So, even with the whitewashing controversy surrounding the new live-action Ghost in the Shell movie, I went to see it anyway because as a fan of the original franchise, I’m kind of a completionist when it comes to GITS. Also, I figure that any criticism I have about the new movie should be informed criticism, which meant that I actually had to watch the movie and not rely on Internet think pieces.
I went into the theater prepared to be disappointed. I came out of the movie wondering who, exactly, was this movie made for? Was it for me, the hardcore GITS fan who would pick up all the references to the original franchise? Because, the script felt like they took a bunch of set pieces, scenes, and dialogue from the 1995 original movie, the anime series Stand Alone Complex, and even the direct to DVD prequel series ARISE, stuck all those references in a blender and decided to film the results. But, the film wasn’t made for a hardcore fan like me, because I would not have pictured Motoko Kusanagi as ScarJo. Plus, the film doesn’t go deep enough into the questions of identity and post-humanism. It just felt like a bunch of missed opportunities in between some cool action scenes. If the movie was made for the casual movie-goer, then it failed in being a crowd-pleasing actioner, because of its cerebral roots. It does still touch on the questions of humanity in an increasingly technological world, but not in a satisfactory way. Or, at least, satisfactorily enough for me. It was a primer to the world of GITS, I suppose, an open door through which the curious might, if they wished, explore the franchise properly.
But, again, this assumes that the film was made for the casual movie-goer in mind, but it doesn’t feel like that.
Was it the worst thing to have ever assaulted my eyeballs? Nope, not by a longshot, and often the best thing about the film is the visual aesthetics. Plus, I was quite pleased to see that Section 9’s team is a bit more diverse than in the anime version. The Major’s team, in the anime, consists of an all-male group. The live-action version gives the team a bit more diversity, with a female member of the squad (yay!) who is a WOC (yay!) and has the hacking and gun skills to make her a valuable part of the team. While this meant that one of my favorite characters from the anime, Ishikawa, an older, bearded hacker who does most of the tech stuff, wouldn’t get as much screentime, I’m all for a more diverse squad. And Togusa still has his revolver, Saito is still an ace sniper with a cyber-eye, and Batou’s relationship with the Major is still the deepest one in the narrative. I’m quite pleased that many of the details I liked about the original are still there in the live-action version. Batou’s soft spot for animals, and dogs in particular, for example, and the Major’s strange need to go deep sea diving. And the climactic finale where the Major goes toe to toe with the spider-tank, (spoiler) tearing her arm off in the process. Those kinds of visceral connections to the original, I liked.
And I’m sure they wished to switch up some of the Major’s backstory just so hardcore fans would be surprised with some of the plot, but it all just felt a little trite, and…actually kind of insulting. Major Mira Killian (Killian, really) is actually a young anti-technology activist named….Motoko Kusanagi, who was kidnapped and experimented on and was turned into this state of the art weapon. Which would’ve been a great backstory if they actually went through with showing the Major’s struggles to come to grips with her past. All that really happens is (spoiler) she tracks down her real mother (who automatically recognizes her because….moms? Or the cat recognizes her? Or….what?) and they have an instant rapport. I don’t know, it just seemed weird that a Japanese woman would immediately welcome this strange white woman into her apartment. The Major doesn’t even mention what she’s looking for. Her mother just….knows.I suppose we could argue that her mom recognized her daughter’s ghost right away. It….it just feels a bit too mystical in a movie where technology rules the world.
All of this pales, of course, in comparison to the fact that the Major was literally whitewashed for no good reason other than to have ScarJo play her. Hanka Robotics could’ve stuck Motoko’s brain into any sort of body they wished. Motoko is literally a Japanese woman in a white body and they don’t entirely address the degree of dysphoria that that kind of situation would bring up. Yes, they erased her memories of who she was, but the very fact that she’s trying to uncover her past should’ve been a gateway to a deeper exploration of race and identity, on top of the post-humanism. But the movie never goes there.
And finally, I’m a little irked that the movie managed to shoehorn a love story (of a kind) into the plot, with villain Kuze actually being Motoko’s significant other Hideo. In Stand Alone Complex, Motoko and Hideo Kuze do still share a past, but they were both children who received cyborg bodies after accidents. Motoko, as a young girl who is already cyberized and getting used to her robot body, serves as a kind of counterpoint to Hideo, who lost most of the control of his body but refused to become cyberized because a robot body still wouldn’t have the fine motor control required to fold paper cranes. Eventually, the two children bond through their shared attempts at origami, and once the young Motoko is able to fold paper cranes herself, Hideo is willing to undergo the cyberization process. It’s a little off-putting (at least to me) that this sweet little moment (and initially a medical breakthrough of enormous proportions) was co-opted and transformed in the movie into a corporation’s need to create better, deadlier soldiers and doing illegal experiments to make that happen. I suppose the anime posits a technological world where enhancing bodies is inherently a good thing that is used for evil, whereas the live-action movie shows a world where the tech is inherently evil and Section 9 must use that tech for good.
Perhaps I wanted too much out of the live-action movie, but I also know that the rest of the franchise is still out there and the movie doesn’t change that. Ghost in the Shell still exists, and in my mind, it’s still awesome. And once again, like so many other adaptations before it, the live action version is just not as good.