A ghost of something great.
Drawing from the original manga, the 1995 anime film, and the 2002 series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Ghost in the Shell takes steps toward adapting its source material for a more modern age. Its version of a robotic future-Japan is stunning, and its simultaneously beautiful yet gritty art and action capture the original’s tone. But Ghost in the Shell asks a lot of interesting questions that it neglects to answer in equally interesting ways, and its near-total omission of Japanese voices and identities in a story about identity is a failure too great to ignore.
Like the original, Ghost in the Shell presents a near-future Japan where cybernetic enhancements are commonplace--almost everyone has a bit of robot in them, from the ability to communicate telepathically to livers built for heavy drinking. But the Major (played by Scarlett Johansson) is the first of her kind: a human brain transplanted into a fully robotic body. She inhabits a shell, and somewhere underneath a fog that obscures her memories, there is a “ghost” of the person she was before.
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In one of the earliest and most captivating scenes in the movie, the Major scopes out a planned attack on a meeting between an executive of the Hanka Corporation, which manufactures cybernetics and is responsible for the Major’s body, and a foreign leader. The meeting takes place in a somewhat traditional-looking teahouse, but the geisha serving the men are fully robotic. The juxtaposition is hauntingly beautiful; when the attack begins, the geisha change forms to something much less humanoid, and the illusion is shattered.
The scene--which was shown in the trailers--is Ghost in the Shell at its strongest, as it succinctly sets the stage for how technology has shaped its world. The Major enters and easily defeats the threats with a body built for combat, but she pauses just before shooting a geisha-bot, which begs for its life. But, of course, its life is a fabrication, its sentience only imagined, which makes its vulnerability staggering.
Ghost in the Shell is and always has been a story about identity, both individually and societally. The movie arrives at its central question--what it means to be human--almost immediately, as the Hanka scientist who made the Major’s shell explains to her that it’s our actions, not our memories, that define us. But the Major is clearly unconvinced, and the movie very rapidly narrows in scope to focus on the Major’s identity specifically.
That alone isn’t a bad thing. As an adaptation, Ghost in the Shell takes liberties with its source material, and in places it works. We get to see how Batou (Pilou Asbaek) loses his eyes and watch his adjustment to his iconic robotic ones. But the shuffling of the story’s order also dampens the impact of key scenes. The encounter with the garbageman who falsely believes he has a wife and daughter, for example, happens so late into the movie that the revelation that he’s been hacked and given false memories isn’t a revelation at all. The movie is already firmly about the Major at this point, so the fact that his reality isn’t really reality isn’t that meaningful.
Unfortunately, the truth about the Major’s reality also lacks meaning--for worse reasons.
[Warning: Spoilers ahead.]
It’s impossible to have a story about identity while ignoring and erasing the identities at its core. This became a well-known issue after the cast was announced; Johansson plays an altered version of the Major named Mira Killian, rather than the original Japanese Motoko Kusanagi. Many argued that Johansson’s casting in particular was whitewashing, taking an Asian role away from an Asian actor, which is also reflected in the largely non-Japanese main cast. But the reveal toward the end of the movie absolutely cements the race problem with this adaptation of Ghost in the Shell.
As it turns out, the background the Hanka scientists had given to “Mira”--that her parents were killed in a terrorist attack and she was saved by robotics--was fake. The ghost at her core is actually that of a Japanese anti-technology rebel named Motoko Kusanagi, one of many runaways who were captured for the purpose of Hanka’s experiments. So, in addition to a starring role not going to a Japanese actor, the character herself was transformed from Japanese to white--and Ghost in the Shell neglects to address how race affects her in any way. In a movie about a person searching for her identity and humanity.
The Major reunites with her mother--who is Japanese and has an accent--in a jarring scene at Kusanagi’s grave that culminates in a relatively emotionless hug. We learn next to nothing about the underground network of rebels--which is the most interesting part of the entire movie--except what her mother briefly tells her. And despite understanding Japanese, the Major inexplicably speaks English to her mother, further robbing the scene of whatever impact it could have had.
The only person in the main cast who actually speaks Japanese is Aramaki (played by Takeshi Kitano), the head of the task force Section 9 and essentially the Major’s boss. Kitano does an excellent job with the character and plays the wise-but-badass boss brilliantly, allowing him to shine among otherwise lackluster character development. But being the only prominent character who ever speaks Japanese clashes with the overwhelmingly Japanese setting: a city peppered with silent women in traditional Japanese clothing and holographic koi fish swimming around buildings, but populated in the foreground by English-speaking Westerners.
It’s impossible to have a story about identity while ignoring and erasing the identities at its core.
Even though Ghost in the Shell does things well--its stylized take on the original’s sci-fi, its often well-choreographed action, its exciting pace--it doesn’t accomplish the main thing it intends to. The movie not only doesn’t answer or even truly explore the questions it raises, it also mishandles a story about identity by largely excluding the people it’s about. That’s a critical failure, and one that cannot be rectified by cool-looking geisha robots.