MECHANOIA: The maladaptation of Ghost In The Shell (2017)
(HEAPS OF SPOILERS IN THIS, FOLKS.)
Rupert Sanders’ live-action adaptation of the 1995 animated feature film Ghost In The Shell, directed by Mamoru Oshii (itself based on Shirow Masamune’s popular 90s manga series), has just been released in cinemas. Controversy and criticism has surrounded the film’s production, concerning whitewashing and digital minstrelsy being raised since news of Scarlett Johansson’s casting as protagonist Major Motoko Kusanagi first broke in early 2016.
The debate over GITS17 is not as simple as “the Major shouldn’t be white”, though that is certainly cause for concern in itself; the world of GITS95 simply cannot be ported over and repackaged with Western labelling. Ghost In The Shell does not exist in the same framework as, say, 1982's Blade Runner. While Blade Runner adopts the ‘Neo-Tokyo’ style, it is a film that could, more or less, take place in any location. Ghost In The Shell relies on its narrative being influenced by and contrasted with Japanese history. Balances of national and international power, the ephemeral nature of borders and the importance of cultural alliances are themes that build the world and set the tone of the canon.
Ghost In The Shell’s future is one built along the lines of severe change in the mid-21st Century: long spells of nuclear and cold wars have shattered 20th Century notions of the Three-World Model. Japan has a considerably altered landscape from war and yielded territories. The United States is a Balkanised gaggle of nations of varying global importance while Latin America becomes a technological and economic superpower. Sino-Japanese relations remain healthy, and a centrist pan-Asian trading bloc groups together, primarily benefiting from the détente. With global maps so heavily redrawn, millions find themselves stateless and seeking asylum.
Potentially, this world could be argued to be one of pure fiction. But there is a well-documented history of creators exploring different outcomes of global events, often triggered by aggressive Imperialism, and the revolutions and wars following them. These “what if?” narratives speculate the state of the world after traumatic eras: from the latter half of the 20th Century, post-WWII ‘alternate history’ fiction became a genre unto itself. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, Philip K. Dick’s The Man In The High Castle, the works of Harry Turtledove, and video game franchises such as Bethesda’s Fallout are all well-regarded as Western interpretations of a world transformed by the effects of expansionism and warfare.
While we can find examples of reactive popular culture outside of the predominantly White and Western vein in movements like Afrofuturism, Japan’s post-WWII identity would shape its popular culture for decades to come. What was once an empire became a nation profoundly changed: Imperial rule transitioned into a Democratic government, occupied territories were ceded, the defeated Axis powers were dissolved and, most infamously, there was the traumatic atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that instigated their surrender to the Allies. The Edo period’s national isolationism found its end with Meiji-era Western intervention and Industrial Revolution, followed by Shōwa-era expansionism, only to find itself a singular state disarmed and occupied by Allied forces by 1947.
Seminal works like Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy, Toho’s Godzilla and Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira all developed from the aftermath of WWII. Tezuka created the titular Astro after being assaulted by a Allied GI, a means to explore grief, the discord between humanity and the military, and the ethics of a weaponised and segregated society. Astro’s ‘cuteness’ derived from the post-war toy-making industry in an otherwise highly destabilised economy; Japanese manufacturers built miniature American cars from Allied tin scraps and ‘cute’ plastic dolls that would appeal to Western consumers, no longer bearing a highly stigmatised racial resemblance of Japanese human iconography. The graphic style of Astro Boy permanently transformed the aesthetic of manga (and anime) to come, and Tezuka is considered the “godfather of manga.”
Godzilla and Akira grew directly from nuclear fallout, literally in Godzilla’s case. While the beloved sea-monster has more of a reputation for being a protector of humankind against the wraths of more violent or sinister creatures these days, his initial creation was a direct response to the trauma and violence of atomic bombing. Godzilla’s tale is a statement and future warning about the dangers of nuclear weapons. Akira’s iconic imagery speaks for itself, with much of its story devoted to bureaucratic corruption, archaic military values, and the deep unease and dissatisfaction of a generation scarred by warfare. In different ways and to different degrees, each of these works explore the political, physical and emotional spaces surrounding pre- and post-war Japan.
These same political and industrial measures solidified the ubiquitous visual language of the ‘Neo-Tokyo’ aesthetic. Once a military superpower, disarmed Japan became a leader in technological advancement, a trend which accelerated throughout the late 20th Century and only halted in the economic crash period known as the ‘Lost Decade’- and even still, there is often still a struggle within Western mentality to separate the Neo-Tokyo from the real Japan; a kind of modern Chinoiserie.
Ghost In The Shell requires this complex history to be authentically retold, and this is part of where GITS17 flounders. The political landscape is mostly removed from the adaptation, and without historical context the fictional future-Japan is merely a simulacrum—a sister city to Blade Runner’s Los Angeles. This is highly reductive, but also a deep shame given the current political climate of the West. A glossy, technicolour action film that concerns itself with the fragility of the United States and the bureaucracy surrounding migrants and asylum seekers would carry a bold message to a 2017 audience caught between the rapid rise of fascism and poverty in MEDCs and an increasingly surreal Internet Of Things.
Other frustrations with GITS17 stem from similar issues regarding the nature of nationality, and the concept of borders in particular. GITS95 discusses states of being alongside statelessness. Existential curiosities make up the bulk of GITS95’s dialogue, and are mirrored by foreign policy and political actions throughout the film. The antagonist, a criminal mastermind hacker known as the ‘Puppet Master’ forms itself outside of humanity and the ‘real’ world, “created in the sea of information” and makes a cyborg body to seek political asylum. Puppet Master asks the protagonists — and the audience — how humanity defines itself when, in a world where the majority of the population have cybernetic augmentations, the line between man and machine is so tenebrous.
This is all the more important when placed in contrast with Major Kusanagi. We are led to believe that she is entirely prosthetic apart from her brain, where her ‘ghost’ (a consciousness or soul) resides, though she confesses that she doubts her own authenticity at times. There is no clear explanation of where Kusanagi’s brain comes from or who she was before she gained her cyborg body. She exists as a composition of organic and synthetic parts, and though these coalesce to create the Kusanagi we follow throughout the film, she expresses feelings of confinement. Kusanagi and Puppet Master’s cat-and-mouse game culminates in the deconstruction of the concept of ‘living’, and a compromise from both parties regarding the nature of their potentially immortal and endlessly replicating ghosts compared to the organic process of evolutionary survival.
This theme of ambiguity is prevalent throughout the entire film. While the Puppet Master is always described with male pronouns, they only communicate openly through gynoid bodies. Their voice pitch-shifts and distorts from typically female to typically male registers, and the various bodies they inhabit are in various states of completion, deconstruction and destruction.
The adaptation of the Puppet Master into Michael Carmen Pitt’s Kuze is a clumsy one. While the majority of GITS17’s canon comes from GITS95 (with a particular exception being the corrupted geisha-gynoids featured in 2004's Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence), the original Hideo Kuze is an antagonist from the second season of Ghost In The Shell’s serialised TV anime. It’s true that he and Kusanagi know one another in the show, but when the adaptation draws the most from the first feature film, it seems less that his presence as primary antagonist is there as a treat to long-standing consumers and more that he is a masculine stand-in for the Puppet Master- presumably to be more palatable for a Western audience.
Kuze-as-Puppet-Master, combined with the violence inflicted and control enforced upon female bodies by him throughout GITS17, establishes a hierarchy between Kuze and Kusanagi that does not exist in GITS95. In GITS17, where the Major is the “first of her kind”, Kuze is one of many left behind in the process; where the Major is considered complete by her creators, Kuze stumbles and glitch-stammers, moving with damaged parts, exposed cybernetics and roughly tattooed skin. He is Boris Karloff to the Major’s Kelly Le Brock. Conversely, Kusanagi and the Puppet Master are essentially different sides of the same coin. Where Kusanagi is treated as a human woman, the Puppet Master is assumed to be a man until they enter a body, becoming a “thing” and losing the selfhood they were ascribed during their criminal profiling. The narrative of a blurred line between memory and progress defining one’s existence is lost to the banal heteronormativity of an ‘enlightened’ man grooming an ‘ignorant’ girl.
Kusanagi in GITS17 is not given the time to ponder her own existence or consider her truth. Her past is obfuscated and memories denied to her by mother-figure Dr. Ouelet and father-figure Cutter, who “make” Kusanagi (who is known for the majority of the film as simply ‘the Major’ or ‘Mira Killian’) and come to blows about the purpose of her creation; Ouelet sees the Major as a scientific revolution, “the first of her kind”, develops a seemingly maternal bond with her project, and in an interesting parallel to GITS95, sacrifices herself to allow the Major to survive in a similar fashion to the Puppet Master’s theory of cybernetic evolution (“to enhance one’s existence, life continues to diversify, and at times, sacrifices this diversity”). In contrast, Cutter — the CEO of robotics manufacturer Hanka — is a cold, distant businessman who wishes only to weaponise the Major. Between his objections to Ouelet’s ethical concerns and his involvement in making both the geisha-gynoids and the Major, it appears Cutter is either entirely detatched or has little regard for the experiences of women outside of their servitude towards men. (And given that Kuze manipulates both the geisha-gynoids and the Major in a similar fashion, they have more in common than one would hope for.) The Major is regularly taken apart and handled either non-consensually or with the illusion of consent; all of this sits in direct opposition with GITS95’s themes of free will and self-determination, and far more in line with a misogynistic status quo that seeks to remove the agency of women and commodify their bodies.
The concept of race is a difficult one to navigate when discussing Ghost In The Shell, but less so when considering adaptation to a Western demographic. Race, ethnicity and nationality converge in more abstract ways in the world of GITS95. Nationality (or the lack thereof) takes precedence over many other aspects in a future-Japan rising as a superpower amongst fractured unions and demarcated territories; the story concerns itself far more with the dichotomy of ‘citizen/alien’ or ‘Japanese/foreign’ than one’s race or ethnicity. While many characters are distinctly Japanese or American (Chief Aramaki compared to Dr. Willis, for example), the theme of ambiguity continues through the ‘raceless’ bodies of Kusanagi and the Puppet Master.
However, this falls prey to the common Western belief of Whiteness as default, and a misunderstanding of representation in Hollywood due to common cultural ideas and attitudes endemic to Japan. GITS17 does itself no favours in this regard. Mira Killian goes on a voyage of self-discovery between bouts of espionage and national security, ranging from her initial shootout with the hacked geisha-gynoids (perhaps a peculiar examination of who is ‘really’ Japanese; the audience has only heard Killian referred to as ‘the Major’, and she is pitted against an ethnically and culturally-styled Japanese body described as “just a robot”), to Killian meeting with a woman of colour as a means of experimenting with humanity (requesting that the woman remove her cosmetic synthetic parts so Mira can see a “real” human), and culminating in the revelation that Mira Killian was once a Japanese girl named Mokoto Kusanagi, a radicalised youth coercively placed in a cyborg body and implanted with fake memories.
Though Mamoru Oshii expressed the expectation of the casting of a white lead in GITS17, there is more than just a visual translation from Japanese to English in play. GITS17’s Section 9 task force is pleasantly diverse, with the new inclusion of whip-smart Ladriya (played by Kurdish actress Danusia Samal) and the racebending of Ishikawa (Fijian-Australian Lasarus Ratuere, though there appears to be no explanation for his name remaining ‘Ishikawa’), but the casting and significantly altered role of Kusanagi in GITS17 is troubling.
Ghost In The Shell became a critically acclaimed property internationally in the 90s, notably pivotal in the making of the Wachowskis’ multi-award winning and culturally definitive Matrix trilogy (which itself created a dramatic shift in the choreography and cinematography of Hollywood action films). As an export so highly praised by the West, and a prime example of Japanese animation for many years, the character of Kusanagi — despite her ‘raceless’ synthetic body — is iconically Japanese to an overseas audience. As a Western adaptation, it is deeply disappointing that GITS17 did not cast an Asian or Asian-American actress as the Major. Aside from snubbing the Japanese diaspora and Asian-American representation as a whole, it is yet another tally mark in Hollywood’s consistent whitewashing and racial inequity, made especially prevalent since 2015’s Oscars and the #oscarssowhite furore surrounding the event. It doesn’t feel like a move by DreamWorks or Rupert Sanders to remain true to Oshii’s artistic vision; just further indication of the complete disregard for people of colour in Hollywood.
While GITS17 does have its interesting moments, many of them are lost in otherwise derivative storytelling. The recurring motifs of bodies of water and ‘deep diving’ are both captured in an organic and often visceral manner, humanising the digital and providing visual continuity throughout the film. The contrasting locations of the vivid and excessive New Port City with the subtler, analogue suburbs of the city limits create a visual language that aids the perpetually underlying narrative of real-versus-fake; giant holo-projections of handsome fish roaming around neon-lit skyscrapers juxtaposed against Kuze’s grim, underlit hideout, where endless cables masquerade as vines and roots, and living humans serve as neural nets.
The potential for an authentic, cerebral Western adaption of Ghost In The Shell exists, despite what we have been shown. If there had been no interest in the original property, there would not have been the call for an adaptation, and yet GITS17 does away with much of the nuance and speculation of GITS95 and replaces it with a lazy and conclusive plot, allowing the audience little room for speculation or rumination. Existential monologues are replaced with clunky faux-cryptic slivers of withheld information; musings on self-determination and the future of humanity through technology are cut to fit in a bland ‘hero’s journey’ with little reward for the characters or the audience. The trope of “forget everything you thought you knew about [X]” dangles over the heads of our protagonists instead of allowing them to explore their relationships with memory and lived experience.
In the words of Batou, “if you start wondering, there’s no end to it.” Sadly, Sanders’ offering of Ghost In The Shell quickly draws to a halt.