Every day, our reliance on technology and online data increases. We are forced to question whether (and, if so, how) such ‘modern’ ways of being are taking over the essence of our lives – whatever that essence may be today. However, no speculation portrays the potential consequences as starkly as Ghost in the Shell (2017) directed by Rupert Sanders. This cyberpunk film is based on the Japanese media franchise of the same name. The influence that manga has over the film’s cinematography is clear from the outset.
Ghost in the Shell tells the story of a protagonist who is the first of her kind. Thinking that her mind has been saved from a near-death experience, she learns that her new body is man-made, in short: she is a highly advanced robot, or, perhaps, a cyber-enhanced human being. However, her memory is flawed, controlled by medication, and this soon becomes the key to unravelling another narrative beneath the surface. Overall, it is evident that this film attempts to cause one to dwell on humanity, and the implications technology and research can have on human life. Scarlett Johansson’s character portrays an otherwise free soul overwhelmed by the man-made: she is literally ‘in the shell’ and her mind (and memory) is controlled by a daily dose of man-made, prescribed medication. The film constantly raises the question as to whether our memory defines us, albeit in a crude way (it is basically vocalised by the films characters).
However, despite being successful in terms of its look, Ghost in the Shell has sacrificed its storytelling, and it would seem that this is a general consensus. According to the Hollywood Reporter:
‘Rupert Sanders’ take on the iconic manga/anime franchise is winning praise from Japanese audiences for its look, but less kudos for its storytelling. The film currently has a 3.5-star rating on Yahoo Japan Movies, with four stars for its visuals and three for its story.’ There was a ‘failure to address the complex issues of identity in the manga and anime. “That was the base of the original story — where does the soul reside? That influenced films like The Matrix, but didn’t get addressed in this film,” said Hirano.’
This reviewer couldn’t agree more: at times, the narrative is overshadowed by clichéd action and special effects. There are too many witty-one-liners to take any deeper meaning in the narrative (albeit not obvious) seriously.
Ghost in the Shell also emphasises a real-life issue concerning race and culture in terms of its characterisation. Scarlett Johansson is cast as the protagonist’s new robotic body, the mind of which we learn belongs to a Japanese girl. There has been much discussion in the press about the notion of ‘white washing’ and race in general. Mike Sampson writes that:
‘[b]ack in late 2015 when Scarlett Johansson was cast in Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks’ live-action adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga series The Ghost in the Shell, fans were already critical of the casting of the Danish-Polish actress in the role of Major Motoko Kusanagi, an Asian woman. It was the latest example of the long Hollywood tradition of “whitewashing,” the practice of casting white actors in non-white roles.’
Simiarly, Karen Han writes that:
‘[t]he live action Ghost in the Shell has been the eye of a storm of controversy ever since its inception. It’s been accused of whitewashing due to the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the franchise’s protagonist, Major Motoko Kusanagi, as well as deeply unpleasant rumors that CGI had been used to alter an actor’s appearance to “shift [their] ethnicity.”’
Ben Childs from The Guardian writes that:
‘Johansson’s casting as the Major (Major Motoko Kusanagi in the original anime and preceding mangas) has drawn criticism from Asian-American actors who wondered why it was necessary to cast a non-Asian actor in such a quintessentially Japanese role. A counter-argument goes that Kusanagi has blue-violet eyes that feature no epicanthic fold, so it is perfectly acceptable for her to be played by Johansson – a point that rather ignores the fact that most females in anime have a similar appearance.’
Despite these debates, it seems that Japanese fans are nonplussed by the whitewashing rumours surrounding the casting of Scarlett Johansson. According to Gavin J. Blair from the Hollywood Reporter, ‘in the home of the manga and anime cult classic, the reaction to the media firestorm was mostly surprise, as many Japanese had already assumed that the lead role in a Hollywood version of the story would go to a white actress.’
Overall, Ghost in the Shell is a must-see. The cinematography, sound, music, and acting are on point throughout. Juliette Binoche is flawless and Scarlett Johansson lives up to her action-hero reputation. If you enjoy Japanese manga, cyberpunk, and action sci-fi, then this film is for you.
Author Details: Ian Rollins-Smith; Ian is a critic of film and food with a passion for travel. He is currently based in Bristol.