When Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, a British-Japanese co-production based on the 1989 seinen manga by Masamune Shirow, hit the cinemas worldwide in 1995, no one predicted that it would become one of the best science fiction animations of all times. In February 2016, Hollywood has taken on the very risky challenge of making a live-action adaptation of the aforementioned anime, and announced that Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) will direct the film. Nine month after the production in New Zealand wrapped up, the film was released. Without a shadow of a doubt, the live-action film does not manage to outpeer the animation. Nevertheless, those of you who do not know the manga or have not watched Oshii’s 1995 work, might enjoy this sci-fi production starring Scarlett Johansson in the role of Major Mira Killian, also known as Motoko Kusanagi.
Scarlett Johansson as the Major
Year 2029. The world is governed by technocratic corporations like Hanka Robotics; the technological progress is so great that people can improve their bodies with special implants or prosthetics. The boundary between man and machine is slowly blurring. The audience quickly gets to meet Mokoto (Scarlett Johansson). We see her on the operating table where doctors are transplanting her brain into a completely artificial, mechanised body to save her life. In addition, for her to become the Major, a special officer, her memories are wiped out. After the operation, she joins Section 9 – a police unit under Chief Daisuke Aramaki (Takeshi Tikano). The unit is mostly comprised of people who have biological brains, with bodies replaced by electronics. But what distinguishes the Major from the others is the metaphysical ‘Ghost’, a soul, recognisable to humans only. With the help from Batou (Pilou Asbæk) and Togusa (Chin Han) – fellow operatives – Major Kusanagi will have to deal with not only the city’s worst criminals, but also the competitive Section 6, the mysterious hacker called Kuze (Michael Pitt) and face questions about the nature and purpose of human existence. Her quests will lead her to the world she could have never imagined…
Takeshi Tikano as Chief Daisuke Aramaki
In Sanders’ film, we find the echoes of Blade Runner and even The Matrix; the spirit of the cyberpunk that hovers over Ghost in the Shell is clear, and the refreshed 1990s trend is conveyed in an enticing way. In the fictional city – where the action takes place – everything moves, blinks and shines with giant holograms; the nicely arranged urban scenery, particularly during an evening boat ride, is a real treat for the viewers’ eyes. Ghost in the Shell is well crafted when it comes to the technical side, including an incredible score by Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe; it’s perfectly amalgamated into the film, and adequate in each and every scene. Now as for the script… I must admit that there are sprinkling, well-built moments in it; both the investigation itself (chase for Kuze) – an intricate intrigue – and the rivalries between Sections 6 and 9 provide satisfying tension, together with sporadic, but overwhelmingly spectacular, large-scale (very well choreographed) fights that make Ghost in the Shell a true live-action production.
Pilou Asbæk as Batou
The characteristic atmosphere of the world presented by Sanders, which is full of modern technology, exotic but still unpleasant, tired, and mostly dehumanised, leaves an indelible impression. The effect is further deepened by a few ruthless scenes that blend well into the gloomy poetry of the production. It’s also a pleasure to watch the performances of two men; the legend of the Japanese cinema, Takeshi Kitano (weirdly, he is the only one speaking Japanese in the film) and Pilou Asbæk, a Danish actor, known for his daring role in Sex, Drugs and Taxation and A Hijacking. The French-lady, Juliette Binoche, who portrays one of the Hanka Robotics’ doctors, is also worth mentioning. Unfortunately, the main protagonist, Scarlett Johansson, disappoints; a pretty body and face are not enough for her to pull off the performance; she is as dull as ditchwater and unable to characterise Mokoto well.
Michael Pitt as Kuze
Of course, those who have seen the Japanese animation will recognize a few scenes and film frames (Jess Hall captured Johansson’s moves and physique with a finesse, like Oshii has captured his animated Major). Conceptually, both the live-action and the animated production are closely related. And if one is to stubbornly point out the cracks and blemishes, the Japanese anime had shown more courage and literalness of the story. Having said that, just because the main actor didn’t deliver and was miscast in the role of an Asian character (the infamous whitewashing issue), including a few questionable parts in the script, Ghost in the Shell should not be condemned throughout as there are a few bits and pieces that deserve praise; or at least, a little bit of praise (namely the cinematography, the score, the special effects and the editing).
Another weak aspect of the film, apart from Johansson, is the philosophical meaning of the ‘Ghost’. Although it is very important for the plot – the ‘Ghost’ makes the Major unique and more human – the subject is not made into enough of an issue. I honestly cannot understand the harmony around the title itself either. But along with all these imperfections, Sanders’ new production – as previously mentioned – has its good qualities too; above all, it fits into a proper framework of a visually spectacular show. Of course it is sad that it turned out to be such a let down when it came to Johansson – I am not saying she is a bad actress, not at all, she was just unsuitable for this particular role. I wish Rinko Kikuchi, Doona Bae or Rila Fukushima had played the Major. Well, at the end of the day, we cannot have everything. Altogether, Ghost in the Shell is an okay film; that said, it could have been better since the animation was a first-class story.
Written by Maggie Gogler
Edited by Sanja Struna
All photos © Paramount Pictures