By Dr. Paul Cheng
Note: This review contains plot spoilers.
Everything you need to know about the 2017 live action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell occurs within the first five minutes of the film. In the opening sequence, a high-tech medical team wheels an unconscious woman whose face is obscured down a hallway. She is then wheeled into an equally high-tech operating room and Dr. Oulet (played by Juliette Binoche) appears and assures the still unknown figure that though she will be given a new body, her “ghost…[her] soul” will remain the same. Then in a display of high-tech film wizardry that mimics the high-tech wizardry on the screen, a robotic body is constructed, with the final step being a bath of white goo that envelops the new body (her shell if you will) and transforms this shell into the star of the movie, Scarlett Johansson.
While visually stunning, what is most amazing about this sequence is the way it literalizes the early criticisms made against the film. Ghost in the Shell is the big budget, live action remake of the beloved 1995 Japanese anime movie of the same title. The original film featured Major Motoko Kusanagi, a human brain encased in a battle-ready android body, fighting cyber-terrorists with the elite security squad known as Section 9. When Johansson was first announced to play the Major, an outraged internet accused the producers of perpetrating “yellow-face” and of “whitewashing” the role by casting Johansson and not a Japanese actress in the lead role. Thus, it is both ironic and perhaps a tremendous act of filmmaking chutzpah when the film begins with a scene of literal whitewashing as the newly minted Major emerges from her bath. The Japanese actress is not only faceless and nearly invisible, she is both visually and literally replaced by Johansson in the film.
Ironically, this erasure is further emphasized later in the movie when it makes a bold plot twist that is clearly meant as a nod towards the original. Unlike the anime, this version is structured like a superhero origin story, where the Major is not only attempting to solve a series of mysterious and brutal murders, she is also resolving her own existential crisis of who she is. At the same time, the movie feels the need to explain how her partner Batou (Pilou Asbaek) gets his cybernetic eyes, a point not covered in the original film.
Much like the current spate of Hollywood blockbusters, the film feels an almost pathological need to explain the Major’s origin. Thus, both the viewer and the newly-dubbed Mira Killian discover, in the course of the film, that her brain was harvested from a rebellious Japanese teen named, wait for it, Motoko Kusanagi. Clearly the filmmakers worked to justify the casting of Johansson by offering a diegetic reason for the change, building it directly into the plot of the film. This move feels calculated to not only pay homage to the original, but also to satisfy the critics and placate the original fans of the film. While the Major may appear to be white, she is Japanese in the way that matters the most: down in her soul. This point is exactly what Dr. Oulet makes early in the film and Batou makes a little later: despite whatever outer appearance she may have, her “soul” or “ghost” is intact and does not change. Thus, critics can be assured that despite whatever changes the filmmakers made to plot, casting, or character, the true heart of the movie, namely it’s soul, is still somehow authentically Japanese.
This devotion to the source material is apparent in many of the action set-pieces of the film where it almost slavishly recreates many of the anime’s most visually striking moments: from the Major’s first dive off of the building to her fight in standing water with a potential assassin. Also here is her final face-off with the enormous spider-tank and her superman effort to pull of the tank’s hatch that first buckles and then rips her cybernetic arm off. Perhaps the most amazing recreation is the Major’s thermoptic suit: a head to toe, form-fitting nude-colored body suit that paradoxically leaves nothing to the imagination while still leaving everything to the imagination.
Equally striking, the neon-colored cityscapes of a futuristic pan-Asian city that blends the Hong Kong skyline with its giant holographic billboards, beats with an energy and life onscreen. However, within the context of the film, this movie feels less like the future possibility where different Asian cultures merge into a huge cosmopolis, and more like a erasure or eliding of actual Asian differences. The scenery and set design clearly evokes the images of Los Angeles in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and like that movie, the Asian setting provides the exotic Oriental backdrop for the action perpetrated by its white leads.
Another way to think about Ghost in the Shell can be seen in the finale of the movie. The plot revolves around the evil multination corporation Hanka Robotics kidnapping young Japanese runaways, harvesting their brains and inserting said brains into cybernetic shells. At the end of the film, the Major discovers that she herself was one of these runaways, and that Kuze, the hacker that she is ostensibly pursuing is actually her fellow runaway and lover, Hideo. After the Major defeats Hanka’s spider-tank, as in the original anime, she has the opportunity to leave her physical shell and merge with Hideo and have her ghost survive as a disembodied intelligence in the net. This is the choice the Major makes in the original anime, discarding her shell and existing only as data. However, in this version, the Major rejects this choice, pointing out that she “still has work to do in this world,” thus keeps it open for the possibility of sequels. The sight of two white actors playing characters with Japanese names, makes the viewers keenly aware of the fact that while the movie is about an evil, multinational corporation kidnapping and hijacking the Japanese, and putting them into new bodies for profit, the movie itself has done exactly the same with the original Ghost in the Shell: a large multinational media corporation has hijacked the original film, erased its Japanese bodies all in the name of profit. And like the Hanka Corporation, their plot has failed as well.
Paul Cheng is currently an adjunct Professor at Cal State LA and Mt. San Antonio College. His academic interests include Asian American Literature and film, while his pop cultural interests range from anime to action movies to video games to comic books. He is deeply steeped in nerd and geek culture.
Executive editor: Nien-chen Lin
Proofreading editor: Alex Shifman