The Floating Museum

“Unfortunately no-one can be…told what The Matrix is, you have to see it for yourself” – This quote from The Wachowski’s first instalment (and frankly the only one that mattered) in the Matrix trilogy can easily be applied to Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 adaptation of Ghost in the Shell.

It’s a dazzling, quietly contemplative yet profound piece of animation that remains difficult to categorise, even after multiple viewings. Is it sci-fi? Most definitely. Is it Anime? Yes indeed. Is it action? Well…it does have action sequences. Is it a thriller? Well…it has moments of that too, erm…look, let me just show it to you…

I’m sure many were introduced to the original in a similar fashion. Casting my mind back to when I first saw it, I must have been 15, perhaps the perfect age for someone enamoured by stories of cyber-enhancement, identity and firepower. I can still remember the blueish glow cast upon my bedroom wall late at night as I hit the “Play” button, and the now-familiar soundtrack of ancient Japanese began to echo around the room.

Funny now to think that having spent 11 years speaking Japanese, I’m now able to understand those words which seemed so alien at the time. Back then I even did the unthinkable, I watched it dubbed! Excuse me whilst I commit ritual suicide to atone for that…

{Sounds of Seppuku}

Ok, I’m back.

So, you might say that in many ways, this piece of anime was quite formative for me, my interest in sci-fi, my love for the Japanese language and its culture, my appreciation of soundtracks. Kenji Kawai’s CD was the first I ever ordered from Japan, and back in the early days of Amazon that was a big thing, to think – that this disc had come from the land of the rising sun, I couldn’t read a word of what was in the booklet, but I was mesmerised nonetheless.

I’d read the original Manga by Shirow Masamune, I’d seen the Stand Alone Complex series whilst living out in Japan, devoured the soundtracks for those as well, further cementing them and my connection to their homeland, I saw Innocence, then the 2nd GIG once back in the UK, so many years later, when I heard that a live-action version of the original film was being made, well, I was…curious and wary at the same time.

So in late March 2017, with expectation forcibly restrained in the back seat, and excitement gripping the steering wheel with madness in its eyes – I ventured to London’s BFI to watch it on IMAX.

We set foot into a fascinating and nebulous world. Where replacement of body parts, or entire bodies has become a wholesale enterprise, where our nerve endings and electronically amplified synapses have become more fragile than our immune systems, and danger lurks in the deep recesses between alleyways just as lethally as it does in the deep web.

The city (Presumably Newport City like the original) feels like a lovechild of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided’s casual augmentation and a negative image of Mirror’s Edge’s City of Glass, complete with much of the murky political backdrop to boot.

Visually – the film is stunning. I’m sure that fact won’t surprise anyone, now I’m not adverse to eye candy, but you must understand how jaw-droppingly impressive the visuals are to warrant a mention here. 

Spectral carp meander in schools of liquid light, Blade Runner’s geisha has escaped her 2D prison and now wanders freely amidst the skyscrapers, and light refracts off of every rain-sodden surface.
 Now chaotic cyberpunk and a neon nightmare was clearly the order of the day, but making a five course meal out of it makes a for a overstuffed and gluttonous table, and just as a hungry Deckard is told at the noodle bar when ordering four; “two is enough”.

Much of the film feels like a photography shoot, with 9 out of 10 shots being highly Instagrammable, that’s not a criticism as such but as a moving picture with live action, we should be wowed more by the combination of elements as opposed to their decoupling. The thermoptic camo chase scene is one of the highlights, beautifully and lovingly recreated, almost shot-for-shot. So much so I had to hush my inner 15-year old to appreciate it for more than just nostalgia and technical ability alone.

We witness the Major’s birth – in a scene which carefully emulates the original, though curiously without the iconic choral piece that has become the film’s signature, and as such it’s robbed of some of its impact. The original chorus adds a distinctly human, almost religious element, whereas the more default sci-fi noises that accompany the scene here represent more of a digital burbling than a full-throated birth cry.

Shortly thereafter however, this – sadly – is where my gripes started to materialise.

Scarlett Johansson is a wonderful actress, capable of delivering incredibly nuanced performances as well as being a strong heroine, able to stand toe-to-toe with bold personalities such as Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark/Iron Man, and not wanting to get tangled up in any discussions around whitewashing – I think she was an excellent choice for this adaptation.

However, despite my strong suspicion that she really, truly understands the Major’s character, and really tried to embody the quiet power she radiates, she is let down by the atrocity and simplicity of the script. The Major isn’t simply a blank shell built for combat – she’s a veteran operative, there’s a very good reason why she is called “The Major” – it’s her rank. Similarly the Kusanagi from her surname isn’t just a Japanese-sounding name, she’s named after the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, or “Grass Cutter” sword, one of Japan’s three Imperial Regalia. In Japanese folklore, it represents the virtue of valour.

The Major is just as legendary as this mythical blade, and doubly sharp. Somehow here instead of being fearless, she comes across as reckless, and at times even somewhat clueless. Shirow Masamune’s Major is a leader and warrior, possessed of a kind of detached curiosity for the world and events around her, it is this curiosity and deep contemplation of the nature of her soul, that leads her to apprehending The Puppet Master, and ultimately choosing to merge.

Here she is a blunt instrument, wandering like an amnesiac between scenes trying to piece together a history that never belonged to her in the first place. The original film has a strong in medias res aspect that allows us to dispense with much of the backstory and concentrate on who these characters feel like based on what they do. The Major should be as shrewd as they come, opting to use her brain first, and her mechanical chassis second, much like her superior Aramaki.

Seeing the ever-enjoyable Beat Takeshi as Aramaki was great, considering how “animated” the original character looked, I don’t think they could have found a better physical model. His clipped, almost martial commands felt a little more gangster-like and slurred than the Japanese voice actor Osamu Saka, but it certainly felt like Aramaki. I felt a little unsure around his gunplay scene, would the “real” Aramaki do that? I feel like he’d arrange for some clever manoeuvring that would allow him to walk away without a shot fired – though it was pleasing to see him kick a little ass here.

His final appearance in the film was bizarre and off-character, even as much as the Major’s was. Aramaki would never take an order from the Major, he wouldn’t need to. He certainly wouldn’t shoot someone in the head so arbitrarily.

Pilou Asbæk deserves a special mention – he was excellent as Batou – the only other character in the entire piece that felt alive. Batou’s character in the original film was quite melancholy, whereas Pilou invests some of the more humorous aspects of Batou’s personality that are very much central to him in the original Manga and subsequent TV series. His acquisition of his prosthetic eyes felt unnecessary, having him “saved” by the Major in this way felt like a karmic debt had been established, only for him to conveniently cash it in later on in the film. The genuine warmth and laconic humour between Batou and the Major was one of the only enjoyable dialogue exchanges in the entire film.

Togusa, Paz, Saito, Ishikawa, Borma – some of these secondary characters were present but never had any real screen time, certainly not enough to get any feel for them, so they remained ultimately forgettable. In the original, Togusa’s hunch and old-school detective skills not only accelerated the case of Project 2501, but also made a counterpoint for the necessity of the human soul, and the intangible something that makes us human beyond the whisper of our ghosts.

Our antagonist; Cutter, was so villainous, and perversely evil he seemed like Satan’s impetuous little brother, a spiteful beast of barely contained hate that we knew would appear during the finale to get his comeuppance. Predictably and with venomous spittle, he instructed his faceless staff to ready the “Spider Tank” – just in case you didn’t know that there would be a Spider Tank coming up. The finale was ultimately forgettable, even the impressive visuals couldn’t save what felt like a token scene being played out.

Yet I can’t help but cast my mind back to the original, where the politicians and bureaucrats jostled and vied dispassionately, further extending the cloak of mystery surrounding Project 2501, and who precisely the real enemy is, and here I think we are able to hone in on exactly what it is that frustrated me so much with this film.

At the climax of both versions of the film, Motoko twists her own limbs off trying to pry open the tank’s outer hatch. This over-amplification of strength resulting in the complete disintegration of her physical form. Paramount’s attempt to remake this classic feels exactly like that, a desperate attempt to claw at an impassive block of stone.

Ghost in the Shell is a film which does not need to raise its voice – it whispers, like cherry blossom falling on the wind, and the more you strain to hear the more its message dissolves in your hands, like proverbial tears in rain.

This retelling practically shouts its premise at the viewers, it thumps its fist on its chest and proclaims “I am an individual and demand to be heard” – this is fundamentally at odds with its figurative mother; Japanese culture. Being boastful or brash simply isn’t in its spiritual vocabulary. What Paramount has done in essence is turn this tale into a triumph of individuality, rather than a contemplation of the nature of the human soul.

The entire backstory around the Major felt like an engineered trick, a plastic attempt to shoe-horn an origin story into something that didn’t need one, robbing Motoko’s name and character of its potency, for the sake of propagating a franchise.

As I said at the beginning, the original Ghost in the Shell is difficult to classify, and as with all films that deal with complex metaphorical structures and ideas, it is at once neither pellucid nor fully obfuscated. Instead, it elicits in the viewer a curious and amorphous understanding that dawns on you slowly, much like the scene where Motoko rises to the surface of the water at night, light and clarity just starting to fall upon what’s occurring within the narrative.

All at once these separate silos of entropy – music, sounds, voice, imagery and thought all combine to leave us with a construct that’s larger than all the elements combined, though we are unable to mouth it.

Mamoru Oshii’s original 1995 production of Ghost in the Shell is both iconic and isolating, and it is perhaps this curious mix of connection and detachment that gives it its ghost. The lyrics below of the choral piece in ancient Japanese talk of a god descending from heaven to preside over a wedding, the touch of the divine at work here imbues it with a sense of mysticism, the feeling that something far deeper is at work.

Conversely, the 2017 retelling of Ghost in the Shell clutches in its hand a tattered photograph, representing the substance its so sure is accorded to its rendition – however, as others gather around to look, they happen upon the realisation that this is merely another case of ghost-hacking, and in reality that picture is as blank as the mind that now stares at it so intently, looking for meaning that was there so long ago.

吾が舞へば、麗し女、酔ひにけり
“A ga maeba, kuwashime, yoi ni keri”
(Because I danced, a beautiful lady was enchanted)

吾が舞へば、照る月、響むなり
“A ga maeba, teru tsuki, toyomunari
(Because I danced, the shining moon echoed)

結婚に、神、天下りて
“Yobai ni, kami amakudarite”
(Proposing marriage, god shall descend)

夜は明け、鵺鳥、鳴く
“Yo wa ake, nuedori, naku”
(The night clears, and the white thrush/chimera sings)

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3 thoughts on “Review – Ghost in the Shell (2017)

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