It was, of all things, a review by The Economist that finally convinced me to give the live action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell a chance. I mean, I make no secret of the fact that it’s one of my preferred sources of news and opinion (even when I disagree with them they always make a strong, considered and even-handed argument), but that’s generally of the political and economic nature rather than whether or not the latest sci fi blockbuster out of Hollywood is worth watching or not. I found the review refreshingly free of the moaning and biases that I usually see on the nerdier side of internet. It was the last paragraph that really got my attention though:
Not everyone is happy about the “rainbow casting”. When Ms Johansson was announced as the Major, the film was condemned online as another example of “white-washing”, that is, the Hollywood tendency to take Asian roles and hand them to white actors. You could argue, as Mr Oshii has, that the new “Ghost in the Shell” is separate from the old one, and that there is no pressing reason why an American film should be identical to a Japanese one, or why a cyborg should be Japanese in the first place. (In the manga comic that inspired the first film, Major is called Motoko Kusanagi, but has blue hair and pink eyes). And while that argument hasn’t won over the detractors, the fact is that its racial diversity is one of its most distinctive and laudable aspects. A mono-cultural city just doesn’t make sense in science fiction anymore. The “Ghost in the Shell” remake may not be as pioneering as the anime was, but its mix-and-match casting is the most truly futuristic thing about it.
Truth be told I was one of those detractors. And now that I’ve actually seen the film I can safely say that I still am. It’s hard not to cringe a little at the makeup and digital work meant to make Scarlett Johansson look more Asian, and a late movie reveal of the Major’s origins can be taken either as further evidence of white-washing or an ironic wink by a self-aware movie-maker (white male chief executive pushing his own views of physical perfection and racial identity) depending on how forgiving you’re willing to be. Probably it’s both.
There’s no denying that ScarJo does an amazing job with the role, playing the cyborg slowly reconnecting with her emotions, struggling to deal with the existential crisis and confusion that follows. I know this sounds odd, but she act like what I’d expect a cyborg to look like, small things that come off as intrinsically unnatural and veer towards the uncanny valley. Her walk most of all, a long and stiff stride without any of the sway and swagger you normally expect from movie heroines, but exactly what you’d expect from a robot. Am I saying that an Asian actress couldn’t have done just as good (maybe even better) a job? Of course I’m bloody not. Am I saying that they were right to pick Scarlett Johansson for one of the few lead roles that could be made available for an Asian actress? Again, of course I’m bloody not. But I can recognise a good performance when I see one, and that walk impressed me.
The whole cast impressed me, quite frankly. I was worried at first about Pilou Asbaek as Batou, mostly ’cause he didn’t sound like what I’m used to. His voice wasn’t deep enough and the accent was wrong. But I got over it quickly enough. In the anime Batou is this big, imposing dude who naturally fills any space he’s in, but not because he’s trying; because he just is a big, imposing dude. And Asbaek nailed it. Michael Pitt stomps about doing a fantastic cybernetic Frankenstein’s Monster, furious with the creators that rejected and left him to die (also big props to the sound editors who had him sounding like a glitching computer). I would have liked to have seen more of the rest of Public Security Section 9’s team (Ishikawa and Saito were always favourites of mine), but I liked their inclusion of new character Ladriya (played by Polish-Kurdish Danusia Samal). And then they had motherfuckin’ ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano playing Aramaki (with a perfect haircut), and that’s all I need to say about that casting choice.
The visuals are stunning, drifting over enormous concrete blocks and shining skyscrapers equally plastered with garish neon advertisements. Body modifications are common and usually gruesome, practicality regularly winning out over aesthetics. The fight scenes are violent (without being bloody, thankyou M-Rating) and range from graceful slow-motion gravity-defying shootouts, to quick, grim, gritty and frenetic room-clearing, all of it artfully shot. The special effects are a stunning mix of practical effects and CG.
And the complaints I’ve seen are often minor and ridiculous, the efforts of folk looking for something to complain about. One reviewer was annoyed that all of Aramaki’s lines are delivered in Japanese yet everyone understands him just fine, without any explanation given to the audience as to how this is possible. Mate, it’s a fucking sci fi film where people talk telepathically and you can download an entire language straight into your brain, they don’t need to explain every little goddamned detail. Another complained about the mid-movie twist being too predictable. Mate, this film is not going for subtlety (they telegraph who the real villain is in the first bloody scene). Sometimes it’s not about the audience learning the big secret, it’s about the characters learning what we already know. That’s what made Columbo so great. And anyone who reckons that this film isn’t philosophical enough, does not ask what it means to be human often enough, quite frankly doesn’t remember the original anime film. By the time we met the original Major Motoko Kusanagi she’d been going through an existential crisis so long it had gotten boring (it was the sequel that got heavy with the philosophical discussions).
This is the kind of solid scifi that delivers a message not by directly asking a question but by creating a world in which asking that question is necessary and inevitable.
I really enjoyed this film. But I can’t recommend it. The Economist is right the diverse cast was one of the cleverest parts of the world we see in the film, but the fact remains that all the characters with the most lines, except for Takeshi’s Aramaki, are played by white actors. They might have been good performances, but they were where the diversity was needed most. So I cannot recommend this film.
That’s the great tragedy of this film. It’s a good movie brought down by the poor choice of a good cast. What a shame.