Mar 31, 2017blog, review

Ghost in the Shell: Stunning but simplistic


Willing suspension of disbelief means audiences will accept the outright impossible, but they’re less likely to forgive what they know to be simply improbable.

So, the idea that in a few decades most positions of power in Japan will be held by white people strains credibility even more than the prospect of implanting a human brain into a robotic body.

The themes of the original anime are simplified for a Western audience.

This year’s adaptation of the seminal Ghost in the Shell anime, starring Scarlett Johansson as a cybernetically-enhanced crimefighter known as the Major, courted early controversy over perceived white-washing of Asian roles.

The audience is made dimly aware of a massive influx of Western refugees to the film’s near-future cyberpunk version of Japan, presumably due to some reversal of fortunes overseas.

And the fact that the Major - a Japanese woman working for the Japanese government, is being played by Scarlett Johanssen, proves to be a plot point of sorts, does not fully excuse this, especially since there are barely a handful of Asian speaking roles in the whole film.

Several scenes are shot-fot-shot recreations of the anime.

The adaptation simplifies the themes and plot threads of the source material for a more demanding Western audience. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it brings a new focus to the Major’s personal struggle and her emotional turmoil, and brings a much-needed human dimension to the philosophising of the source material.

But in the process, a lot of the ambiguity and thematic textures which made the original anime so beloved are left behind.

For instance, part of the appeal of Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime was the subtlety of its portrayal of technology. In this adaptation, cybernetics are closely allied to corporate corruption and destruction. Big bad Hanka Robotics may as well be Robocop’s OCP or Alien’s Weyland-Yutani.

The corporate corruption angle is done to death in Western sci-fi (take James Cameron’s Avatar or Blade Runner as examples), but feels weirdly tacked on here, though it’s certainly necessary to bring a more accessible, singular villain to the plot.

'Visually speaking, the film is impeccable.'

The film is unapologetically about Johansson’s character. Of the supporting cast, only Pilou Asbæk’s Batou and Takeshi Kitano’s Chief Aramaki get a chance to prove their worth.

The neon-soaked high-rise world of this year's Ghost in the Shell is genuinely stunning to look at

Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe’s near-perfect score is an enticing blend of the original anime’s haunting chorals and the 80s synths we’re familiar with from Mansell’s work on Black Mirror’s memorable ‘San Junipero’ episode.

Ghost in the Shell pays no shortage of tributes to its source anime. Some scenes are shot-for-shot recreations of scenes from the original anime. Even a beagle makes it in - a Mamoru Oshii signature.

The neon-soaked high-rise world of this year’s Ghost in the Shell is genuinely stunning to look at, and the film rightfully strips down the plot to focus on the individual drama of Johansson’s character.

That said, without the philosophical musings that so defined the source material, it’s easy to feel that the soul - or “ghost” - of the franchise has been lost along the way.