Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder
Ghost in the Shell: RSL (Race, Sex, Location)
Written Review by David Carter
David & David at the Movies 2.0, while a rousing success (Some say it heralded a new age in human existence), was too time consuming for Carter. His art style is so complex that weekly comics just aren’t an option. So for the time being, welcome back to David & David at the Movies: Classic
Adaptation is very hard. Transposing something that belongs in one medium, to another almost disparate counterpart is something that almost always requires liberties to be taken. Elements from one medium may not translate to another medium for a multitude of reasons. For example, music doesn’t really translate to a comic book. While a “splash page”, a mainstay of the comic book genre, can’t be conveyed literally with melodies and lyrics. It could also be the timing and era of the adaptation. If you adapt something that was made for people in 1817, you have to take into account that it might not go over the same way with a crowd in 2017. This is why in all cases of adaptation, be it medium, time or cultural, creators have to transpose, update, and interpret in order to keep the core idea intact. Sure you can’t represent a “splash page” in music literally, but you can take that concept or that idea and replace it with a symphonic explosion of soundscapes, or whatever the equivalent would be. Cultural adaptation can be a little trickier, especially given how socially conscious audiences are about misappropriation and representation.
This put the 2017 live action remake of the highly influential manga and anime, Ghost in the Shell in a tough spot right at its inception. A film being translated from a translation in addition to having to walk the fine line of how to round out its cast and culturally update its themes without erasing its Japanese color. Unfortunately, the movie decides to slavishly keep the beautiful imagery from the 1989 manga and 1995 film of the same name, while simultaneously adding one the most ill-advised reveals in recent memory that not only aggravates the film’s early criticisms of whitewashing. It also squanders an opportunity to turn the original material’s themes of consciousness, mortality, and humanity into a very contemporary discussion about identity politics.
Ghost in the Shell takes place in the vaguely defined near future, where technological upgrades to human physique and mental faculties are as common as owning a smartphone. One character casually mentions that his daughter has enhancements that allowed her to learn the entirety of the French language before she finished singing a song in that language. It’s a brief Illustration about how ubiquitous the technology is. In this future, the first fully robot/human hybrid is created in the form of Mira Killian (controversially played by Scarlett Johansson, who has become something of an expert at playing women at odds with their humanity in the recent films Under the Skin and Lucy). She’s told by her creator, Dr. Ouelet (the always fantastic Juliette Binoche, who hasn’t been this squandered since 2014’s Godzilla) that she is the sole survivor of a terrorist attack, and that they were able to preserve her brain (her “ghost”) and put it into a mechanically sleek new body (the “shell”). Time passes and she’s joined up with an anti-terrorism group called “Section 9” and is now Major Mira Killian. With her partner Batou (Pilou Asbæk, another Lucy alum), and under the supervision of Chief Daisuke Aramaki ( the legendary ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano), Mira is tasked with hunting down a mysterious figure named Kuze (Michael Pitt giving a performance that would make Microsoft Sam proud) responsible for strategic hackings and murders. Along the way, Mira will find answers about the company that made her, her connection to Kuze, and her own foggy past.
The past that gets drudged up is what tailspins this movie from “interesting premise” to “hashtag problematic” in less time than it takes for ScarJo to fight a giant spiderbot. For the sake of brevity and conversation, I am going to spoil the reveal in this movie and spoil the reveals of the 1995 movie (I think 22 years makes it fair game to spoil a classic). So if all you want is to know whether or not you should watch it: No. Watch the original and any number of the films inspired by it (The Matrix, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report). Honestly, the remake isn’t worth the energy (even with some decent visuals) so read on if you don’t care about spoilers
It’s revealed that Mira, isn’t in fact, the first person to be put into a shell, she’s just the first success they’ve had. The memories that keep surfacing in her mind in almost palpable detail are from her past life. A life in which she used to be a Japanese girl of 17 named Motoko Kusanagi (the character’s name in the original Ghost in the Shell. Also this reveal is not present in the original film). Outside of the revelation that Mira/Motoko has been lied to, the revelation serves as a meta-justification on the casting of a white actress in an originally Japanese role. Smarter, more qualified people than I have talked about this controversy, but I think The Hollywood Reporter’s interview with four currently working Japanese actresses gives much-needed insight (and the most important POV) to the issue. Their discussion can best be summed up by actress and comedian Atsuko Okatsuka who states, “It’s not even about seeing me on the screen as a performer. It’s a bigger concern. It’s 2017 and I don’t know why these representation issues are still happening. It’s overwhelming. This means so much to our community but is so on the side, still, for a lot of people.” There’s a lot to unpack in this conversation, but I think what the reveal in the movie does is throw away its opportunity to make the movie about humanity’s rapidly changing attitude towards gender and even racial identity.
The original Ghost in the Shell touched on this by having the “shell” technology be common place in the world, and by having the protagonist’s shell be almost androgynous in nature (feminine shape but no female sex organs). This presented a world where you could identify as one thing and present as another with the help of technology. However, this iteration was more focused on themes of the definition of humanity and what constituted consciousness. The 2017 adaptation could have taken those dangling threads and tied them into something relevant for our times. You see seeds of the idea in having Mira/Motoko (and later revealed Kuze) be, essentially transracial and that her arc is trying to find definition for herself outside of her flesh. The movie drops the ball because there is not enough groundwork laid for this journey. If there was one page that the film should have taken from the original movie’s playbook, it should have been having people talking more about identity. If you’re more of a “show, don’t tell” type of person, have the world bursting with people who are androgynous in all aspects of their identities. Show us that Mira/Motoko is the next step towards something people are reaching for anyway. Instead, the movie accidentally posits that the height of physical perfection is that of a shapely white woman and that other women of other colors should aspire to that standard. I don’t think this is what the movie was going for, but in its hastiness to justify its casting (a choice, I am sure is complicated by that fact that the movie is funded with Asian money. It also has approval from the original film’s director Mamoru Oshii, and has to bear the weight of Japan’s complicated history of portraying animated Japanese characters with distinctly white features) it stumbles into standards of beauty. We live in a world where Rachel Dolezal won’t be an isolated incident. We live in an age where fluidity of identity is going to come up more and more as technology keeps advancing and people’s search for truth keeps going deeper. I’m not comparing transsexual and gender fluid people to Rachel “embarrassment to humanity” Dolezal, but I think the issue needs to be talked about. It would have been nice to have a science fiction movie do what science fiction does best: talk about a very modern issue and place it under the veneer of allegory and fantasy imagery.
The movie is so beholden to its crisis control, and the whims of fans looking for a direct translation it doesn’t take a second to become its own entity. Sure, it’s cool to have scenes and imagery ripped from the frames of the original movie and manga, but those pictures were telling the story from a Japanese point of view in the late 80’s and early 90’s. It’s similar to how the future of the 1950’s (progress, utopias) looks a lot different than the future of the 1970’s (breakdown, dystopias). I think the American (and by extension global) point of view of 2017 would visualize a much different looking future. I don’t know what that future would look like exactly, but surely not one that looks like some cyber-goth’s wet dream.
Ghost in the Shell should come as a warning for people planning more adaptations of Japanese material. As Hollywood keeps threatening us with an Akira live action remake, maybe take the times we live in now into consideration. Localize it (meaning make it reflect America. Not just white America), update and transpose the issues and ideas to something that’s relevant to the colorful people of 2017. It’ll be better for it.