Thursday, April 6, 2017

Femina Ex Machina: Ghost in the Shell (1995) vs Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Scarlett Johansson from Ghost in the Shell (2017) and her anime counterpart from Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Note: This review contains spoilers for both versions of Ghost in the Shell
 
Before The Matrix, there was Ghost in the Shell (1995), the Japanese anime film based on the 1989 manga of the same name. The title refers directly to the major themes of the story, which depicts a cyberpunk future in which the line between human and machine is growing ever more blurred as cybernetic enhancements become commonplace. Major Motoko Kusanagi is the avatar of this evolution; her body is entirely synthetic except for her human brain, cradled in a metal casing that allows her to plug directly into the internet. Her soul – her personality, thoughts, feelings, and sense of identity – is the “ghost” that hides in the manufactured shell that is her body.

You can see where the Wachowskis got their inspiration for the story of Neo: the cyberpunk setting, the idea of “jacking in” to a network via a needle-like plug to the brainstem, the blending of analog and digital technologies that lead naturally to philosophical questions about the nature of consciousness and identity. There’s been a heartwarming cross-pollination of media influences between Japan and the U.S. since before the 1960s, when Kurosawa and Leone were cribbing one another’s work, and that tradition hasn’t changed. With Ghost in the Shell, whose own influences extend from Arthur Koestler to RenĂ© Descartes – and its 2017 remake, which we’ll get to – it’s clear that there really aren’t any new ideas under the sun. All that matters in this arena are the clarity, power, and poetry with which these old ideas are expressed.

The 1995 film, directed by Mamoru Oshii, makes a strong case for itself in this regard. It’s rightly praised as one of the most visually stunning animated films ever made, and it uses its visuals to paint an arresting portrait of humanity trapped and terrified by its own evolution. The plot centers on “The Major,” the leader of a government-led military assault team called Section 9, as she tracks down a hacker called “The Puppet Master” with presumed terrorist intentions. Her investigations bring her close enough to her quarry that she begins to doubt his supposedly malicious motives, which brings her already bubbling doubts about her own sense of purpose and self to a rolling boil. The film’s stylish trappings – exquisitely detailed production design, an awe-inspiring “New Port City” setting modeled after Hong Kong, an eerie and powerful score, fantastical depictions of future technology and human enhancements, shocking violence, and frequent nudity – are highly-polished window dressing that serves to enhance the story’s themes. It’s an occasionally problematic film, but a deeply resonant one nonetheless. 

A scene from Ghost in the Shell (1995).

One problem is that it doesn’t bother to trade in subtlety. It’s clear about its thematic intentions almost to the point of banality, using its characters like mouthpieces for long monologues that flatly state its philosophical ideas. It’s text without subtext, which robs the experience of deeper meaning. This is par for the course in the anime genre, which has always been comfortable baring its intentions for the world to see (which, it’s been said, is instrumental to its success: it exults in the very same freedom of self-expression, to be loud and lurid and obvious, that’s considered taboo in everyday Japanese society). That’s not to say that its ideas are sophomoric – for a long time, Ghost in the Shell was the gold standard for this particular brand of philosophical quandary in the so-called internet age, especially since it came from a country like Japan, whose own history of artistic introspection and modern technological prowess made them authorities on the subject. When The Puppet Master builds himself a shell, and spends five minutes proselytizing to the assembled technicians and Section 9 members about his sentience and his right to exist, you can be forgiven for rolling your eyes. But then, we laud Star Trek for its love affair with moral quandary, and it presents those questions with the same consumer-grade clumsiness. Japan simply took that ball and ran with it, right past the end zone. 

Another problem with the 1995 film – which has been argued and debated ad nauseum, to the point that it’s now more an interesting talking point than a legitimate issue with the film itself – is its portrayal of The Major herself, specifically how much of her is portrayed. It’s easy to watch the way the movie seems to fetishize the female form, with its many lingering shots of The Major’s naked body, and identify the uniquely repressed male gaze of Japanese anime. But the film does have an excuse for keeping The Major naked for a large portion of the runtime, and it's tied to the film’s ideas about dehumanization. This is, we’re led to believe, a world in which sexual reproduction has given way to mechanical replication. The all-male members of Section 9 don’t view The Major as a sex object, and she’s never treated as such by anyone; she’s overtly feminine, but I suspect the idea is that she’s largely non-female. Her choice to reclaim her sense of self through a “merge” with The Puppet Master’s ghost could be viewed as a new form of reproduction, and a new definition of female identity. These are wonderfully progressive ideas that sound nice, but they don’t hold a lot of water given a sober reading of the film and its context. Which is more likely: that Ghost in the Shell defies its Japanese cultural standards by breaking new feminist ground, or that a bunch of pervy male animators wanted to draw a sexy naked cyberheroine? I hate to be so cynical, but even as the film de-emphasizes the sexuality of its main character, it hyper-emphasizes the visual associations between sex and the female body. It’s a tough row for these guys to hoe. 

Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell (2017).

If anything, it’s even tougher in 2017. Of course, the remake – directed by Rupert Sanders and starring Scarlett Johansson as The Major – swiftly sidesteps the issue by putting its live-action star in a flesh-coloured bodysuit (which, as depicted in the film, is a piece of clothing that the character herself actually wears), allowing nipple-phobic censorship boards to breathe a sigh of relief. But even if the 2017 film did portray a naked Scarlett, it would only be the first of a host of issues that torpedo the film before it can even float. The 1995 original is problematic, as I’ve said, but it’s a legitimate masterpiece compared to this confused, muddled, wrong-headed remake. 

The biggest problem – the one you already know about, thanks to the countless thinkpieces about it spewed forth from our left-leaning media cycle – is the racial one. Again, there’s an excuse: the film offers its multiracial cast, who occupy roles that are disconnected from their ethnicity, as a depiction of so-called “transhumanism” (a troubling phrase to begin with), which is supposed to tie into the big twist reveal about The Major and where she came from before all this cybernetic stuff happened. But, again, this excuse is as flimsy as wet paper – it’s obvious to anyone that Paramount (and affiliated Chinese production companies Huahua Media and Shanghai Film Group) needed to cast the biggest female star they could in order to sell their film, and the biggest star just so happened to be white. As a result of this decision, which was already artistically bankrupt, the story of the original Ghost in the Shell was rewritten to focus not on its ontological ideas about identity and consciousness, but on a hackneyed amnesia plot in which The Major – whose name is now “Mira Killian” – must discover her true identity as a Japanese girl named Motoko Kusanagi. 

I don’t even know where to start with that. 

Casting a white actor as a Japanese character would be troublesome enough. Changing that Japanese character into a white character in response is even more problematic. Revealing that that white character was actually a Japanese character all along is… well, “batshit insane” springs to mind. 

Michael Pitt  and Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell (2017).

This isn’t the remake’s only problem, but it’s surely the most damning one. It’s emblematic of a general disregard by all involved in the film for crucial sociopolitical issues that, in 2017, have been brought tooth and nail to the surface, by the bravery of those actually facing these issues daily. Marvel’s Iron Fist is one thing; that character was actually originally written as white. The rest is wishful thinking, no matter how well-intentioned (and correct, in my opinion) the fan-casting might be. This is beyond the pale, and it would utterly invalidate the film if it wasn’t already so busy doing that to itself by other means. 

It’s undoubtedly a colourful, well-composed, striking-looking movie, but that’s about where its virtues end. Its depictions of a glittering cyberpunk future – a far cry from the gritty, overwhelmingly dense setting of the original – are stunning, but nearly masturbatory in their effect, as the same flyover shots are used again and again to show us the same amazing building-sized holographic advertisements we’ve seen before. It’s Blade Runner, if Blade Runner had no restraint or sense of visual purpose. And even within this fantastical future world, where nothing looks real, many of the film’s visual effects still manage to look artificial and dated. The action sequences are dull, with unfocused editing and no sense of impact, and far too infrequently placed in a film whose dialogue scenes leave much to be desired. The banter between characters is painful even in comparison to the 1995 film, whose obviousness was an issue – here the ideas are just as vapid as the dialogue used to express them. The general story structure is a latticework of bad ideas, from the clumsy way that old elements are redone (like the garbage man controlled by the hacker antagonist, or the hacker antagonist himself) to the inept way that new elements are introduced (like Killian’s mother-figure, the unscrupulous-then-scrupulous Dr. Ouelet, or Beat Takeshi’s Section 9 boss Chief Aramaki, who graduates from a technical strategist in the original to yakuza executioner here). The simplest way to describe it is to say that it’s a film whose only new ideas are bad ones, and whose execution of the old ideas is bumbling. 

So this comparison ended up boiling down to “the remake isn’t as good as the original; if you want a cool cyberpunk movie, watch the 1995 Ghost in the Shell,” which I’m sure has surprised nobody (myself included). My general feeling is disappointment at the missed opportunity this remake presented – not just for better and more inclusive representation in our blockbuster films, but for engaging thematic storytelling in a constantly evolving technological world. Empty-headed nostalgia is no foundation upon which to build new and interesting commentary. It feels like we’re trapped in old ideas of the future: as technology races forward, our imaginations retreat into the past. Twenty years ago, we looked to the future with curious and inquisitive eyes. Today we struggle to remember what that felt like. There’s a poignant message in there somewhere… I’m just too stupefied right now to figure it out. 

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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