Ghost In The Shell is large; it contains multitudes. Each iteration of it — original comic, movie, TV series, OVA — has been a different riff on the same basic ideas, characters, themes, feelings. Ghost In The Shell (2017) is squarely in that tradition, as it revisits and reassembles whatever key pieces from the franchise that can be comfortably squeezed into a two-hour movie. What it does above and beyond that, however, is surprising: In my view, it finds a way to take the fact that this is an Asian franchise, remade with a Western actress in the lead role, and present that as an actual thematic element. GITS'17 may not be faithful in the sense that it adapts the original material to the letter, but it finds a fidelity to the spirit of the material all its own, and it derives that fidelity from an unexpected source.
An ideal review of GITS'17 would really be two reviews — one for those who know the franchise intimately, and one for those coming in cold. The latter, I suspect, are likely to be less impressed, because they won't be as conscious of the way the material has been recontextualized; to them this will seem a faintly goofy high-tech thriller with some potentially leaden John le Carré-esque psychological touches. The former will be more scrutinous, looking for what they know, and it's likely they'll be frustrated to see this element only present in miniature or that particular theme not realized as completely as it could. And yes, we can debate whether or not Scarlett Johansson should have been cast in the lead role as opposed to, say, Rinko Kikuchi. But it's difficult to say the movie does not own the decisions it makes.
Motoko, the remix
Most adaptations of a manga or anime property to live action, no matter what the provenance, end up as an origin story. GITS'17 falls into that bucket, but as a way station towards establishing other things. It opens with the near-death of "Mirra" (Scarlett Johansson), a young woman who has become one of the first successful patients for a risky procedure that transplants a living human mind into a cyborg body. The terrorist bombing that killed her refugee parents and almost killed her is apparently a standard feature of life in the near-future Asian country she inhabits, where the boundaries between human bodies and digital brains are being progressively erased.
Now known as "Major", Mirra is now part of Section 9, an elite counterterrorist unit led up by Chief Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano), along with her brawny partner Batou (Pilou Asbæk; he was Johansson's boyfriend in Lucy). In a sequence that melds the "building dive" and "geisha house" opening sequences of both the earlier film and the TV series, she dives into action when the head of the firm that built her, Hanka Robotics, is attacked by the geisha-bots at a company function. Someone has a grudge, and only after a physically risky and psychologically harrowing "brain-dive" — a hack into the CPU of one of the offending geisha-bots — does she have a clue.
The grudge-holder calls himself Kuze, and she and the rest of the team are tasked with sifting through the grimy criminal underworld of their city to find him. Kuze (Michael Pitt, of Hannibal) is slippery and resourceful, and is not above hacking the minds of innocent bystanders to throw the cops off his trail or enact his revenge. In another scene fans of the original will recognize immediately, he hacks the minds of a couple of garbagemen, sends them into battle against the Major and her comrades, and leaves the hapless survivor with nothing but fake memories of a daughter he never had.
It's not just his memories that are potentially fake. The Major is not so sure about her own mind either. When she sees persistent images of a burning shrine, her caretaker, Dr. Ouelet (a saccharine-saintly Juliette Binoche) gently dismisses them. After all, she knows the contents of the Major's mind better than she does herself, or so she claims. The only one Major feels real kinship with is Batou, doubly so after his eyes are scorched in a shootout and he receives cybernetic replacements; they now have that much more dehumanization in common.
Old ghost in a new shell
Kuze, as it turns out, is not so much an enemy as he is a kindred spirit. The Major was far from being the first one Hanka chose to go under the knife for cyber-reincarnation. Kuze was one of many other, failed attempts, and he has been trying to awaken both her and the rest of her team to the way she and countless others have been exploited.
By itself, this is fairly standard thriller-territory plotting, nowhere nearly as dense or convoluted as the knots the franchise has been famous for tying itself in. I was bracing for such a degree of oversimplification, and perhaps for that reason I wasn't as thrown by it as I might have been. But the revelations that follow, because of the context provided by the rest of the film, function very differently than expected. We learn that "Mirra", in fact, did not exist at all — that the whole story of a terror attack was a fiction, and that she was in fact one of an enclave of rebel runaways scavenged by Hanka as off-the-grid fodder for their experiments. That Kuze was one of her comrades-in-arms, that her original name was Motoko, and that the looks both she and Kuze sport are artificial in more than one sense of the word.
This is a brilliant gesture, in my opinion, because it can be read as using Johansson's very casting as a thematic device. It takes what could have been an act of mere cultural assimilation and makes it akin to in-context commentary about the concept. (Further commentary can be derived from noting that all the Hanka Robotics people that we see on screen are Caucasian.) It's not a throwaway element, either; a good portion of the film is devoted to the Major unraveling this part of herself and realizing she has a mother that still remembers Motoko and knows nothing of "Mirra". Of all the theories I entertained about how the movie might ameliorate its casting issues, this was not one of them, and it opens up all sorts of subtextual interpretations about cultural colonization, about the way some too readily assume the default setting for "human" is "Western-looking", and how consent — an arc phrase used throughout the film — was never sought by Hanka for what was done to them.
In truth, the theory I had most in mind for how the film would address its casting issues was by way of envisioning a future Japan that was that much more openly multi-ethnic in its population makeup. GITS'17 does go a fair distance to support such a reading; the populace we see out on the streets and in the background are mainly Asian, but Section 9 is itself multi-ethic (and with another female member that wasn't present in the original, a nice change-up). The position the movie is taking with such a palette, if only indirectly, is that to have Western castmembers in such a Japan is simply part of the overall picture. And while the principal character may be played by a Westerner, the reason she doesn't look the way she ought is not left unexamined — if anything, it's big part of the movie's reason to exist at all.
One element of GITS'17 that never seemed in doubt was whether the movie would look good. The original GITS took its own cues from that great-granddaddy of cyberpunk, Blade Runner, and this movie — released the same year as a sequel to Blade Runner, all is irony — provides much of the same flavor. Giant gaudy holographic advertising illuminates buildings that overlook gutters where the trash fills the corners; people crowd together in crumbling concrete high-rise projects; everything is patina'd with both analog and digital debris. It's not a new look, but it's executed in loving, lush detail, and never feels like a bunch of backlot sets. There are some green-screen moments that look airless and pasted-together, but for the most part the illusion is solid. Many individual shots are call-outs to the original, as would be expected — the concluding battle is indeed Major vs. spider-tank — but the movie builds less of its strength on those things than I thought it might.
The largest letdowns for GITS fans are likely to be in the way the movie simply doesn't have time to be all that complex, or to do full justice to the roster of characters we know. "Major"/Motoko herself exists here in a highly simplified form; she doesn't have the brass or the sass of her Stand Alone Complex incarnation, or the original manga. She is closest in spirit to the lost soul from the 1995 movie, and that comes at the cost of her being that much less accessible. Her best moments are when she's in Batou's company, and likewise so are his. Asbæk is not quite a physical match for Batou — he's a little too short and squat for my taste, but he projects the right attitude, and I remembered how my original uncertainty about Hugh Jackman as Logan/Wolverine eventually faded. And Pitt as Kuze is appropriately wounded and hollowed-out, even if not much more than that.
It's the rest of Section 9 that feels skimpiest, and I suspect that's just the limitations of a two-hour movie for you. I wanted to be impressed by Takeshi Kitano as Aramaki, the team's chief, doubly so since I have followed Kitano's career for twenty-odd years and have savored even his lesser moments. The problem here is that Aramaki is a chessmaster and a politician par excellence, and that Kitano is essentially the Japanese Harvey Keitel, a brooding physical presence who speaks loudest with his actions and not his words. His role exudes almost none of the realpolitik seen in earlier incarnations; it is essentially him giving orders, dispensing the odd piece of inscrutable advice, and — in perhaps the most Kitano-esque moment of the movie — blowing away three would-be assassins with nothing more than a long-barreled .45 six-shooter. Nice. But I kept thinking, between this and Johnny Mnemonic, Kitano and cyberpunk are now zero for two. (That said, in one of the more remarkable concessions I've seen to a non-English-speaking actor, he delivers all his lines in Japanese.)
I think my greatest worries about this film were twofold. One, I worried about how Johansson's casting would be handled or explained; that part I have already made clear. The other is in some ways at least as tricky: I worried that a Ghost In The Shell that had been Westernized would not only mean one that had been dumbed down or decontextualized, but would serve as a bad model for other live-action adaptations of anime, in English or not. I am less worried about that now than I was before, but it is always possible to learn the wrong lessons from something — that what mattered was putting an A-list actor in front of a green screen, and not finding some way to recontextualize the original.
There are many ways in which this GITS is not as sophisticated as its predecessors. Lots of ropey, on-the-nose dialogue; there's little of the charm or wit that I remember from the way the characters bantered or traded wisdom. Many individual things are missing — the Tachikomas, or any details about Section 9 member Togusa's family, evidently never made it to the screen. And the transhumanism that formed a major theme of GITS generally is present, but it is handled more as a byproduct of other things, rather than as a driving concern. What I can't say is that this movie was made by people who didn't understand what they were dealing with, or that they didn't have some inkling of what the form it would take would say about its own subjects. I was deeply skeptical of this project on a conceptual level, right up until I walked into the theater, but damn if they didn't find at least one way to prove me wrong. The most remarkable thing about the Americanization of Motoko is that while not all of her remains, the parts that do remain have been made to matter all the more.