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Hollywood’s ‘Ghost in the Shell’ remake misses the mark

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Special To The Japan Times

After the online petitions, the countless think pieces and Twitter tirades, Hollywood’s “Ghost in the Shell” was never going to have an easy passage. Rupert Sanders’ film — a $110 million live-action movie based on a beloved manga and anime property — was ill-fated from the start, tarnished by the controversy surrounding the decision to cast a white actor, Scarlett Johansson, in a role that was originally Japanese.

When Paramount Pictures released a photo last April of Johansson as cyborg ass-kicker Major Motoko Kusanagi, now simply known as The Major, it prompted a social media uproar that never abated. An online petition to instead cast an Asian actress drew more than 100,000 signatures. Each new trailer or marketing push for the film attracted a fresh load of invective from critics, many of them Asian-American, who accused it of “whitewashing” its Japanese source material.

By the time “Ghost in the Shell” opened internationally at the end of last month, it seemed that the damage had been done. The movie drew mostly mediocre reviews and struggled to pull in $19 million during its opening weekend in the U.S. (“Beauty and the Beast,” by way of comparison, made $170 million.) Though it has performed better in other countries, the film is now predicted to lose its studio $60 million.

After consistently downplaying the whitewashing controversy, Paramount has finally conceded that it might have been a problem after all. As Megan Colligan, the company’s president of worldwide distribution and marketing, told The Hollywood Reporter recently, “This movie wasn’t allowed to just be a movie.”

Something has shifted in the past few years, as the conversation about diversity and representation in Hollywood has become impossible for studios to ignore. Yet the whitewashing debate hasn’t gained much traction in Japan, where moviegoers tend not to expect to see themselves reflected in Hollywood productions. Response to the new “Ghost in the Shell” among Japanese viewers has been mixed, but Johansson doesn’t seem to be the problem.

Masamune Shirow’s original “Ghost in the Shell” manga, called “Kokaku Kidotai” in Japanese, first appeared in a special issue of Young Magazine in 1989. Building on the tech fantasias of the author’s earlier “Appleseed,” it depicted a near-future world in which cybernetic enhancement is commonplace, and humans could jack their brains directly into the net.

The protagonist, Major Kusanagi, is a cyborg counterterrorism operative: a human brain in a lethally effective robot body. At the end of the story, she agrees to merge her consciousness with a rogue AI, kick-starting the next phase of man-machine evolution.

Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime adaptation introduced “Ghost in the Shell” to a wider international audience, while foregrounding the story’s philosophical themes. The director released a richer, more ruminative sequel, “Innocence,” in 2004, by which time Shirow’s manga had also spawned an action-packed TV anime series, “Stand Alone Complex,” written and directed by Kenji Kamiyama.

More recently, it has appeared in a fresh iteration, the prequel-slash-reboot “Ghost in the Shell: Arise.” Just last week, anime studio Production I.G. announced that another version was in the works.

Ghost in the Shell
Rating
Run Time 107 mins
Language ENGLISH, Japanese

Oshii’s vision exerts the strongest influence over Sanders’ film, and he has proven to be one of the project’s staunchest defenders. In an interview in the latest issue of movie magazine “Kinema Junpo,” he hit back at criticisms of Johansson’s casting and heaped praise on the movie’s (frequently stunning) visuals.

“It’s pretty close to what I wanted to do with the anime 20 years ago,” he said. “It may be the closest thing to the movie I had in my head.”

Oshii didn’t find quite so much to compliment about the script, which is understandable. In Hollywood’s hands, “Ghost in the Shell” manages to be both dazzling and a little dumb. Sanders and his three credited screenwriters show enormous respect to the surface details of their source material while ditching most of its theoretical baggage.

A chain-smoking scientist character from “Innocence,” explicitly modeled on “A Cyborg Manifesto” author Donna Haraway, gets repurposed as a simple plot functionary. The movie’s denouement visually resembles the climax of the 1995 anime, but replaces the heavy philosophical discourse with a glib affirmation of individuality. (When Sanders and Johansson appeared at a launch event for the film in Tokyo last November, they both said the film was really “a coming-of-age story.” The shell is beautiful; the ghost is gone.)

Johansson’s casting might have been less problematic if the movie had been confident enough to step away from its Asian setting. Yet Sanders can’t get enough of his Oriental-ish chic: the geisha robots, the yakuza goons, the cluttered Hong Kong skylines and holographic billboards teeming with Chinese text.

Asian faces abound, but most of the key characters — played by Pilou Asbaek, Juliette Binoche, Michael Carmen Pitt and Peter Ferdinando — are white. Takeshi Kitano, one of the few Asian actors cast in a significant role, delivers all of his dialogue in Japanese. Confused? Things get even wonkier in the film’s third act, when (spoiler alert) the story delves into The Major’s past and reveals that she was originally Motoko Kusanagi after all.

Japanese viewers do, at least, get a chance to watch the best possible version of this new “Ghost in the Shell.” In the Japanese dub, Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Otsuka and Koichi Yamadera reprise the roles they played in the Oshii movies and “Stand Alone Complex,” to surprisingly brilliant effect.

It adds another layer to the experience, further complicating the culture clash. The American rehash is reclaimed. The whitewash is tinted with a little color. If you’re a fan of the original anime, this is the one to watch.

“Ghost in the Shell” is now playing in cinemas across the country. For more information, visit www.ghostshell.jp.

What the Japanese critics are saying

“Many other movies have been deeply influenced by Mamoru Oshii’s version, not least ‘The Matrix’ series. It’s hard not to feel that this film is late to the party.”

Hideyuki Nakazawa, Cinema Today

“It made me want to revisit the whole ‘Ghost in the Shell’ universe. The director really respects the original manga and the anime.”

Keisuke Sunagare, Engadget

“It has watered down the questions posed by the anime — what it means to be human, what distinguishes people from things — and turned it into a more straightforward Hollywood action movie.”

Katsuo Kokaji, Yomiuri Shimbun

“There have been so many disappointing Hollywood adaptations of Japanese anime, but in this case they gave it a pretty good shot!”

Machiko Watari, Cinemassimo