04 April 2017

Ghost in the Shell -- super-human, super-beautiful, super-violent

First off, I should acknowledge that I haven't read the original manga on which this movie is based, so I'm going purely by what's in the movie itself.  Since Americans are notoriously not great readers of books, especially foreign ones, most American viewers will be in the same position.

Set in a near-future world on the brink of the Technological Singularity, where high-tech enhancements to the human brain have become commonplace, the film deals with the next logical step -- transplanting a human brain into a mechanical body of human appearance but far greater than human capabilities.  In this case, though, the cyborg thus created ("the Major") is intended for use as a superweapon against "terrorists", complete with false memories to provide motivation.

The best part of the movie is the visuals, which are amazing.  The future urban setting is perfectly realized as a clean, bright, colorful anti-version of the dystopian world of Blade Runner, with giant animated billboards replaced by even more intrusive giant moving hologram advertisements, a sort of beautiful migraine of a city.  It raises the issue that computer-enhanced brains might be subject to hacking just as computers are -- a problem more plausible, and scary, than the cliché of robot insurrection.  It asks whether memory or behavior is the essence of identity (though it doesn't really answer the question).  It also serves as a warning to technophobes who hope that the Singularity can be stopped by inhibiting technological progress -- it's obvious that in a world where some nations or groups embrace machine-brain enhancement, others which renounced it would be left in the dust, utterly unable to compete.

In this clip, the Major intervenes in an attack in progress:


It's not without flaws.  How is a private company able to get away with murderous experiments on human subjects, and using hugely-destructive weapons in an urban environment?  I also was confused at first whether the setting is China or Japan, since both languages appear on signage and the urban setting looks more like Hong Kong (where it was largely filmed) than like Japan.

It has surprised me a bit to see Ghost in the Shell compared with The Matrix, which it somewhat resembles aesthetically but far less thematically.  It's more comparable with Blade Runner, which dealt with machines so humanlike that treating them as less than human raised daunting ethical problems.  But it also reminded me of Robocop, an early (1987) effort to deal with the integration of mind and machine, with the integration being done in a similarly unethical manner.  Ghost in the Shell also resembles Robocop in being full of highly-kinetic violence which tends to blast the philosophical issues right off the screen -- there are probably more shooting deaths in this movie than Japan actually has in a decade.  Movies like this do do some service in the sense that brain-machine integration, and the blurring of the line between human and machine, are issues we will actually be confronting within a decade or two (whereas the universe turning out to be a computer-generated illusion probably isn't).

I should also address the most idiotic criticism of the film which has been making the rounds on the internet, which is the objection to a non-Asian actress (Scarlett Johansson, who does a great job) playing the Major, who is eventually revealed to be Japanese.  What Johansson is portraying is an artificial body into which the brain of a Japanese person has been transplanted, which would not necessarily resemble that person's original human appearance (Mamoru Oshii, the director of an earlier anime film of the story, made the same point).  Since the Major's implanted false memories include being a member of a family who arrived in Japan as refugees from elsewhere, it would make sense to give her artificial body a non-Japanese appearance to fit the memory.  It's striking that several other major characters are also non-Japanese, and I'd be curious to know what nationality characters like Ouelet and Cutter were in the original story (if they were even in it), but it seems to be common in manga and anime to depict multinational teams of characters working in a future Japan (Silent Mobius being another example).

Finally, it seems odd that Ghost in the Shell is already being described as a box-office failure based on disappointing results within the US, when it seems to be doing better globally and hasn't even opened yet in Japan or China, probably the most promising markets for a film of this sort.

A minor point I found particularly satisfying occurs near the end.  When the malignant Cutter's fate is in the Major's hands, she consents to his death without hesitation or phony moral qualms, asking only that he be told it is justice.

Here's an assessment by a critic more familiar with the source material:


I can kind of see, though, why it's not being well-received in the US.  It's a bit too weird and doesn't really fit the standard action-movie formula.  (Blade Runner, probably the greatest SF movie ever made, got mixed reviews and mediocre audience share when it opened here.)  Given US ticket prices these days, people probably prefer not to take a chance on anything they're not already sure of.  It's their loss, though.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Marc McKenzie said...

Thanks for this, Infidel.

I do plan to see the film at some point (soon, hopefully!), and I'm familiar with the source manga and the various anime adaptations (and that familiarity goes back more than twenty years!).

Lucky for you, the source manga and its sequels have been re-released in English, and you can find all the anime adaptations in English as well. My favorite among them is the STAND ALONE COMPLEX series. Mind you, the original manga is quite a dense read, but well worth it.

Your point about the complaints of "whitewashing" are valid--and just so you know, the manga's original author/artist, Masamune Shirow and the manga's original editor and publisher all said that they never pictured an Asian actress playing the Major in a live-action GITS film. Plus I found it odd that no one bothered to ask Beat Takeshi (Aramaki) and Chin Han (Togusa) their thoughts on the whole controversy.

You are also right about BLADE RUNNER having a major influence on GITS; BR was well-received in Japan and went on to influence many anime and manga in the late 1980s and early 1990s, among them BUBBLEGUM CRISIS, SILENT MOBIEUS, CYBER CITY OEDO 808, and yes, GHOST IN THE SHELL. And BR itself may be the most successful (or influential) flop ever, since it is now regarded as a classic film and is perhaps the most influential SF film of the past 50 years--more so than even 2001 and STAR WARS.

Frankly, I find the cheering by some that GITS flopped in the US to be...well, childish. Of course, it is good to know that it is doing very well in markets outside the US, just like two recent films inspired by or based on Japanese anime and SF that I loved--PACIFIC RIM and EDGE OF TOMORROW.

I'll give you my thoughts on GITS after seeing it.

05 April, 2017 08:47  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Marc: Thanks -- I was hoping you'd comment on this.

My impression is that hardly anyone outside the US gives a rat's ass about this "whitewashing" nonsense (the stodginess of this country frustrates me sometimes). Oddly enough, a lot of the same people who objected to Johansson were aggressively supportive of a recent stage version of Harry Potter which cast a black actress as Hermione. Surely it's basically the same principle? What's next, claiming white cosplayers shouldn't do Asian characters (or vice versa)? It's ridiculous.

You continue to startle me with your broad knowledge of Japanese mass culture. I know about Silent Mobius because I read it (as best I could) while studying the language, and I've picked up a few others out of curiosity, but never had time to get a more comprehensive knowledge. I know what you mean about manga sometimes being a "dense read", though. Americans still don't quite think of "comics" as being for adults.

I'll be interested to know what you think of the movie after seeing it.

05 April, 2017 10:45  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Wow, that movie looks cool! ... no, I didnt hear of it, but looks like the kind of flick that I like to check out on the IMAX screen too!

07 April, 2017 07:02  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Ranch: It's well worth it, in my opinion.

07 April, 2017 07:12  
Blogger Pinku-Sensei said...

I'll catch "Ghost in the Shell" when it becomes available on cable pay-per-view. I might share what I think of it then.

That written, I watched the second animated movie and was a fan of "Stand Alone Complex" when it was on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, so I can say something about the franchise. Unfortunately, it doesn't go much beyond what you've written above, so I'll change the subject slightly.

You mentioned "Silent Mobius." I was a fan of that series, too, enough that my daughter and I named one of my cars after one of the characters. I hadn't thought much about the multi-national nature of the cast, but I do find that striking now.

Given what you wrote about "Princess Mononoke" on my blog, I think you and I should discuss anime more often.

09 April, 2017 09:58  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I should post more about it. It really is a vast subject! I'm always struck by how many works the real enthusiasts have seen that I'm not familiar with. On the other hand, I'm really more up to speed on manga than anime, and I suspect many of the ones in my collection are unknown here and have never been translated (I bought them in Japan).

I recently picked up the Tenchi Muyo OVA on DVD. When I've finished watching the whole thing maybe I'll post about it. It does have some points of interest. The comparison with Ghost in the Shell shows how diverse anime can be -- in level of seriousness, among other things.

09 April, 2017 14:27  

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