Hollywood: Shell without Ghost

Erden Göktepe | 18th April 2017.

Spoiler Alert!

Ghost in a Shell

Tommy Meli, Ghost in the Shell, Fan Art, Flicker

Ghost in the Shell is one of the best-known manga subseries to the general public in the western world due to the 1995 animation film, directed by Mamori Ohsii, which transcends its original manga series owing to its impact on a larger audience and the Hollywood films like Matrix (1999), A.I. (2001), Surrogates (2009), and Avatar (2009). It was originally a seinen manga subseries created by Masamune Shirow, published in 1989. Seinen series, although the word seinen literally means “youth”, are the manga marketed to adolescent boys and men old enough to read kan’ji [1]  the name for adopted logographic Chinese characters used in modern Japanese. It is a large group of manga which focuses on diverse topics such as technology, politics, and social problems, as well as containing comedy elements.

The anime in Seinen is considered one of the best because of its visuals, character design, action scenes, settings, and its strong message to a contemporary world, despite being set in the future. More than that, it questions human existence and identity in a world where man and machine are one. Its story is seminal. Ghost in the Shell contemplates relations between technology and humans, and specifically Japanese society’s co-development with its scientific creations. Also, critics draw attention to the manner in which the film approaches gender, sexual identity and reproduction [2], starting with its infamous opening scene depicting Major’s fall from rooftops, and gradually emerging as a story of survival concerned with a wider question about the human race’s longevity. It is an outstanding story on consciousness – a ghost inhabiting the human shell.

Ghost 2

Ghost in the Shell (2017), Movie Trailer, Youtube

I must be honest, I had high hopes for the 2017 remake of Ghost in the Shell directed by Rupert Sanders and starring Scarlett Johansson as Major, the female protagonist, perhaps even for seeing something as intriguing as the original manga story and anime. Sadly, at the end of it, I simply felt indifferent and bored. Apparently, Hollywood has taken another well-written story with a phenomenal potential for audience impact and turned it into a breezy action movie….

The live film and the anime diverge right from the starting scene. The anime starts with a digital screen depicting a police operation. Indistinct chatter turns into a conversation in which we hear through a woman’s ear, as she is sitting at the top of a skyscraper. We see indistinct people through an infrared night vision and we understand that the woman sees through the wirelines plugged into her neck that somehow connect to the information system: we hear her being called Major. After a brief talk, she disconnects four wirelines from her neck, stands up, pulls off her black raincoat, leaving her now completely nude with only a garter holding up her thin black stockings, and lets her body free fall from the top of the skyscraper. The story thus starts with mystery, action, sexuality, and the risk of death, leaving the viewer with a load of questions and curiosity for the next scene. Although this scene exists in the live film, the film nonetheless starts at a different point, with Major’s arrival in a hospital, and directs us specifically towards the search for her identity, laying aside all the other aspects of the original story. By doing this, it deprives us of its original depth.

Ghost 4

Anime Movie Comparison, Youtube

The Guardian has given Ghost in the Shell the headline “worse than a whitewash” and asks a legitimate question, which lies both at the heart of the storytelling and of the sci-fi genre: “When science fiction is no longer looking forward, does it lose all meaning?” [3]

For me, this film is a copy of copies, scenes picked up from manga and the animation, sticking them in yet skinning off the core elements that make the viewer question the essence of the story: the relationship between the conscious mind and human body. The adaptation has stripped away the thought-provoking ghosts and left behind an empty shell. I understand that it is quite a challenge to adapt such a praised and influential anime to conventional filmmaking, but making a choppy copy neither stays true to the original nor shows innovation. In terms of visuals, there are some that are exquisite, but  they still seem bereft of emotion. Not even flaunting Johansson in a skin-tight bodysuit redeems the film. Admittedly, Johansson’s acting is at times engaging, but then again, how can one justify giving a quintessentially Japanese role to an American actress? Along with the racial and cultural equality issues this raises, which have been discussed over and over again with seemingly no sense of change, it’s simply not true to the anime, and that’s where the movie falls down. Something’s got to change, Hollywood!

As I finished the film and left the theatre, I felt like I was leaving a knock-off video game: it had all the action and flashing lights, but was sorely lacking in emotional appeal. Although predictable, it is unfortunate to see Hollywood still giving preference to star-studded explosive sequences over a story with meaningful narrative. I guess that’s just what sells these days. If you still want to watch the film, I recommend shredding your expectations and going in prepared for the worst.

About Erden

I am currently a first-year Ph.D. researcher in Film Studies. My Ph.D. research addresses Turkish film directors’ patterns of representation of the relationship between the ordinary people and the authoritarian military regime during the military coup years in Turkey.  I am passionate about languages, Turkish cuisine and jazz music.

Article edited by Amadues Chan and Chantal Bertalanfy.

Works Cited

[1]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghost_in_the_Shell_(manga)

[2] Bould, Mark (2009). The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction. New York: Routledge. p. 275.

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2016/nov/14/whitewash-ghost-in-the-shell-hollywoodised-mamoru-oshii-rupert-sanders-scarlett-johansson

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