As my loyal readers will know, I have had occasion to use this space to review movies. There was a great deal of discussion recently concerning the, then, up-coming live adaptation of the classic manga, Ghost in the Shell, written and drawn by Masamune Shirow. While the manga presents itself as lighthearted and moderately comedic, the anime, produced in 1995, is a gripping and dramatic adaptation of the story. It is this anime that most fans point to as the definitive telling of the tale. Much of the buzz around the ‘net consisted of concerned fans hoping that Hollywood might treat the original source material with respect and allow the compelling and fascinating story to play out on the big screen as the author intended it. If you were one of those fans with concerns along those lines, then rest assured that your fears were well founded and fully realized within the first 45 seconds of the film. The Ghost in the Shell live adaptation suffers from the very thing that makes up it’s subject matter: it completely lacks any soul at all.
By way of plot review, the original story involves a young woman, Motoko Kusanagi, whose mind has been implanted into a cybernetic or cyborg body. While every part of her is mechanical, her mind, soul, and spirit remain human. She, according to various sources across the Internet, was injured in a plane crash and then, as her body failed, was placed into the cybernetic shell. She volunteered for government service as a way to pay for the maintenance and upkeep on her cyborg body, again, according to the original anime but she also seems to be motivated by the needs of society. It seems that sacrificing self to benefit the collective is a theme that appears quite regularly in Japanese literature. At any rate, she is employed by Section 9, a division of the Government Intelligence Community tasked with protecting the public from various threats. As well as possessing formidable physical and tactical skills, the Major, as she is called, is expert in all things technical and digital. She is a master hacker/programmer, and as such, often gets called in when cases involve technological details.
The story occurs at some time in the near future when mankind has perfected the ability to combine electronics, mechanics, and the human body. Nearly everyone in the story is enhanced to some degree, with the notable exception of the recently recruited former policeman Togusa. The team is assigned to track down and capture a ghost hacker, someone who can hack into a human mind via the network connections in the cybernetic bodies, and control the actions and thoughts of those so compromised. In order to prevent spoiling a fantastic story for those who have not had the pleasure, I will say no more about the plot, except that it is engaging and speaks eloquently to the question of what defines a person. Sadly, the current live-action offering did not ever even wave at this question, much less speak to it.
As many fans feared, the screen-writers and directors of the live-action film pulled bits and pieces of plot from various points along the narrative of the original anime and mashed them together into a non-challenging, politically correct, and quite frankly boring mess of a story that was distinctly western in flavor. All of the motivations from the original work that were specifically Asian in nature were completely skipped over, or so under-emphasized as to be invisible. In fact, the Major’s name was not used until the last 10 minutes of the film. She was given a western name and no reference to her being Asian was ever made, barring the creation of a contrived mother who never appeared in the original story, and was, once again, a specifically western idea.
The original anime is considered to be, among other things, an action/adventure story. The plot is fast moving and barrels from once action scene to the next with the speed of a packet traveling through the net. The live-action film lacked a great deal of its name-sake, action. Aside from a few set-pieces taken from the original film and stitched together in no particular order, the movie consisted of a great deal of dialog. I felt stifled in exposition. Video is a VISUAL medium. Don’t tell the story, SHOW IT.
Don’t get me wrong, I have adored Scarlett Johansson since I saw her in The Island with Ewan MacGregor. She is the only person I can see as the Avenger’s Black Widow and she is, in general, a very talented actor. However, the Major is, according to the original anime and especially the original manga, supposed to have the appearance of a much younger woman, and later, a young girl, as her cybernetic body is damaged and must be replaced. I think the casting director might have taken that into consideration when filling the role of the major. Also, in my opinion, the character of Batau was poorly handled. He is shown in the beginning with normal eyes and does not acquire his signature enhancements until much later in the film. This is not in keeping with the original material.
All in all I felt disappointment as I walked out of the theater. I had high hopes for this movie and those hopes were dashed on the jagged rocks of Hollywood’s desperate need to make sure that everything produced by a major studio fits the long establish, and boring, mold. Sadly they lived down to my expectations.