shootout is an Arise reference. The film’s tragic and misunderstood antagonist is a rough mash up of the Puppet Master from the 1995 movie and the bad guy, Kuze, from the second series of Stand Alone Complex. It’s messy, and raises the inevitable question; who is this movie for?
Despite all the references, its hard to make the argument that the film was aimed at fans of the original release. Simply put, the philosophy GitS 2017 espouses is so nascent, so entry-level, it doesn’t add anything to the narrative. Loose pondering about identity and the immateriality of memory is a far cry from the original, indeed the franchise as a whole’s, discussion of the nature of humanity and the nature of society in an ever-changing technological landscape. It’s perhaps old hat now, but at the time GitS was thought provoking and special, the message it conveyed perhaps more important than the story it was attached to. The remake is the opposite, a story that has some desultory meanderings applied almost as an homage to what came before. It’s a small, personal and insular revenge story, and it’s a real shame to see Scarlett Johansen falling back into the same role of the hyper-competent but completely owned soldier again and again.
To top it all off the new film is, ultimately, kind of sloppy. It doesn’t justify its design decisions. Everything is painted with a broad brush, concerned with what looks surface-level cool rather than what would actually fit or trying to explain things. The original movie and its sequels, much like the manga that preceded them, were obsessed with detail. Things like the major ejecting and replacing the overheated barrel of her rifle because she was firing HV ammo. Making a point of showing the major swimming with a float tank because her cyber body is too heavy to swim, or in Innocence Togusa asking why Batou chooses such a high-maintainance dog (the basset hound) considering his busy lifestyle. Even the expository bureaucratic dialogue helps us to comprehend how complex and nested the various political factions are. None of these things are really necessary to the story but they help build on the world and the characters in it. GitS 2017 relies too much on leaning on what came before it rather than building something it can itself stand on, assuming the audience knows enough already. I remember commenting on how nice the city looked before acknowledging that it had better, considering Future Shanghai is such a well worn and established visual trope at this point. When everything from movies to games to anime to music videos have nailed that aesthetic a decade or more previous you’d best believe you need to get it right. In the original franchise Togusa is this well developed character who shows up in every element of the franchise, he exists to provide an essential human element to a story about cyborgs who are increasingly detached from their humanity. In the 2017 film he’s a no-nonsense ballbuster. All he retains is his shitty mullet and his mateba pistol (speaking of guns, and attention to detail, how do you make a live action remake of GitS and NOT make replicas of Shirow’s Seburo guns? Do you know how hard it is to get an airsoft kit of one of those? Girl’s been wanting one of those for a damn while).
The last thing I need to touch on is the film’s whitewashing. It’s practically impossible NOT to talk about it, considering it’s likely what killed it the most at the box office. Scarlett Johansen plays the Major as a caucasian-looking cyborg who, spoilers, is actually a Japanese girl (named Motoko Kusanagi, surprising no one) who has been forced into it against her will and, to begin with, her knowledge. It doesn’t matter that Mamoru Oshii okey’d it, or that the plot ‘justifies’ it to an extent. It’s no secret that East Asia, Japan and South Korea especially, have a problem with perceived beauty standards, with ‘western’ looks and body types being seen as increasingly desirable and preferable. Casting Johansen as this iconic character just exacerbates that, pushing and reinforcing an already damaging standard. Its what I identified earlier, doing things for looks rather than for a purpose. At the end of the movie Johansen is looking down at the grave of ‘herself’, the grave of Motoko Kusanagi. We know its her grave not from inference, or because someone says something, but because its written on the headstone. In English. Not in Japanese. Even though that would make more sense. But the whitewashing isn’t just in the casting; it’s the warping and twisting of the story, forcing this big picture story about Japanese technological advancement, the complexities of society and progress into a small, individualist narrative about revenge and fighting a system that can be represented by one overly simplistic baddy.
I didn’t like Ghost in the Shell 2017. Now, I’ll freely acknowledge that I may be too close to the franchise, I wrote my undergrad dissertation on it for goodness sake. And the fantasy of a world where someone can change their body like they’re buying a car is absolutely fascinating for someone who has real problems with their own body image and wishes they could change it right here, right now, as I type this. But I don’t think it’s unfair to discuss the film in relation to the media that came before it. In that regard it’s overly simplistic, derivative and strangely technophobic. Even taken by itself it’s relatively uninspired, not making nearly enough of the ideas and the space it works in and serving as another rote tale of a hard done by individual fighting against an oppressive and remarkably simplistic oppressor. GitS is better than that, its bigger than that and I hope beyond hope that this film’s lacklustre performance at the box office will deter the Akira remake, the Battle Angel Alita film adaptation that James Cameron has been threatening and any other needless anime adaptations that Hollywood has on the back burner.
Also, I can’t tell if Takeshi Kitano was well cast as Chief Aramaki or whether they cast him because no one in the West knows of any other older Japanese dudes to fill the role.