I have seen very few Japanese animated movies in my time on this small blue planet, in fact I can count on one hand how little I’ve seen. ‘Akira’ and ‘Monster City’ aka ‘Demon City Shinjuku’ are two of the only films I’ve seen. I have seen the original 1995 ‘Ghost in the Shell’ movie (based on an original manga by Masamune Shirow) once, but it was so long ago I cannot remember anything about it other than some iconic imagery. So I entered into this new 2017 US adaptation pretty much as a fresh faced newbie. Could this new vision wow me?
The plot: In the future humans are enhanced by augmentation with cybernetic body parts. Hanka Robotics headed by Cutter develops this augmentative technology. A female survivor of an apparent terrorist attack (Mira Killian) has her brain placed within a robotic body and is used as a special counter-terrorism operative under Section 9; where She eventually gains the rank of Major. Section 9’s main target is cyber-terrorist Kuze who wants to take down Hanka. Kuze has personal reasons for his actions, Cutter has secrets the Major is unaware of.
Lets talk visuals, with today’s standards in special effects there is no way this could go wrong, right? Correct! the visuals in the movie are fabulous. The Japanese semi-dystopian cyberpunk world set in a not too distant future, is pretty much ‘Blade Runner’ tenfold, but brighter. I love the attention to detail we see in and around the faceless city as we follow the protagonists. The citizens and their individual styles, their attire, the technology they are using in their everyday lives etc…Every street or alley is bustling with life from neon advertisements to small food vendors or quirky robotics buzzing around. I liked how things just happened in the background, just routine stuff…but clearly had a lot of thought put into it. Although I think they went a tad over the top with the holograms, did they really need holographic arrows in the road?
Whilst its not dark and gritty overall, once you get away from the large colourful holographic images within the gleaming skyscrapers, we find a more typical Japanese/Asian city with huge Lego-esque blocks of concrete living quarters. These areas are grey, cold and somewhat depressing to look at, but definitely not as bleak as the animated movie from what I can remember. The shift in tone from the city to the suburban areas was well handled and showcased an elaborately designed Asian metropolis. I only wish they had toned down the westernisation of the city.
But that’s not all, I found myself loving much more with the visuals. The car that is used by the Major (Scarlett Johansson) and Batou (Pilou Asæk) is friggin’ awesome! It looked like a classic Lotus Esprit with futuristic mods including some natty alloys and an incredible neon turquoise interior. I loved the weaponry we see being used, it all looked über cool. I loved the costume designs throughout, the various robots we see such as the eerie geishas, and of course the various shots that homage the source material.
Unfortunately I have to address the controversy that surrounded the movie with its casting. fuck it! The casting was brilliant all round which I admit I found surprising. I too am slightly fed up with seeing the same actors in big movies, but gosh darn it if Johnasson didn’t look perfect as the Major. Did she act the part well? Well I guess that could be argued either way, she wasn’t bad put it that way. But Johansson certainly looked the part that’s for sure…even up against both the 95 movie and the original manga, she was perfect. I thought Asæk looked great and did a good job with the battle-hardened Batou. Juliette Binoche added some gravitas as Dr. Quelet. And Takeshi Kitano also added much Japanese gravitas as Chief Daisuke Aramaki (although it was weird that only he spoke Japanese).
What I found completely ludicrous about the controversy was the fact this story essentially focuses on artificial robotic bodies. How humans modify themselves to such an extent that they are able to insert a human brain into a completely artificial robotic body. Surely this practically erases any notion of political correctness surrounding race and gender. An artificial body can be made to look like anyone of any race or gender, with any brain inserted, a complete hodgepodge. So complaints about ‘whitewashing’ are completely unwarranted. The fact they had to tack on an actual explanation to appease this so called controversy was ridiculous; all because a minority of people didn’t like a white female in the lead role?? A perfect example of when to simply ignore the hyperbolic outrage machine and just create your art.
As a movie that I’m essentially treating as a new entry (because I can’t recall too much of the original) I did find myself enjoying what I saw. Sure there were still a few quibbles that I questioned, even though some of it did feature in the original 95 movie . But at the start of the movie we see the Major leaping off the top of a skyscraper to infiltrate a section of the building in order to stop a terrorist attack. Next scene she’s leaping in through the window. How did that happen exactly?? How do you go from free falling off a skyscraper to leaping through the side of the building? The sequence where Kuze (the apparent villain) programs some garbage truck drivers to kill Dr. Quelet, but where did the garbage truck drivers get their guns from? Garbage truck drivers always carry guns? A cliched double cross scenario over the eventual death of Dr. Quelet. Shooting at a gigantic steel tank with a regular gun? This clearly becomes pointless very quickly. In fact the entire plot surrounding Kuze’s background and eventual team up with the Major is pretty darn cliched bog standard stuff (although I liked the irony of anti-augmentation protesters being used as the first test subjects for cybernetic augmentation).
The plot itself seems to have been somewhat dumbed-down from what I can recall (and swatted up on). Yes I enjoyed the sequences that are directly lifted from the original source material, but at the same time I know they are mere window dressing and lack real depth. The 95 movie questioned the uneasy relationship between humanity and an ever advancing man-made technology. It was cold, bleak and included body horror. Dare I say identity politics (self-identity) also featured strongly, gender, sexuality and feminism.
This Major is still feminine and at the same time clearly not female, we can see that, but that seems to be as far as it goes. Heck this movie doesn’t even really touch on the problems with cybernetic augmentation. We are basically shown that it works wonders and can give humans a new lease of life (Batou and his eyes for instance). But at the same time there has been great cost to reach that point in technological advancement. Bottom line, sure shitty things happened in the past, but the technology is still sweet so no biggie. You don’t really get the impression that there is a negative side to cybernetic augmentation here, there’s no real clash of ethics.
This new movie does away with much of that, presumably out of fear that the general cinema going audience either won’t understand or simply won’t like the heavy themes. This new vision barely touches on some of these elements and unfortunately seems more concerned with simply looking pretty. I can’t deny that the movie really lacks emotional punch, I really felt that the ending should have been much more dramatic and emotional. Didn’t get that, instead it just felt like any other jacked-up superhero-esque finale we see these days. So yes this adaptation has been somewhat neutered, there’s no hiding from that sad fact. But superb cinematography, production design and solid performances do help in easing the pain. I still found myself enjoying the movie. If you enjoy science fiction I heartily recommend giving it a chance.