Excuse the time-honored phrase, but the new “Ghostbusters” is a whole new ball game. The hype surrounding its U.S. release last month was considerable, and not just because it’s a long-overdue followup of a beloved 1984 Hollywood classic: It has also dared to do what few have done before, which is to change not just the cast, but the entire cast gender.
Many other 1980s gems have dabbled in sequels and franchises with varying degrees of disaster and success — “Rocky,” “The Blues Brothers” and “The Terminator,” to name a few. “Ghostbusters” did come out with a not-that-great sequel in 1989, but this is a overhaul that even millennials can love.
Before, it was a quartet of men (Bill Murray, Ernie Hudson, Dan Aykroyd and the late Harold Ramis) — now it’s “women only,” comprising Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon. Thankfully, director Paul Feig doesn’t make “Ghostbusters” an excuse to throw a bachelorette party (though he may have been tempted, given his “Bridemaids”), and it’s still a mix of action and hilarity. In fact, he makes no excuses whatsoever, and simply forges ahead with his plan. Apparently, there never even was a plan B to include one or more action-men types to sweep any Ghostbuster off her feet. True, there is the studly Chris Hemsworth (“Thor,” “The Avengers”) as Kevin, sole male member of the team, but he’s just a “pretty” receptionist, included to look nice behind a desk, which, it turns out, is all he can barely manage.
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Under such circumstances, many fanboys dug in their heels and readied themselves to hate “Ghostbusters.” Known as the “Ghost-bros,” they kicked up quite a bit of internet ruckus. Their online criticism reeked of misogyny, which prompted women critics and viewers to pledge their full support for the Ghostbuster ladies. The heated insults and counter arguments on both sides (and this was before the movie even opened) made “Ghostbusters” sound like a feminist love song instead of the fun, summertime blockbuster it turned out to be. In spite of that, or even because of it, “Ghostbusters” grossed over $46 million on its opening weekend.
Now, distributor Sony Pictures is happily predicting the Japanese audience will be equally enamored, though without the thorny gender-related undertones. Instead it celebrates the women from the get-go.
“For the Japanese audience, it’s a story with a lot of angles for enjoyment. The ghosts angle, the action angle, and the rikejo angle,” said Sachiko Yamanaka, a member of the film’s promotion team. “Rikejo” is an abbreviation of the word “rikei-joshi,” which refers to Japanese women who are math and science oriented.
For a long time, Japan’s rikejo were perceived as undatable, bespectacled frumps, until some women scientists grabbed media attention. This included actress Rei Kikukawa, who is a Tokyo University graduate from the Department of Science and Engineering, and — despite the ensuing scandal involving accusations of research fraud — former Riken research scientist Haruko Obokata, whose work on STAP cells threw her into the limelight.
Three women in “Ghostbusters” are passionate rikejo, who embrace science with a vengeance, while the fourth is history buff with an equally gung-ho attitude. The quadruplet’s geek personas are tempered with their knack for getting laughs, which is little wonder, since they are all played by veteran comediennes. All four are Saturday Night Live regulars, with McCarthy and Wiig also well established in comedy films such as “Bridesmaids” and “Spy.”
McKinnon as Dr. Jillian Holtzmann is a rikejo loose cannon, handcrafting an imaginative arsenal of ghost-busting weaponry (including the good ol’ proton packs), revved up with nuclear power. Wiig is Dr. Erin Gilbert, who loses a tenure at Columbia University’s physics department and decides to return to her former love of pursuing ghosts. Her childhood friend and fellow brilliant physicist is McCarthy’s Dr. Abby Yates, a woman so dedicated to the paranormal, she’ll run to it like a drunk to a bar. Jones’ Patty Tolan begins as a New York subway worker, but joins the Ghostbusters after one too many spirits haunt her corner of the tracks, and she proves to the team that her knowledge of the city’s history could be useful.
A lot of this “Ghostbusters” is a retread of the original. Erin has even got a bit of Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) in her, which really shows itself when she’s around the “hottie” receptionist Kevin. But this is an entertainment-focused movie, and it’s allowed to look back and poke fun at its predecessor, which it does frequently, even after the theater lights turn back up. Make sure you stick around — you’ll see at least one extra ghost from the “Ghostbusters” past.
This new “Ghostbusters” is like a class reunion in a parallel universe — things feel the same, but the characters and roles have shifted and been updated. In 2016, women not only get to go after ghosts and wisecrack their way through Manhattan in beige coveralls. Thankfully, there is not one utterance about dating, marriage or meeting Mr. Right.
Pretty soon the gender issue ceases to matter, since there is zero reference to women’s issues or even a whisper of the discrimination that women must have suffered in the science industry. All that matters here is that they catch ghosts and save the world. It’s about time women get to do something without the barrage of frills, bells and whistles of “chick flicks” and women’s movies — feminist or not.
“Ghostbusters” officially opens nationwide on Aug. 19, but advance showings start today in Tokyo, lasting throughout the weekend.
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