13 April 2017

FWS Movie Review: GHOST in the SHELL (2017)

In 1989, noted manga creator and artist Masamune Shirow known for his military sci-fi manga series Appleseed mixed his own views of technology and philosophy wrapped into the shell of a near future law enforcement/counter terrorism unit of the Japanese government. This new serial, called "Mobile Armored Riot Police" ran in a Japanese magazine from 1989-1990. It was imported to the US by Dark Horse Comics and all of the series were brought under one volume with the subtitle becoming the title of the work: "Ghost in the Shell". Many in the western world know this work by the 1995 celebrated anime movie directed by Mamoru Oshii and the 1997 video game released to the original Sony Playstation. With the popularity came more GITS works, games, and animation series, like Stand Alone Complex. In  2008, Dreamworks Studio acquired the rights and began the long process of bring an Americanized version of Shirow's vision to the big screen. In 2017, that effort gave us the live-action film starring Scarlett Johansson and directed by Rupert Sanders. I was out on the road in West Virginia when the film came out, and I was unable to see it until this week and while I was going to avoid seeing it, I received a number of email requesting an FWS review...so, be careful what you wish for.

The majority of praise heaped onto this film is due to its visuals, art, design, and presentation of the world of GITS, and they are not wrong...this is a beautiful film from beginning to ending. It harkens back to the style laid down by BLADE RUNNER and modern Asian megacities and also incorporates the style seen in the animation films and series along with the original manga. It looks, sounds, and feels like the world of GTIS down to the cars, costumes, gear, and the computer operating systems. It is more than we fans could have hoped for, and at times, it is wondrous to behold.
When it comes to the actors that populate the screen, the good elements extend to only a few, namely the character of Batou played by Danish actor Pilou Asbaek and Chin Han's portraying "normal" Section 9 agent Togusa and some of the performance of "The Major" by Scarlett Johansson. Seeing Batou on-screen similar to the way he is presented in other media (and not just physically) along with added layers was one of the bright spots in the entire production. While Chin Han's Togusa is a welcome change over the original character seen in the 1995 Oshii anime film with an aggressive and in-charge personality.
When it comes to Scarlett Johansson's performance, it is a mixed bag, but she brings some cool professionalism to the role and it seems that she based her version of the Major on the 1995 film and not the manga character, and she captures elements of the machinery of being a professional CT agent that is detached from the rest of humanity, while serving to protect it. When the film gels and the retrofitted plot comes into its own, there is some cohesion and some enjoyment with the beautiful scenery adding to all of it.

After seeing this film, I looked around at the other moviegoers and wondered if they were fans of the original Japanese works and if they were not, then how the hell did they even fully understand the film? That is the primary issue with the 2017 film, it is a shell of the 1995 anime and the original manga, with only a hint of the ghost/spirit that was in the original works by Shirow. There is little to guide or support the audience that have to navigate this world. While scenes were directly lifted from the 1995 Oshii film and it was impressive to see them on the big screen with a sense of deja vu, they were shoehorned with new dialog and not much in the way of a foundation.
From this, I finally granted an understanding what Macross fans thought of ROBOTECH. Due to the amount of changes to the 1995 "Puppet Master/Project 2501" storyline that was itself lifted and altered from the manga, the film is not GITS in the same way, and nor does it work most of the time, because it is too thin of a foundation to hold up the visuals and technological reality of this world. It vexes me that the 1995 film was good at the introduction to the world and the situations, but the 2017 is not and why didn't they replicate the 1995 film instead of altering the plot and central world/story? Hell, the plot is so generic and so filled with the man/machine debate that GITS 2017 could have been BLADE RUNNER 2049!
Then there is the acting. Scarlett Johansson is uneven, too robotic when she nor the plot need her to be...but the worst  acting job and mis-casting belongs to Takeshi Kitano as Chief Aramaki. He is a central figure in all of the interpretations of GITS and a pillar of Section 9. However, you would not know that from the 2017 film...he seems much more tired, bored, and out-of-touch with the events. While they do channel his inner badass with two great scenes at the end of the film, they do not make up for the injustice inflicted on Chief Aramaki by the actor, director, and writers.

For me, one of the bitter questions of the American interpretation of GITS is was it even needed or wanted? The 1995 Japanese animation is one of the best anime films ever made (take that Akira!) and given that fact and the lukewarm effort/reception here in the States, this film is mostly unneeded and unwanted. However, there something more ugly than just that point that screams out at the screen and it is a SPOILER...so, continue reading at your own risk!
Okay, it involved the character of "The Major". In the original source materials, Motoko Kusanagi is a former soldier and an agent with Section 9 of public security that is mostly cybernetic via a Mega-Tech body of the latest generation and technology making her the bleeding edge of cybernetic bodies.
She was not unique among her team in Section 9 and heavily cybernetic bodies are also common in the wider global community. That is not so in the 2017 film. Scarlett's character called "Mira" is offer referred throughout the film (a good drinking game there) as the first of her kind and the next step in human evolution via her cybernetic body being mated to her organic brain...a ghost in the shell. This completely alters the original story, setting, and narrative, forging the 2017 film to not be in-line with the original GITS universe whatsoever. In the film, Hanka Corporation takes the place of Mega-Tech, and is the maker of the Major's body via a exhaustive, bloody, and expensive experiment in biology and cybernetics. When Dr. Ouelet is successful, Mira is forcibly moved into her role as a counterterrorist operator in Section 9 by Hanka CEO Doctor Cutter. This completely alters the plot of the 1995 film and derails the movie to explore old, tired tropes of science fiction that have been explored in countless films, comics, books, and TV shows. For all of the beautiful visuals and excellent production work, the altered story is paper thin and vanilla as they come.

Bottomline and Should You See GITS 2017?
If you are a fan of the GITS universe, than there is something here for you to enjoy along with hate. It is the best we could have hoped for in some ways and more than we could have feared. It is uneven as hell, confusing, thin on plot, large on style, and laser-focused on Scarlett Johansson's character despite not being the most interesting. I am glad I witnessed it and that it maybe the best interpretation by an American film of an anime. Take that statement with a grain of salt and a shot of whiskey. I think if you are interested in the film or a fan of the original work, it is worth seeing, especially for the visuals and to see what they have done to the plot.

Why the Hate for this Film?
When the announcement was made that a white American actress was playing the key role in the live-action GITS film, the internet was a forest fire of hate, rants, and screaming questions. That sparked some of the bile associated with this film and part of why it has not done as well as projected. Whenever you remake or redevelop a much beloved film that inspirited many creators and fans, there is going to be much passion and weariness. Given that the film is not the best adaptation that could have been, you can understand the level of hate that has accompanied the 2017 film and the main star...who is white and not Asian. However, in the manga and the 1995 film, the character of Major Kusanagi and some members of her team at Section 9 do not appear Japanese or even Asian. Even Shirow said recently that he did not think that Motoko Kusanagi needed to be played by a Asian actress. I think are actress of Asian descent that could have played Major Kusanagi even better than Scarlett Johansson and take some of the heat off of the film...of course, the plot of the film does answer why Mira is a white cyber-girl. Another reason for the hate is the caliber of the 1995 Oshii film, given the reason for the 2017 American film even existing a shaky foundation in the first place. I wondered why from the very beginning why there was to be an American live-action GITS film when the 1995 is so good and celebrated. Then there is main reason, the track record with Hollywood anime-spirited film. This gave fans pause due to the rape that was The Last Airbender film and worried that their beloved GITS would receive the same mistreatment.


  1. We already had two films and two excellent 26 episode series; this wasn't a film that needed to be made. And if you're going to make a new film, make a new film. It feels like 4/5 of this movie consists of poorly reshot and out of context scenes from the 1995 and 2004 films. Bad acting, bad casting, hollow sound effects, forgettable music, a cringe worthy and cliché-ridden script, bad sets (some of the scenes feel like they take place in a diorama) - there's hardly any aspect of this film that I don't take umbrage with. There's also the issue of mechanical designs - to steal a comparison brought up on the Spacebattles forum, look at https://imgur.com/bx184fD vs https://imgur.com/VpqMCxA. The film version is just an ugly wedge, lacking all the grace and character of the original. They made the Major a Luddite in her previous life. They actually made her original name Motoko Kusanagi! (To give this some context: Motoko - "child" - is one of the most common and blandest names for a girl. The Kusanagi (or Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi) is a legendary sword and one of the three imperial treasures of Japan. Calling someone "Motoko Kusanagi" is like naming a person "Jane Excalibur"; it's referenced as pseudonym in the original show.)

    And finally - the cherry on this crap sundae - they went to the trouble of giving Togusa an underbarrel revolver, but they gave him a Chiappa Rhino WHEN IN FACT he uses a MATEBA UNICA 6 AUTOREVOLVER.


    I jest. Mostly. Still, I can only hope that the live-action Evangelion proposal never makes it to the screen.

  2. Yeah, the Chippa Rhino was in one scene and the Mateba, which was named in the 1995 Oshii film, was absent...along with the Seburo 5mm. I wanted to see that one instead of the Glock. Really movie?!

    1. THE Mateba is long out of production and by 2049 would prove again just how Hipster Togasa really is. The Rhino is a spiritual successor not just by being a Italian top loading revolver but by being the same designer the late Emilio Ghisoni.
      I was willing to forgive the Glock the traditional Seburo might have made some Brownie points for adherence to the "Cannon" but if a real working version of that pistol were produced other than the Caliber it would feel dated. The 1995 movie substituted the M5 for a Cz100, Arise traded it out in all but the OP for an AMT.

  3. "in the manga and the 1995 film, the character of Major Kusanagi and some members of her team at Section 9 do not appear Japanese or even Asian"

    Weird, I always thought the 1995 film was one of the few anime where Japanese characters actually looked Japanese...

    1. :s hmm, they always seemed mostly caucasian to me.

    2. Anime Style is more style than anatomically accurate.
      One point to be made though is Japan's population issues mean that Masamune Shirow can be forgiven a bit for a more ethnically mixed future. With a declining population, yet fairly developed economy and increasing access to air travel globally It just makes logical sense that a Japan post 2030 will have a more ethnically mixed population.
      Additionally for cases of a full Cyborg like the Major or a designer Android you face a more designer centric aesthetic. I mean the Major is a Tactical Barbie doll.
      In one of the Ghost in the Shell Anime Stand alone Complex series for example there is an episode where the Major takes a day off and is encountered in a totally different body, a much less Adult version of Matoko Kusanagi.
      There is also an episode of 2nd Gig where the Stalker Ex of one member of the Squad tries to knock off the member and replace him with a cyber body.
      In the Manga there is a Comedic moment Where Bato is on a E-Date with what looks like a beautiful young woman and called into work. When someone asks the Boss if there is any Danger of a security breach. It's commented that they already back ground checked his date without Bato's knowledge and it was a 58 year old Ukrainian man
      In another Near Cyberpunk movie Surrogates, They make a number of plays on this where The Face/Body of the Surrogate is nothing like the real person.
      Basically if you have the full cyberborg ability to build a full synthetic body you can be who you want to be and look like what you want.

  4. The change to the villains of the GitS world made this a glossy counterfeit. The ex-boyfriend-borg and Not-Omni Corp were simply not sophisticated enough. The ghost hacking devolves into the type of escapade a Steven Seagal robot could manage. That, and the least tantalizing scene between two future babes...

  5. I don't understand this review. You said that the plot was too thin, but others said the plot was way too complicated.

    I saw the movie with only two episodes of the anime in me and I felt like everything pretty much made sense to me.

    As for for the film doing tired stuff that was done before, what was there left to go over that hadn't been done before?

    Either the film asks if she is really human or not, or it asks nothing.... There are only so many questions to ask and a film like this is expected to ask some kind of question.

    Seeing the film, I recall watching lots of really good martial arts films and 1980s action films with way worse acting. I can think of so many films that are good where the acting was worse.

    If you asked me what I would take out of the film, I would say nothing.

    I can remember the whole film and I enjoyed the whole process, this almost never happens to me when I watch films these days.