Ghost in the Shell Is a Mostly Faithful Translation of an Anime Classic

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Scarlett Johansson as the Major in Ghost in the Shell. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Let’s get this out of the way: Ghost in the Shell is a solid rendition that overall does a good job of bringing anime source material to the big screen. That being said, such a faithful rendition of the source material has many of the same shortcomings and a few new ones that have cropped up due to the cultural blindness of the film.

First, of course, we need to address the elephant in the room—the whitewashing of the heroine. In the production of this film, the identity of a Japanese woman was literally wiped away and replaced with the body and voice of a white woman, the substitution happening both in and out of the film in the most meta way I have ever seen. The problem here lies not in the fact that fans of the series were worried that Scarlett Johansson couldn’t play the role of the Major but their criticism that the production couldn’t find any Asian actress they felt could fill the part. Android or not, the face and name fans have come to know and love were that of an Asian woman.

It should be noted that Mamoru Oshii himself, director of the Ghost in the Shell anime films, has come out against the widespread criticism and has stated in multiple interviews that Motoko Kusanagi is an android of no race—a robotic frame around a real brain. According to Oshii, the critics are focusing on the wrong thing. The argument made by the filmmakers for casting Johansson is that the international appeal of her stardom will drive more people to see the film than a lesser-known actress. While I agree, I feel as many that any number of Asian or Asian American actresses, such as Zhiyi Zhang or Maggie Q, could have done the same thing without nearly as much controversy. Though thinking that may have been the aim, seeing as controversy breeds news, after all.

I will say that having grown up with the original movie and the subsequent shows myself, I identified with the Japanese-born SEAL Team 6–type outfit across race and culture. But to see a whole team of white characters with English accents in the middle of Japan with no explanation left me deeply underwhelmed with the casting choices.

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In the thick of the action. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

However, racial issues aside, is Ghost in the Shell a good film? As far as Johansson’s acting goes, she does her best at every moment to embody the Major’s actions, really getting into the character she is playing here. Pilou Asbæk also does a great job as Batou, providing heart to this movie and presenting a foil to Johansson’s Kusanagi.

Visually, I was very concerned about how well a live-action version would be able to imitate or improve on the aesthetic, but it is gorgeous, from the towering waterfall ads of geisha to the small digital fish swimming across crowded streets. The sets are almost characters in themselves here, with beautifully lit tabletops and deep, dark corners. There’s so much promise of action to come with every new shot. As for the action itself, a painstaking amount of detail has gone into recreating the iconic shots straight from anime to live-action film, and it has never looked so good.

I should also mention the soundtrack, which stays very sparse for the most part and allows the characters’ dialogue to shine. The moments that do include music rely on pieces from the original work, especially the shelling scene, and it is haunting, truly bringing you as a viewer into the world of this movie.

With the pros out of the way, let’s take a minute to address some cons. The story is almost beat for beat the same as the anime, which in some ways is a good thing, but audiences not already keyed in to the mythology of the world might have a hard time jumping in. A cyberpunk Tokyo with enhanced individuals is great, but the enhancements are never explained, presumably to avoid interrupting the action with exposition. This lack of explanation keeps the audience from ever finding answers to the question of what it means to be human, which is the question the film seeks to answer. Without the slower moments of the original movie, it just comes across as rushed and leaves the audience dazzled but no wiser than when they got there.

The antagonist was also a cardboard stand-in who could be replaced by any number of comic-book villains. He has almost no screen time and the barest of personal motivation, delivering dry lines about “seeing the Major as weapon” and not a human. There is no communication for how or why Section 9 proves to be a threat, and the general lack of development makes him and his whole plot line very bland.

The pacing of the movie can be a bit perplexing as well—moving from the visceral action of battling geisha to brooding studies on humanity in a robotic age with just a cut in between may leave the mind reeling as it tries to catch up with what’s really going on. Again, fans of the anime will be fine, but the uninitiated might be thrown for a loop and end up just watching the spectacle, missing out on all the nuance that makes this story so damn good.

Still, all in all, I would recommend this movie to anyone who wants to see an anime adaptation mostly done right. It goes further and does more with the material than I expected, and the original is a high bar to measure up to.

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