Published on November 23rd, 2016 | by C. B. W. Caswell1
A Shell of What’s Passed: A Critical Response to the GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017) Trailer
The following article is a conversation between three writers, cinephiles, and fans of Ghost in the Shell regarding their reaction to the upcoming live-adaptation’s trailer (below).
Caleb Caswell has written for numerous magazines (including contributing manga reviews to The Pulp) and BioWare. His choice anime series are Ghost in the Shell, Cowboy Bebop, Paranoia Agent, Evangelion, and Fullmetal Alchemist.
Ken Martin is an East Asian studies academic and language enthusiast. He has a few trips to Japan under his belt and plans to move there in the near future for work and further studies. His favourite anime film is Ghost in the Shell, his favourite anime television shows are Sailor Moon and Evangelion, and his favorite manga is Ranma ½.
Cody Lang is currently earning his doctorate in film studies at York University in Toronto. His primary area of study is the genre of noir, and his favourite anime consist of Trigun, Evangelion, and Ghost in the Shell.
Familiarity with the source work:
Caleb Caswell: For context, I’ve watched both series, the original movie, the movies throughout the series (Innocence being not only a favourite anime film but film in general), and the recent short-film prequels to the series. I have not read the manga, and I have trouble keeping up with the political morass that comprises a large portion of the series. Despite this, I regard GitS as an incredibly important place within the genre in terms of its portrayal of women, it’s hyper-realistic depiction of science fiction, and how it has consistently blended short stories within a larger narrative.
Ken Martin: I have read the original manga, Mamoru Oshii’s film adaptation of it, the sequel Innocence, the first season of Stand Alone Complex, and most of the OVA’s.
Cody Lang: I’ve seen the movies, the TV series, and the prequel miniseries but haven’t read the comics (I haven’t read many Japanese comics in general so take my comments with a grain of salt). I will say that I prefer the TV series to all of the movies and the prequel miniseries.
“I don’t think ScarJo is a good pick. She has the look but her acting style doesn’t fit.” – Cody Lang
CC: To start, I’d like to get what little I have to say about the casting of Scarlett Johansson out of the way. I’m disappointed primarily because she’s starting to get typecast in this Black Widow role. I’m also disappointed because the bigger the star you cast, the harder it is to suspend your disbelief and approach the character as Major Motoko Kusanagi. Personally, I don’t care that she’s not a Japanese actress. I do think it would be more interesting for her to be Japanese, however, there’s an easy narrative excuse for this (Kusanagi’s body is entirely artificial, and she switches out bodies throughout the series) and it’s difficult to make the argument that what could be gained by one actress would outweigh the benefit of possibly creating an entry point for the work of Masamune Shirow into North American culture, which could in turn bring more ethnic work to the country, potentially fostering more opportunities for non-caucasian actors. It sucks, my preference would be to stick to the source material, but you can’t expect a multi-billion dollar industry to take risks.
I reacted moreso to the actor portraying Batou and, in my opinion, he looks like a knob. (#NotMyBatou.) He seems to not have the frame of the original character, and while I’m sure this seems like hen-pecking, Batou’s masculinity and girth directly plays into how the audience learns to respect Kusanagi. Batou would die for her, and the larger he is, the more it speaks (by subliminally showing, not telling) to Kusanagi’s abilities as a military commander and general badassedness. If he looks like Kusanagi can take him, that’s lost, and so is a lot of the weight in their relationship.
KM: This Batou they’ve conjured is shit all around. It’s like they didn’t even try. I noticed especially that at points in the trailer they don’t even keep his cybernetic eyes in place, one of his trademark physical features. They instead seem to have it come and go.
CL: Ron [Perlman] would be my pick for Batou. Or maybe Stephen Lang. I don’t think ScarJo is a good pick. She has the look but her acting style doesn’t fit. But it all depends on the writers and director. Rupert Sanders has a bad resume as a director. Only one of the writers has any experience with sci-fi. Honestly, they should have used the Wachowski’s. I know their films can be bloated and over the top but they have a vision and don’t make cookie-cutter movies. They would have been a less safe choice (safe meaning that the producers can reign the directors and shape the writing process from day one) but probably better.
To make Ghost in the Shell simply an action sci-fi misses the point of the movies and the television series (I haven’t read the comics so I can’t comment about the original source material but I know the creator’s work quite well otherwise). The only part I like about this adaptation is casting Beat Kitano, but otherwise it looks pretty lame. Another director that would make something great with this material is Tsui Hark but he would never been given the chance to direct this in a million years. His brief period in Hollywood was lackluster and he returned to Hong Kong to keep making films and revolutionizing commercial film in Hong Kong.
Portraying Motoko Kusanagi:
CC: My main issue with what I saw in the trailer comes in two parts: Johansson’s expressions and the depiction of the city.
The underlying theme throughout series is the relationship of soul (ghost) and body (shell). In this future, mankind has created something known as the brain case, which, without getting really in-depth, allows people to become data and gives them extra-human abilities. Bodies can be augmented, vision can be shared, fake experiences can be uploaded into a person’s memory. And Major Kusanagi — the only character throughout the series with an entirely synthetic body — is the avatar through which the audience can question “What is it that truly makes a person a person?”
“While our society is currently dealing with gender fluidity, Ghost in the Shell offers a look into a culture where we can abandon our bodies entirely and assume our wants without bias given to our physical forms.” – Caleb Caswell
This rift in Kusanagi is constantly at play within her character and presents itself in a myriad of ways. For instance, throughout the series, Kusanagi has been depicted as a lesbian.
KM: Kusanagi is bisexual. The original GitS manga shows her personal time as including both a very graphic all-girl drug-fuelled orgy as well as going on dates with a man she has serious feelings for.
CC: The nature of her sexuality becomes much more complicated when one considers that she is without gender. While our society is currently dealing with gender fluidity, Ghost in the Shell offers a look into a culture where we can abandon our bodies entirely and assume our wants without bias given to our physical forms.
The rift between soul and body is also present in the most iconic imagery that’s consistently reused throughout the series: that of Kusanagi pulling something towards herself with such force that she tears apart her synthetic arms. This subliminally speaks to humanity truly overcoming our “shells” and unleashing the potential beyond the constraints of our bodies.
To return to my point about Johansson’s expressions throughout the trailer, Kusanagi by comparison is borderline expressionless throughout the series. This is incredibly important to her character because it speaks to several things, one of which being the distance from her emotional self and her body. She does not communicate physically, which heavily implies her robotic self rather than her human side. Also, it makes her a tabula rasa for the audience to experience the story without being told by the protagonist how they should be reacting to a given situation.
KM: In terms of bringing to life the original GitS movie, ScarJo will fail as the Major due to, as you mentioned, her expressiveness. And it goes beyond the fact that she is exerting normal emotion for a character who is supposed to have the appearance of essentially a life-size doll. Were they to limit her expressiveness, Johansson as an actress doesn’t have a very expressive voice, which is where Kusanagi’s personality came through. If they were focusing on the original manga as their source material, Kusanagi did have [a] full, over-the-top facial expression. But we know that’s not what made them make this movie, nor where they’re taking their cues from.
CC: Her lack of expressions also speaks to the effortlessness with which she faces conflict: she always appears cold, calculated, and in control. While it might be strange to stare at an expressionless protagonist for an hour and forty-five minute runtime, we’ve actually been doing this for years, but only if the lead is a man. Noir films are entirely based on this style of character, the detached protagonist that does not reveal his emotions. Kusanagi is one of few characters that shares in that emotional distance that keeps her a mystery to the audience, which deepens her intrigue as a character.
CL: My reply to this thought will be long (given that I wrote my MA thesis on noir in the American context).
I agree and disagree with your comment. First, why I disagree: male protagonists in film noir are too varied. If you look at the whole cycle (Maltese Falcon to Odds Against Tomorrow), you have the PI (cool, detached, moral figure who unravels some mystery that the upper classes and police are unable to figure out); you have the morally ambiguous cop figure (who solves the crimes the bureaucratic apparatus is unable to solve because they are unwilling to break the law or invest their time in a lost cause; this character appeared later once the PI narratives became unpopular); you have the middle-class male who does something stupid and pays for it or gets duped by a femme fatale (basically Double Indemnity and other clones of that movie); you have the psychopathic law enforcer with a death-drive on steroids (this one overlaps with the morally righteous cop character I mentioned above in some cases); and you have the heist films which are made up of a variety of criminal professionals with various personality types (the blueprint for this would be Asphalt Jungle; basically a left-expressionist critique of alienated labor where work has become boring and destroys individuality and self-expression); and then you have the postwar stories about mentally or physically damaged vets returning to a world that is unwelcoming and too confusing for them to exist without trouble.
“Masamune presented a strong and capable woman who is a leader of men. Hollywood victimizes women so you’ll pity them.” – Caleb Caswell
So, my point is that male protagonists in film noir are too varied to make that comparison. I think your point about the Major being cool and detached works for the Marlowe adaptations or any Bogart noir made but those would equal around 13 or maybe more features out of a total of 600 plus movies. I don’t see a lot of noir influence on GitS but moreso Neuromancer and cyberpunk in general. Neuromancer has noir influences but they have to do with the heist plot. Blade Runner (and maybe P.K. Dick influenced it as well) but again the noir aspects would be superficial. GitS is much more complicated than most noir movies.
CC: Okay, so I need to study up on my noir. To return to my point, if Johansson, as she does in the trailer, shows effort throughout the fight scenes and reacting in conversation, this illusion of the robotic self through which a mind has to try and express itself — or better yet is the perfect camouflage for a covert government operative — is lost. We’re no longer trying to unwrap a complex character, but instead are given a tragic heroine who was born into a life she didn’t ask for (this is blatantly stated in the trailer). One character has complete control and is strong; the other is made a victim before the story even begins. This highlights the differences between how their authors feel you should attach emotionally to these characters: Masamune presented a strong and capable woman who is a leader of men. Hollywood victimizes women so you’ll pity them.
CC: I also mentioned the city. In the trailer for the upcoming film, we see a technicolour futurescape where skyscrapers are carved into faces and holograms bring colour to the skyline. It’s cartoonish. Unfortunately, not only does this misrepresent the source material, it undermines one of the most potent metaphors presented in Masamune’s work.
Just as the series plays with the body and soul, it also plays with reality and dream, dream being represented by the internet. The city in the movies and series is depicted as grey and hyper real. Bathrooms have marble counters and faucets. There’s traffic, laundry lines, rain, dogs. Reality is concrete and danger is immediate. However, the internet is a dreamscape where matter fluctuates and every rule is bent. Here, there’s colour and imagery that challenges the eye (this occurring moreso during the second season of the series, Stand Alone Complex 2nd gig). It’s when the two encroach on one another, when dream distorts reality (often against a person’s will) that we are invited to question how the incorporeal affects what we can see and touch. What becomes terrifying about the series is that what is presented as science fiction is very much becoming our current reality and how unprepared we are to deal with the challenges it presents. By using cartoonish and colourful imagery at the outset, there is no separation of the two settings, and what we have is a muddled concept of the future that will be visually stimulating for a moment but ultimately a) not reflective of our current experience and therefore difficult to enter into empathetically, and b) a large homogenous setting that sacrifices metaphorical dynamics for hollow visual ones.
KM: Putting aside the importance of metaphors involved with the design of the city, the look of the city is true to the source material in a way.
“…the city as depicted in the new movie is back to techno-orientalism’s roots of trying to depict Japan as the future and the unheard of techno-marvels it may produce.” – Ken Martin
GitS was the product of the evolution of cyber-punk as techno-orientalism, envisioning what the future will be. It took its cues from Blade Runner and Neuromancer, both of which unwittingly — and independent of each other’s work — proposed what Japan (Hong Kong in the case of GitS and Los Angeles for Blade Runner, though all of them are stand-ins for Japan) would be, not realizing that the Japan they had dreamed up as the near future was in fact already showing hints of in reality; this revelation, once perceived by Japanese audiences and writers caused them to recognize the fact within the fiction and begin enhancing these characteristics in Japanese pop culture and cultural export. Writing cyber-punk now meant writing Japan, a strange synchronization whereby Japan was advancing in real life almost on par with what Western writers dreamed future Japan would become. Japan pushed itself further in this direction to capitalize on the West’s correlation between Japan and technological advancement and cement turning the dream into reality, claiming these movements in cyberpunk media for their own.
Routing this long-winded paragraph back to the point I set out to make, the city as depicted in the new movie is back to techno-orientalism’s roots of trying to depict Japan as the future and the unheard of techno-marvels it may produce. Technology in 2016 is exponentially more advanced than it was in 1982, thus the new vision of the future has to become a new impossible standard, just as 1982’s vision of the future seemed pretty “you must be on drugs to think this could actually happen within 20-30 years” to contemporary audiences at the time. Thus, we lose our ability to relate and we’re unable to find the beauty of the symbols and the philosophy beneath the surface, much in the way that a frozen eyeball on James Hong’s shoulder, a set of living dolls with mesmerizingly phallic noses, or the crazy-ass fashion pieces of Blade Runner were meant to entertain and skipped the academic subtlety that could be gleaned elsewhere.
As it relates to the source material:
CC: The strength of this series is in constantly juxtaposing the physical and the spiritual while placing them uncomfortably side by side to be examined together. In the movie Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, a running theme is the examination of the human fear of dolls. It proposes that we fear them because they force us to acknowledge or at least entertain the thought that at our most basic we are nothing but a shell. The series is at its most effective when playing within the uncanny valley, allowing the audience to become comfortable with a perfectly human-appearing character, to suddenly have their face break apart so we can see the clockwork schema within.
Now, no two-hour movie could capture this. This is a story that has been honed for 25 years spanning numerous forms of media, and like another manga/anime classic, Akira, could not even be fully expressed when the original creator was at the helm. However, Katsuhiro Otomo dealt with adapting Akira to film by altering the storyline to keep the message of what he was talking about within the limitations of the cinematic medium. The risk the GitS adaptation runs is keeping the imagery of the original while losing its message.
“…it appears like it will try to tell a huge story and encapsulate everything GitS became in a two-hour or two-hours-plus movie. That’s impossible and foolish.” – Cody Lang
CL: Another problem with this adaptation (or rather a problem that I am anticipating) is that it appears like it will try to tell a huge story and encapsulate everything GitS became in a two-hour or two-hours-plus movie. That’s impossible and foolish. They should pick one good story and tell it. If you try to pack in too much plot (like Nolan did in The Dark Knight Rises) it will become stupid. You need one good story to set up the franchise and then tell more. Treat it like a miniseries or television show where you build the mythos of this universe step by step. A good case study for what not to do with the first film of a franchise is the recent Warcraft movie. It was a mess from start to finish. They had no idea how to set up the world while telling a compelling story. GitS has more than one story to tell and an expansive universe. So go back to the source material, find a good story that introduces the main characters, the world, and leaves room for more stories to be told (i.e. don’t kill off main characters in the first film just to fabricate some sort of stakes). If the writers don’t like the source material then they better have something better up their sleeve but my guess is they don’t.
CC: Your earlier suggestion that the Wachowski’s should have directed it made me immediately think of their version of Speed Racer, which I loved. That would’ve been a killer idea, because I assume that GitS had some influence over The Matrix (actually maybe none at all, but since they’ve dabbled in that kind of world before they could have brought their own statement to the movie).
It’s hard to say what single arc they could’ve picked. Maybe blowing up a single episode into a full movie. I’m assuming they’re going to just refilm the original movie, but it seems like they’re trying to shoehorn the Major’s origin story in there, and to my knowledge she didn’t have her past “stolen from her.” She was just in an accident as a kid.
CL: The original movie is good but the series was better for obvious reasons. What I prefer with adaptations for movies is you have a director with their own vision. They take the source material and warp it to fit their own work which could ultimately be different from the original source material. This method does not please fans of the original but it gets away from superficial adaptations that simply play lip service to fans and tell a boring story that looks like everything else being made in commercial movies. A good example of this would be Tarkovsky’s adaptation of Solaris; completely different message and emphasis than the original novel but great in its own right. When you don’t do it this way the danger is making something like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen which was moronic whereas the source is good.
CC: What’s interesting about the first anime film was that it does little to no work to introduce you to the characters, at least in the sense Hollywood expects. It demands a lot of work from the audience.
CL: That is a feature of Eastern media in general. They rely heavily on genre (for anime and live action) to supply the information an audience needs to avoid exposition, which is usually boring. For feature films they rely on casting and genres (compare the Departed with Internal Affairs, the movie Scorsese based The Departed on). Hollywood movies are made so that no one gets lost watching, which means a lot of exposition. There are ways to get around exposition scenes becoming boring though. One way is to use Cameron’s method in the first Terminator where all of the exposition is happening while they are being chased, so you are combining action scenes with background info being supplied to the audience.
“…they will spend way too much time trying to set up the characters rather than allowing the audience to figure it out on their own if they’re unfamiliar with the source material…” – Ken Martin
KM: As Cody mentioned, this is a strong characteristic of Eastern/Asian media, dating back to waka and haiku whereby the author typically assumed the audience was familiar with the majority of works which came before from all prominent writers — an intuitive canon. Because they wanted to express very large and complex ideas in a short space (not unlike what progressive and deep film making attempts in contemporary times), this assumed knowledge allowed the author to use very brief references, which were quite often so prevalent in previous works by others that a single word could be used as a contiguous reference even though it may appear as just a plain word. The depth and knowledge on the part of the audience also allowed all of the different interpretations of single-word references like that to form a polysemic meaning for further study and breakdown. In some ways, this offered the author more intellectually creative credit than they deserved/intended, but most of the time it was in fact meant to explore all the possible depths.
To summarize in context of the GitS adaptation, they will spend way too much time trying to set up the characters rather than allowing the audience to figure it out on their own if they’re unfamiliar with the source material, which is a stark contrast from the clever writing and assumptions on the part of the audience’s brain power that Eastern/Asian media utilizes to save time and focus on the plot.
CL: Exactly. GitS (the tv series) revealed aspects of its universe as you followed each new story. I’m not saying the Hollywood commercial norms are necessarily worse than the ones in Hong Kong or Japan but that they are different (again, comparing The Infernal Affairs trilogy to The Departed is a good study). The Wachowskis know how to do this well while using Hollywood norms, Lucas did briefly in the first two Star Wars movies, and Cameron knew how to do it with the first two Terminator movies. If you have to use exposition to familiarize the audience with character backstory and the narratives universe, you can do it well but most of the time exposition is boring. To avoid exposition sequences that have the danger of being boring, you have to write sequences (action or otherwise) that tell us something about the characters and the world. That means hiring good writers and a good director that know how to convey character traits through action which know how to tell a story.