While watching the opening scenes of the live action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, I was instantly reminded of the Robot Restaurant show that I saw in Shinjuku, Tokyo. It’s a live show that involves animatronics of dragons and samurai, costumed taiko drum ensembles, and actors dressed as the Super Sentai. It is every bit as loud and ridiculous as it sounds. Though it was not the show itself that left the biggest impression on my mind, but rather its audience: aside from the performers, almost every face in that room was white.
After watching the show, it was easy to see why. The Robot Restaurant offers a glimpse of the fake, exoticized Japan. It’s a version of Japan that has been peddled to Westerners for decades, the one that depicts the entire country and its people as alien, weird, and unknowable. The real Japan exists outside of the walls of that building, and it is far more normal than you have likely been led to believe.
The new Ghost in the Shell movie follows this trend of selling a fake, exoticized Japan to its largely Western audience.
In this movie, Japan is one big spectacle. There are holograms the size of skyscrapers, which seem to exist only for the purpose of littering the screen with stereotypically Japanese images, such as giant swimming koi or exaggerated depictions of geisha. The few robots portrayed onscreen also take the shape of geisha. The city looks modern, dazzlingly bright, and features colorful neon lights strewn along every building.
Contrast this to the anime, which offers a far more grounded depiction of Japan. The country is still struggling to recover from World Wars III and IV, which is apparent in the background art alone. Many neighborhoods are in a state of seemingly permanent disrepair. Even in large metropolises, the buildings look old, dirty, and neglected. Nothing about this world is alluring, which is precisely the point.
There is a palpable lack of regard for the source material, one that I felt in virtually every scene of this movie.
For context, the Ghost in the Shell anime movie and TV show are both introspective works that quietly reflect upon the increasingly blurred lines between humans and intelligent machines. In contrast, this movie trades quiet reflection for vacuous, heavy-handed pandering on how human experimentation is wrong and people should still be treated like humans even if their body is made of metal. If you’re looking for a script of unusual depth and complexity, you will find no such thing here.
Rather than borrow its ideas, this adaptation instead offers shallow imitations of the anime’s most famous imagery, without aspiring to even half of the intelligence that fueled those images. It’s as though someone watched the anime and thought, “This looks cool! I bet people like this for the visuals!” and then ran with that thought for the entire production of the movie. The script does not offer a single unique or interesting insight about the relationship between humanity and technology, which is incredibly disappointing for a work that bears the name Ghost in the Shell.
This lack of regard for the source material extends to the characterization, and though no character escapes unscathed, it is the Major who suffers the brunt of the damage.
Unlike in the anime, this version of the Major is more of a renegade than a leader and cares far more about herself than her teammates. She spends a large chunk of the movie pitying herself. She gets her butt kicked often enough that you wonder why the other characters have such faith in her combat abilities. She is routinely victimized by the people around her: she is kidnapped on a few different occasions, and there is a scene in which a few punks sexually harass and even taze her several times before she finally fights back.
Regarding this last point, it seems that the movie aimed to espouse some message about how the use of the Major’s cybernetic body is a violation of her humanity. In a notable divergence from the anime, the Major is required to verbally give her consent each time her cyberbrain data is modified in any way, and in a pivotal scene, this consent is neglected. The problem is that this arc doesn’t follow through to its logical conclusion: her shift from disempowerment to empowerment. The Major never evolves from being a victim. She survives through the graces of the antagonists, who choose to show her mercy. She is unable to prevent any of the tragedies that greatly impact her. She isn’t given the opportunity to truly come to terms with what was done to her identity.
Which brings us to the movie’s biggest and most embarrassing failure: the Major’s backstory.
First it should be noted that, with the exception of Beat Takeshi’s Chief Aramaki, the prominent characters in this movie are white and the unimportant characters are people of color. For the most part, people of color — and Asians in particular — serve the same purpose as the holograms of koi and geisha: they are decorations that exist mainly to populate the background and add “flavor” to the setting.
I can almost imagine the filmmakers conspiratorially murmuring to each other in some huddle room: “Batou gets more than five minutes of screentime? Okay, make him white. Togusa just rots in the background for the entirety of the movie? Yeah, may as well make him Asian, I guess.”
This is especially absurd because this movie presumably takes place in Japan, and yet there is never even an attempt to address the obvious questions of race, nationality, and language. Why does the Japanese government have a black ops division that mostly consists of English-speaking Westerners? If all the characters can understand Chief Aramaki when he speaks in Japanese, then why do all the other Japanese characters speak in English, even when it is clearly not their first language? If this is Japan, then why were the random garbage truck drivers yet another pair of English-speaking white men? Why is this movie even set in Japan?
As for the Major’s backstory, there is no reason given for why a Japanese girl was placed into a white woman’s cybernetic body. It is treated as a non-issue, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world for a person to switch races once they are given an artificial body. This is particularly ironic considering that the opening lines of the Ghost in the Shell anime movie address this very topic: “The advance of computerization, however, has not yet wiped out nations and ethnic groups.”
The anime is smart enough to acknowledge that technology does not and will not blind humanity to factors such as race or nationality, which is an idea that the Ghost in the Shell TV show is particularly successful in conveying. In comparison, this new movie is content with embracing its own willful ignorance.
Considering the quality of the source material, it is difficult for me to see this movie as anything but a hugely missed opportunity.
There are so many ways that this could have become a worthwhile adaptation. This movie could have been set in the ultra-conservative American Empire of the anime, instead of the pseudo-Japanese city that it does take place in. It could have offered a shrewd analysis of new technology that didn’t exist in the nineties, such as smartphones and virtual reality. Or it could have simply adapted the anime in an intelligent and thoughtful manner. It does none of this.
If I haven’t made my thoughts clear enough: I do not recommend seeing this movie, and this is doubly true for those who are fans of the anime. In comparison to the work that inspired it, Ghost in the Shell is not even entertainingly bad. It is just bad.
Promotional image taken from Now Running. Also posted on NerdyPOC.