Paramount seemed determined to keep most critics way from screenings of “Ghost in the Shell.” Some critics guessed this was because of people protesting the main character was being played by Marvelverse’s Black Widow, Scarlett Johansson. In the end, this live-action version of “Ghost in the Shell” is East Asia as imagined by Americans with the subtleness of a drunken sailor on leave, leering at women in a bar.
With a PG-13 rating, the flesh-toned thick costuming that Johansson sports in some scenes allow you to imagine her nude. In the original animated feature, the protagonist Major Motoko Kusanagi, fought in the naked with nipples carefully detailed for titillation. The live-action movie more subtly uses the male eye to objectify the character, now only called The Major: There are plenty of crotch shots and a fascination with The Major’s thigh gap.
If you’ve seen the original 1995 animated feature, now available with dubbed English on Hulu, you may have some idea where this is going, but the script by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger isn’t a remake. Instead, the script is inspired by both the movie and the original Japanese manga of the same name by Masamune Shirow but veers off toward its own agenda.
The Major is a cyborg and one-of-a-kind not one of many as in the original animated feature. She is the future of Hanza Robotics, but while her robotic body is owned by the company, her mind is her own but not her thoughts. Her memories can be read as code. “I guess privacy is just for humans,” she tells her physician/tech Dr. Ouélet (Juliette Binoche) who quickly scans and reads her thoughts. Recent legislation may come to mind at that moment.
The doctor assures The Major she human, even if she doesn’t remember her past. Yet The Major wonders, “How do you know what’s a glitch and what’s me?”
The doctor tells her, “We cling to memories as if they define us. They really don’t. What we do defines us.” Yet later, we learn a man has had a whole family and a pet dog manufactured into fond memories–all lies. Of course one wonders what The Major will do and what are her real memories and when will she recover them.
At a Hanza Robotics social event, men of different races were being served a Japanese feast by geisha robots, but the geisha bots are hacked reprogrammed to slaughter the guests. The Major’s team, Section 9, looks for the mastermind behind the hacking and terrorist actions. What The Major finds will redefine who she is and oddly justify the casting of Johansson as The Major.
The visuals are stunning scene in IMAX 3D, and Hanza and its employees exist in a city where the signs are in Japanese, but The Major’s team, Section 9, speaks English. The team curiously receives instructions in Japanese from their commander, Japanese actor Takeshi “Beat” Kitano as Chief Daisuke Aramaki (English subtitles are provided). The team is diversity on a platter: Danish actor Pilou Asbaek (“Game of Thrones) as Batou, Singaporean Chin Han (“Lethal Weapon”) as Togusa and Fijian Australian Lasarus Ratuere (“Ready for This”) as Carlos Ishikawa.
Somewhere in a dark, dank place a hooded figure broods, waiting for The Major and revenge. He and the Major have a shared history that she isn’t immediately aware of. Finding him will mean finding herself.
In case you’re wondering about the meaning of the title. Don’t worry. It is hammered into you in case you were busy munching popcorn the first time, or the second time or even the third time (The original reference came from the 1967 book, “The Ghost in the Machine.”).
Some of the visuals will remind you of another series, “The Matrix,” and that’s not because director Rupert Sanders is copying The Wachowski Brothers. The Wachowskis readily admit that their trilogy was inspired by and sometimes whole segments from Mamoru Oshii’s animated feature.
Although Oshii has stated that he is fine with the casting of Johansson, he also cited the 1956 film where John Wayne played Genghis Khan as an example–perhaps not understanding that is no longer considered acceptable. Moreover, the dynamics for Japanese actors in Japan is very different from ethnic Asian actors in the United States.
Times have changed and the outrage over the casting of Johansson as Kusanagi follows the whitewashing for the Ancient One in “Dr. Strange,” something that the director Scott Derrickson has admitted was a misstep. “Ghost in the Shell” also comes soon after the premiere of Marvel’s “Iron Fist” on Netflix which is basically the Marvelverse version of the 1970s TV series “Kung Fu” with extraterrestrial aliens supplying the mystical martial arts training in Asia with a fully white savior, Danny Rand (Finn Jones).
Earlier this month, the online promotional campaign, #IAmMajor, was hijacked to protest not only Johansson’s casting, but the whitewashing and yellowface used in other films. After last year’s hashtag movement #whitewashedOut, Asian American opposition is not likely to go away and “Ghost in the Shell” may end up like that other Asian-themed live-action movie based on a cult favorite animated series, “The Last Airbender,” that also opted for whitewashing.
If you need to cast a white actress in a role that could have gone to an ethnic Asian and include geisha even as robots to evoke a modern Japan, maybe you need to reflect on what you’re really doing.