Sound Off! Ghost in the Shell

Welcome back to Sound Off!, a semi-regular column where members of Speculative Chic gather together to chat about the latest BIG THING in entertainment. This time, cybernetically enhance yourself and discuss Ghost in the Shell, which premiered in the United States on Friday, March 31, 2017.

Sound Off! is meant to be a reaction, but not necessarily a review. After all, while we are all individuals, even mutual love of something (or hate) can come from different places: you may find everything from critique to fangirling to maybe even hate-watching.

Now, join J.L. Gribble, John Edward Lawson, and Whitney Richter as they talk about Ghost in the Shell! [Note: MAJOR SPOILERS. Some important issues surrounding this movie are hard to discuss otherwise.]


J.L.: Coming into this film with absolutely zero background knowledge of the original Ghost in the Shell manga or any previous adaptations, I found myself with very mixed feelings after the fact.

Let’s start with the good: This film was a stunning piece of visual artwork. The setting felt very much like an additional character, and the multiculturalism of the future was portrayed wonderfully while still making it clear that the locale was Japanese. Enough clues were dropped for me to piece together some of what might be happening in the outside world without the film relying on clunky exposition. The cybernetic enhancements of many characters also deserve a special nod. I’m not sure how many were prosthetics, CGI, or a combination of the two, but it was all very seamless and effective at manipulating the audience.

Many of the actors in this film were fantastic, but obviously, all the attention is on Scarlett Johansson for most of the time. Even in scenes where it is clear Johansson was wearing no prosthetics or CGI enhancements, I still got caught up in the uncanny valley through her acting ability alone. Just watching Major walk down a hallway evoked a sense of “something here is not quite human” in the way she moved. I’m not generally a person to predict such things, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see award nominations in her future for this portrayal.

But…there’s still some bad that deserves a mention: Like I said, I had few preconceptions coming into this film other than wondering why a white woman was cast to play the lead in an originally Japanese story. When the first hints of Major’s backstory were revealed, I started to buy into it. The original character was a refugee, potentially Caucasian, whose life was saved. It made sense for the scientists to create a body in her original image to avoid too many issues of body dysphoria. But as Major’s true past was revealed later in the film, I bypassed wonderment and went straight to irritation. As much as I adore Johansson, there was no reason for a white woman to be cast in this role rather than a Japanese or Japanese-American actress. This film should have had enough to a built-in audience without having to rely on American star-power to sell tickets. I’ve seen the defense that Scarlett Johansson resembles Major in the anime version. But what’s the point of a re-make except to make changes and take risks? Oh yeah. Money.

It was a gorgeous, lovely movie, but I would have rather left the theater hanging onto that original sense of awe rather than crankiness and frustration.


Whitney: I had a lot of mixed feelings about going to see Ghost in the Shell. Not being familiar with the source material means I didn’t have any stake in how the movie compared with the graphic novel or previous anime; however, I did have a lot of feelings about casting a white woman in a role that by pretty much any account absolutely should have gone to someone of Japanese descent. Hollywood whitewashing is a huge topic for a different post, but it’s very much one of those hills I’m willing to die on. Despite my misgivings, I did go to see it, and while I think the film validated all of the criticism it’s getting about whitewashing, it was an overall pretty decent film. The visuals are stunning. Clint Mansell can always be depended on to deliver an excellent soundtrack. And while the story itself didn’t take any risks or do anything we haven’t seen before, the overall package it was wrapped up in felt satisfying. I went to see it with my fiancé, who is more familiar with Ghost in the Shell than I am, and he vouched that aside from Scarlett Johansson, the casting of the Section 9 agents was spot on and overall it stuck to the source material reasonably well. The glaring exception, of course, is The Major’s backstory, which backfires in a rather spectacular way that I’ll get into in a minute.

While the setup is all there to have a meaningful discussion about what is human, and whether this woman with a human brain in a robot body still retains her humanity, that debate never really happens beyond the surface level. We really only get to see The Major’s personal relationship with Batou, one of the Section 9 agents, who appears to accept her rather universally. But what is and isn’t accepted in this age of robotics is only hinted at and never really confronted. One great scene in which The Major reaches out to really do some exploration of humanity with a stranger is set up beautifully but then shies away from anything meaningful before moving on to the next scene.

But the whitewashing is more than cringe-worthy — it’s unforgivable. The repeated defenses from both creator Mamoru Oshii and director Rupert Sanders over Johansson’s casting are all the more horrific when the film reveals that the woman this brain was taken from was in fact a Japanese woman who was kidnapped, forcibly stripped of her memory and identity, and placed in a Caucasian body. Ouch. This alone makes it really hard to enjoy the movie, and if you’re shying away from it because of this issue, keep on keepin’ on. Because you won’t like what you see.


John: As an anime fan since the 1980s, back when you had to prowl comic book conventions for that one vendor with Japanese and Hong Kong films, I had mixed feelings about what this live action version could accomplish.

Once the film got going, I realized live action production has surpassed the level of visual spectacle anime achieves (The Guyver can now rest in peace). The cinematography and effects should win awards, and Clint Mansell continues to be one of my favorite soundtrack composers.

Scarlett Johansson as Major had the body language and facial expressions on lock, which limits her performance range, but makes her believable. Which is undermined by the following call and response sermons every five minutes:

Major: “Who am I?”
Everyone: “You are a ghost. In a shell.”

and

Major: “I don’t have any memory.”
Everyone: “That’s okay, being human is more than just memory.”

In the opening credits I saw Ehren Kruger’s name. His adaptations include one of my favorites, The Ring, along with other films more noteworthy for problems among the creative team (The Ring Two, The Brothers Grimm). I don’t know if that’s what happened here, but it felt as though the script was the real ghost in the shell struggling with its identity.

To address pre-release backlash against whitewashing an iconic Japanese creation — and Hollywood’s tradition of whitewashing everything in general — well, the film’s core is all about that. MAJOR SPOILER (so to speak): greedy white capitalists kidnapped/killed an Asian woman and forced her to live as an aesthetically European robot, but she wasn’t having it. However, there is a coup de grâce to white savior syndrome: it is Japanese cultural icon Beat Kitano Takeshi as Aramaki who takes down the white capitalists. [fist pump]

I almost skipped this movie due to the controversy, but I’m glad I decided to go see what was really going on. Also, my life needs more CGI goldfish, cats, and jellyfish, which Ghost in the Shell delivers in overdose amounts.

3 Comments

  • Merrin April 4, 2017 at 1:17 pm

    The white washing is precisely why I am never going to see this movie, especially after I had the “Japanese woman’s brain in a white woman’s body” plot twist spoiled for me on twitter. The worst part about that particular plot twist is the number of white people I’ve seen who think that makes the casting okay. Or maybe not the worst part, because the worst part is still that they cast a white woman to play a Japanese woman, but it’s really disappointing.

    It’s especially gross if you think about it in the context of literally being the entire problem of white washing: picking and choosing aspects from a culture, throwing a white shell over it, and selling it to the masses.

    Reply
  • John Edward Lawson April 4, 2017 at 2:44 pm

    As somebody considered an ethnic other in the United States this could have been another Get Out moment in cinema (especially since it covers the exact same subject matter). I have been told for over four decades that my experiences aren’t real that, I don’t really exist as an important element of society, and much more in the indirect attempt to suppress my identity or social/genetic memory. So I really identified with much in the movie once it became clear that was what was going on with Major. It’s a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg quandary, regarding whether the intent was to genuinely tell a genuine story of identity struggle or just capitalize on a Japanese franchise. In this case it’s actually very easy to figure out. While it may be empowering to have the (from a US perspective) spirit of the ethnic other rebelling against the Eurocentric form they have been forced into, we get our answer regarding the creator’s intent, or lack of consideration, in the closing moments. After Major’s titanic battle killing “the monster” Beat Kitano was dealing with the larger problem of the Corporation, her “body” was essentially destroyed. Yes, it is great that afterwards she reconciles with her mother and continues on with her life. But. She is still Scarlett Johansson, although Scarlett’s conscionable role in the film has ended. Major supposedly chose to have herself rebuilt after the battle not as herself. Now, maybe that sounds far-fetched, but let’s say the story is about a trans person who was forced into a form consistent with their birth gender, only at the end of the movie when they can rebuild themselves they end up choosing… not their trans identity? I would sigh and shake my head, but such a sigh would suck up all the oxygen in the universe. They had convinced me and I was going along with it until that moment, but they lost me in the last 60 seconds. Ultimately one step forward, two steps back. So much to like, yet so much to make me wonder WTF. I could go on.

    Reply
  • Lane Robins April 4, 2017 at 3:27 pm

    Missing this one was an easy choice for me, not simply because of the white-washing. (and I do love ScarJo). I have never actually been a Ghost in the Shell fan. This movie sounds like it’s not going to change my mind.

    Reply

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