It was with some reticence that I went along to see this latest incarnation of Shirow Masamune’s Ghost In The Shell. Mamoru Oshii’s anime feature of 1995 is an all time favourite of mine so this new version by Rupert Sanders, director of the unremarkable Snow White and the Huntsman, had some mighty shoes to fill. But Sanders’ film is surprisingly good.
More a prequel to Oshii’s film than a remake, the story relates the origins of Major Motoko Kusanagi (Scarlett Johansson) and also a little bit of her partner, Batou (Pilou Asbæk). The film riffs heavily off Oshii by lifting sequences directly from his film (hence why, on the surface, this appears to be a remake) and recreates them in the live action format – a relatively easy task with our contemporary special effects technology. It’s interesting to see how Sanders has applied these familiar scenes and remoulded their context to fit the new narrative. The result is very effective and nostalgic at the same time. There’s also a nod to Oshii’s 2001 film, Avalon, and his love of basset hounds (a staple in all his films) that is a nice touch for fans.
The film follows a Frankenstein-style story with the villain, Kuze (Michael Pitt), attacking his creator, the Hanka Robotic Corporation. Kuze is an earlier and unsuccessful version of the Major and he’s none too impressed that Hanka threw him on the scrap heap to die and he retaliates by hacking into heavily augmented humans (ghost hacking) to exact his revenge. As a member of the government anti-terrorist division, Section 9, the Major and her colleagues are tasked with stopping him. Along the way, Kuze educates Kusanagi on some uncomfortable truths about their shared origins.
The production has been the subject of accusations of whitewashing since the casting of Scarlett Johanson in the lead role. There is a general case to be made with the ‘whitewashing’ of characters in Hollywood films but the case for the prosecution is weak here. The question of whether ethnicity even applies to cybernetic bodies was implicitly raised in Oshii’s film and it follows in this one. The film also makes a specific point about Section 9 being a multi-ethnic organisation so a Caucasian Kusanagi is by no means out of place. The film also points out that Kusanagi’s prior living body was Japanese even though her cybernetic body clearly isn’t. Again implicitly questioning whether ethnicity is even a valid concept in this new world order. A greater test of whitewashing will be the forthcoming Akira film that is unmistakably set in Tokyo with Japanese characters. We’ll see how Hollywood handles that.
Ghost In The Shell is experiencing a bumpy ride at the box office but I think history will judge it more kindly than the present. To be sure it lacks the philosophical depth and narrative complexity of Oshii’s prior film but it still has an interesting story that questions the value of human versus synthetic life.