I was eight years old and it was very late at night, on a Saturday night, well past my bedtime, even for a weekend night. My version then of late night hour thrills was staying up past the 10:30 pm threshold and tuning into the TV channel 28, or “SBS” (Special Broadcasting Service) as it was known then and now. Specifically I was on the look out for this thing that I had watched here and there at the time and that caught my eye frequently at the local VIDEO EZY. Yes, of course this was Japanese animation, or as it’s more popularly known, anime. On this particular Saturday night, they were airing a new anime movie which had just been released titled “Ghost in the Shell”.
The movie opens up and there’s some chatter with a robotic filter over the voice which sounds pretty rad; the expansive shot of a city skyline and a lone figure standing atop a roof, observing with infrared goggles what is occurring in the building below her. Suddenly she rips her coat open (it’s weird – again, I’m only eight) and takes a dive of the rooftop, parlaying into the below building. Rad-ness and gunfire ensues before the film’s protagonist, Major Motoko Kusanagi uses her “thermoptic camouflage” to disappear into the city backdrop.
Most of the iconography, if not frame-for-frame scenes, aesthetics and sequences are replicated in Rupert Sander’s recent adaption of the 1995 animated film, a film so lauded by die-hard fans, critics and cinephiles alike, that it was virtually impossible for Sanders to create something that would satisfy on equal scale.
I went in blind to this film (i.e. not reading any early reviews or write ups) a day after release, having heard all the negative press re: the casting decisions, in particular and probably singularly, that of The Major, who is played in the live-action iteration by Scarlett Johansson. I should also pre-frame this by saying that I’m a fairly big GitS nerd, having watched every one of it’s anime incarnations, sagas and specials, as well as reading some of the original manga. I remember when the Laughing Man sticker was a big deal and thought to myself maybe this was truly GitS 2.0 for the Nought-ies Gen…
Hold up… rewind. So at eight years old and with very little understanding of the world, I STARTED watching GitS. I’d give it about thirty minutes in and I was in massive snooze SHUTDOWN. No slight to the movie whatsoever (I later woke up to the iconic end showdown between Motoko and spider-tank – something Sanders recreated almost to a T) but mentally I just wasn’t there. Fast forward to today, with two reinventions, a sequel and countless pop-cultural offspring in tow, I chuck on the ’95 original and am blown away about how forward thinking conceptually this movie was. Not only is discussing themes and ideas that are still relevant – and somewhat unanswered – in today’s society, but the technological forecasting, in terms of how far we could come in the twenty plus years following it, was for the most part spot on. On top of all this, it’s such a superior and somewhat ground breaking visual experience (in the ballpark of the anime classic “Akira”).
Getting to the guts of the movie however is another thing. GitS ’95 is dialogue heavy. It has plenty of mind-gristle to chew on and digest before leaning out into something with a concise message, using film noir tropes as propulsive mechanisms for the plot. Thus GitS ’95 as a standalone can be a complex viewing experience *COUGH*COUGH* but only because it is most significantly impactful when the audience engages the subtext. Indeed this is where the biggest difference between the ’95 original and 2017 adaption lie – the former focuses on observing the possibilities of the persona, soul or “ghost” beyond the physical shell, the “internet of things” if you will, whilst the latter tries to tackle current issues of identity: ownership, theft and tampering, and how this becomes more possible as we move into a society more dis associative and technologically dependent. The irony of the latter’s point is somewhat relative to the controversy of Johansson’s casting, that is, not being Japanese (*SPOILER ALERT* this is explained in the live-action film, though somewhat a stretch, and almost as if to directly respond to critics).
I will not be directly tackling the racial controversy surrounding this film. There’s been enough of it and everyone has come out of it seemingly thinking what they wanted to unswayed. Hell, even the director of the ’95 original, Mamoru Oshii, had something to say (positive) about this.
All I will say on this is, there’s been many versions of the Major and with each, a varying origin story. If there’s anyone who was solely comparing Sander’s take to Oshii’s work then I highly suggest you dive into the expanded works.
Ultimately, Rupert Sanders (and the studio) in 2017 tries to make something for each generation of GitS fan, as well as a pleasurable movie-going experience for the casual crowds, with enough thought prodding moments to lift the movie from being an empty shell with feint ghost whispers of it’s predecessors. However there is nothing new to find here, except for the possibility of a sequel that forces it’s hand at a new/fresh direction after this one takes all it can from existing GitS lore. I was sufficiently happy with the boatload of fan service; Section 9 was completely awesome, with high kudos to Batou, Togusa, Aramaki and hey, even Sniper Guy showed up to do his job like in the anime! Binoché and Pitt were there, playing pseudo-adapted roles from various anime plots. The action is slick and the world is every bit as visually scintillating as we knew it would be from the trailer (the one selling point that absolutely had to deliver) with Johansson moving through it like the unnerved, methodological marionette that the Major is.
Perhaps the tinge of disappointment comes with a lack of coming away with something more to think on. Doing away with some of the self-fulfilling plot too may have helped, mostly in scenes where the philosophy and personal agendas of characters clashed. What the 2017 adaption showed me more than anything is that, in hindsight, perhaps the anime lives better in subtext and spectacle than the actual viewing pleasure of the film itself.
Then again, maybe I’m just too invested in this kind of shit.