Let’s kick off Anime April with something that has been getting Anime fans both excited and worried the live action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. Now I have already professed that I absolutely love Ghost in the Shell the film. It’s my favourite science fiction film and one of my favourite science fiction franchises. I loved the spin of series Stand Alone Complex, I even kind of liked the sequels and Ghost in the Shell Arrives, even though Arrives had its own issues. I announced ages ago that Dreamworks had purchased the licence for Ghost in the Shell with the intention of making a live action adaptation. The problem was, that was ages ago and Dreamworks has really struggled to get the ball rolling. It’s largely the reason why Ghost in the Shell 2 had very little of an international release, since part of the deal, they partially own the licence to that film. But just getting this off the ground was hard enough. As Bennett the Sage pointed out in his review of Speed Racer, this film took seven years before principal photography even began. This film has been in production for a long time. I think I agree with his point that the reason it took that long was that there are a ton of live action adaptations that are currently sitting on a shelf and are stuck in pre-production simply because people are afraid to actually make them. Several Anime from Cowboy Bepop to Battle Angel Arleta to Robotech have all been going through development hell and are unlikely to release anytime soon. A live action Akira has been floated back and forth on several occasions but it has had production start and stop five times! But really you can hardly blame them, live action Anime set to the standard that it has received outside of its native Japan, and even then the live action Japanese films have not been great for the most parts, you can see why they would be afraid to get the ball rolling. Keep in mind, the only big budget live action Hollywood adaptations of Anime have been the Wachowski’s Speed Racer, John Wu’s Dragon Ball Evolution and Astro Boy. With the bar set so low it’s no wonder the executives don’t think there’s much money in this. I think the only reason Ghost in the Shell got the ball rolling was, again, the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, because it proved that nerdy licences could be successful. So hopefully if this film was good it would be the catalyst to produce more in the same way that Iron Man kicked off the new age of great comic films.
Now, Ghost in the Shell was a very interesting property for Dreamworks to license since it’s not as well known as other Anime brands, but the trailers made me have my doubts and I will go into detail later what I am on about, but I was very pleased to hear about them casting Scarlett Johansson in the lead role and director Rupert Sanders, seemed like an interesting choice, to say the least, though his only credit as a director to this was Snow White and the Huntsman, which was a film that I was not a major fan of. Not to mention that the screenplay was being penned by Jamie Ross and William Wheeler, the only credit prior to this being a film called Street Wars, but the latter has developed the screenplay for The Queen of Cats, which I have heard good things about and is currently going to direct the next Lego film. I must be honest though, I went into this film with a lot of trepidation, but yet also a lot of slight optimism, (see the first episode of Anime Amigo’s for my full thoughts going into this film). Now, how does this new Ghost in the Shell hold up
Ghost in the Shell takes place in a futuristic setting, in the not too distant future in Hong Kong where, new cyber neuro technology has been developed to create cybernetic enhancements to the human brain. The company Hanka has developed the first full prosthetic body, a human brain encapsulated in a completely robotic body. The first success story, known as the Major, (played by Scarlett Johannson) is given to the counter intelligence unit Section 9 which is partnered with Batou, (played by Pilou Asbaek). A year after her creation a new cyber terrorist named Kuze (played by Michael Pitt) is killing several senior officials in Hanka, but not before hacking into their brains for information, and what’s more, the Major is beginning to hallucinate glitches. What is the truth behind Kuze and how does it relate to the Major’s foggy at best, past. This part is fairly familiar to anyone who is vaguely aware of Ghost in the Shell and it follows the plot beats of past projects fairly closely, however, I am not really calling that much of an issue, mainly because, I actually kind of liked this. Yes, no joke, this one may not be doing much new but for what you got, this is a good film. Yes, I am just as surprised as anyone else. I fully went in to think this film would not have a plot that I would get invested in, but you know what, it kept my attention throughout its entire running time. Granted this has clearly been done by people who have a knowledge and respect for Ghost in the Shell but understand that this film is going to be marketed to an audience who have not seen Ghost in the Shell prior to this, hence why many of my friends who are not familiar with the original film or the franchise as a whole are excited to see this. This would raise the issue of why Dreamworks and Paramount distributors would spend so much money to gain a licence for a film that isn’t that popular, but in terms of the marketing, I think it works and I suspect this will play very well to people.
Once again, the film plays out as almost like a cyber punk noir with attempted commentary on the nature of humanity, how far or close someone has to go, to be human and the whole destiny versus choice, innocence being what you are programmed for versus what you chose to do. It’s not incredibly interesting, all things considered, this film does try to do a lot of what the old film does but it doesn’t have quite as much of the nuance that the original Ghost in the Shell had. The original film had a ton of subtle references and a real feeling that it trusts its audience, this one doesn’t quite have the same effect. A lot more is spoken rather than just shown, it doesn’t quite get the idea that the original had ‘show, don’t tell’. It’s not as if this is entirely absent, but I would have like it if the film had trusted it’s audience to get it. It’s not as if the original doesn’t have moment when it feels like it’s holding your hand and walking you along, but those moments were few and far between. They feel familiar with the original and the Stand Alone Complex and even the recent Arrive incarnation, will recognise a lot of the scenes, many of them drifted very closely to their original Anime counterparts. The major scenes including several fights and the famous underwater scuba diving scene were apparent and the climax even feel relatively similar to that of the original film. The one thing I think this film does differently to any others is that it feels like a very personal story to the Major. The Major has always had at least some stake in whatever she is doing, however, this one felt very personal to her and must have a civic duty. This is not entirely absent from the franchise, again, the first film had a similar theme, but even then, it kind of felt like she was still trying to catch the public master out of a sense of duty and her job and not just to discover more about her identity. This film is almost completely focused on that. While we are on that subject, let’s talk about the villain. Kuze is an interesting villain, again, he is nothing new. He feels like a hybrid of two of the most major villains in the franchise, mainly the Puppet Master and the Laughing Man, mostly leaning towards the former. However, much like both seasons of Stand Alone Complex, which is clearly where a lot of the influence has been taken he doesn’t really factor too much in the climax as a whole. People who watched both Ghost in the Shell and the Stand Alone Complex will know what I mean, however, he is not entirely relevant by the end of the film, I just wish he had had a bit more to do in the third act, whereas I don’t want to give away spoilers. Incidentally, if you want my full thoughts with spoilers for this film, check out episode 2 of Anime Amigos which will be coming out later this month when myself, Reece and Ren, a new member of the Axia film society, Ren Bromiley, will be discussing our full thoughts on the film, and in that podcast we will be going into spoiler territory and giving our full thoughts.
The side cast is actually a rather surprise. Batou plays a huge part in the film, which is good, but the rest of section 9 fell rather second nature to the whole thing. Chief Aramaki, played by Takeshi Kilano plays a decent role, but characters like Togusai who is played by Chin Han, who you might recognise from the Dark Night is rather underplayed, which is a shame considering he was a major character in previous entries. Section 9 feels like a bit of an afterthought until later on and most of it is taken up by other task members like the Major’s mother figure Dr Ouelet played by Juliette Binoche and Hanka boss Cutter, played by Peter Ferdinando. These characters are fine in themselves, however, their extended roles have resulted in a slight distraction from Section 9. Luckily Section 9 still feels rather relevant to the remainder of the film.
If there is one thing that really aids this film, it’s the pacing. The plots pacing is rather good, although I will say that the third act does feel like it rushes to the climax rather quickly. It’s actually 20 minutes longer than the original film, which benefits it in this case as it allows the story to play out well as well as give the real back story that the film needs. But, as I mentioned, it’s not perfect. The plot has a few minor plot holes that it doesn’t quite cover up, also some things have been put in because they feel they are more for fan service than actual relevance to the plot. However, I was grateful for their inclusion. The other problem is that I don’t think the plot will appeal to long-time fans there’s really not much new on offer here, it’s giving you a lot of what you have already seen. In fact, fans with a large knowledge of the franchise will be able to guess the plot twists ahead of time relatively quickly. Believe me though, the twist are really worth it. They are paced well, built up properly, although they are not subtly foreshadowed in any way, subtle is not exactly this film’s apt word.
As for the cast, well that has been an interesting point. Now, the film does get down the nature of humanity as well as the spirit of the characters that were portrayed in the Anime an the Manga, but in order to get that down this cast had to be very good. Now I know there has been some controversy with some of the casting, that it has been reported that the majority of the cast are white actors. Granted, many of the major roles are played by white actors, however, this film knows it’s source and knows that this will have to play out to its audience in its native country, therefore, it has not neglected Asian actors. I was rather surprised and delighted to find out that a large portion of the cast is taken up by Asian actors and especially to realise that these were in title roles for major characters. Scarlett Johannson may have received a lot of criticism for being cast as the Major, but I think she is a really good choice to play her. She might not be as good as other actresses to play this role, and to be fair, I will only compare her to dub performances because I don’t think it’s fair, to compare it to the brilliant performaces by Mary Elizabeth McGlynn who managed to demonstrate the perfect blend between character and actor. Scarlett really embraced this role and shows off some excellent dramatic acting, I think she is rather under-estimated in her abilities, but in this film she manages to perform everything about the Major well, and this could easily have been in due is pure sex appeal, that being said, the writers never forget to at least have an element of that considering that does play a large portion on the franchises commentary on feminism in the modern day and the possibilities of it in the future with the idea of this woman laterally becoming and object through the process of her creation. I do think as well that Scarlett does look like the character. They really took a lot of care to make her look like the character. When her picture was shown to a lot of random Japanese people after the first images of the film were shown, and no one was upset by her casting, I don’t think there is any issue to be answered by her playing the role. In fact, I think her casting rather benefits one of the plot twists down the line as it further goes into another element of commentary the film is trying to put out, which is very relevant, and might even act as a commentary on the whitewashing nature of Hollywood casting, though if you want to know what that is about, you are going to have to watch Anime Amigos episode 2, but I would suggest going to see the film too so you know what I am on about!
The rest of the cast are rather interesting. Pilou Asbaek, an actor I was rather unaware of, has now caught my attention, he played a really good Batou and he gets the look down as well, though, as Ren pointed out when we saw the film, I do agree that his robotic eyes are a little too small. Takeshi Kitano is excellent as Chief Aramaki, he is the only member of the cast that speaks in Japanese, he has a bit of an issue though that no one replies back to him in Japanese, yet there seems to be a perfect understanding, I don’t know, it’s not a major issue, but it did feel like it was affecting my suspension of disbelief. Juliette Binoche is excellent as Dr Ouelet and Michael Pitt gives an excellent standout performance as Kuze, in the hands of a poorly casted actor, this role would have been much worse and you wouldn’t have been able to take the whole thing seriously. Chin Han is decent as Togusai, even though he is given a minimal amount of time to work with it. The only other one to really talks about is Peter Ferdinando’s Cutter, who is probably the weak link in the cast, though I think it’s because of his performance, more that his part was the worst written. There are a ton of side cast members that give good performances, but those are the ones I really wanted to discuss.
As for the presentation. Well, that’s where this film was really in a tough spot. Now the film is very similar to Blade Runner, a comparison I will probably be making even more when I see the Blade Runner sequel that is due out in October. Blade Runner was based on a Phillip K Dick story and the original Ghost in the Shell drew a lot of influence from Phillip K Dick, so I’m not appalled by the decision to make the aesthetic rather similar to that and to be honest, I actually think it looks like Ghost in the Shell. Ok it’s maybe a bit brighter and vibrant that the original film, but there have been massive changes in technology since the original was released in 1995, so that means, to sell a futuristic society, we have to up the game slightly. Ghost in the Shell, though, exists in terms of the scope of utopian to dystopian scale, and edges more towards dystopian future similar to that of Ridley Scott’s Alien. But instead, however, the set designs are excellent and the practical effects that are mixed in with the CGI make an excellent combination. I actually saw a lot of the featurettes about the practical effects and there is some real love and care put into them and it really benefits the film as a whole because it means, unlike a lot of the CGI effects, you feel like you can reach out and touch it.
The action scenes. Well nothing amazing, compared to some films I have seen recently, but they are still pretty dam good. There are a few too many quick cuts every now and again, but you know what, I can at least tell what is going on and they feel well choreographed, the action scenes are pretty good, all things considered. I will say that many of the scenes do very well at recreating scenes from the original Anime, although I would not go as far to say that these are as much of the shot for shot remake as the recent Beauty and the Beast film was.
Right, now we need to discuss the 3D. I saw it in 3D and if I am honest, the 3D is pretty much of a mixed bag. It does really work in certain scenes and especially with a lot of slow down which has been used, which, by the way, is way too often, but there’s also the fact that Ghost in the Shell can often be rather a dank and dark environment and the darkening effect of the glasses can make some scenes rather hard to see. I would advise in that sense that the 3D is take it or leave it. If you are a 3D fan you will enjoy some of the effects and the CGI works well. Aesthetically it really looks and feels like it fits into the Ghost in the Shell franchise, whilst at least having some of its own identity.
Ghost in the Shell is a film that will play very well to a general audience, though I think long-time fans will find a lot more fault with it. It’s a well told and well executed take on the original film and I must be honest, I kind of liked it, I thought it had a decent running plot, what it recreated it did well and it sold me on the whole thing. The performances from Scarlett Johannson and Michael Pitt really made the film stand out. Its only issue is that it sticks too close to story lines that we have already been told and it doesn’t have enough trust in its audience to not signpost things too much, nor does it have enough of the nuance that the original film had. That being said though, with the bar being set so low for Anime adaptations, this stands head and shoulders above its contemporaries and I hope it is a success because I would like to think it’s a lead to more films like it and I wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel. If you are a fan of Anime then I would say give it a go because it might have something for you,, though I would expect you to be a bit more critical than someone with no prior knowledge. This film is trying to get a balance between the two markets though I suspect it will succeed in one more than the other. In short, I think it’s a good film, but I’m not sure how it will stand up as time goes on, though I think it should be praised a lot more than it’s bashed.
Now since Ren Bromley just joined the Axia Film Society he joined me on this film and I asked him to put down his thoughts in conjunction with the original:
Classic anime, well-received. Lauded as one of the greats. Might have watched it through rose tinted glasses.
Reminiscent of the grim-dark aesthetic possessed by Bladerunner etc. Dilapidated society collapsing under the weight of its own advancement, rendering evolution, and our understanding of life and sentience, obsolete. Overall, it challenges the status quo. Contextually, in the 90s, they were on the verge of an era in which computers become integral to many aspects of society – Ghost in the Shell asks how our evolution will continue past the point of creating sentience in an artificial body.
Did well –
Real philosophical issues are highlighted. Excellent soundtrack, aesthetic, animation (particularly for the time, considering the prevalence of large studios such as Ghibli producing feature length films), and backgrounds. Enjoyable and engaging characters kept the narrative running smoothly; suspense and surprise where necessary.
Did badly –
Too short for my liking (perhaps due to brevity of source material), some interesting characters didn’t get masses of development, and yet
Given the success of the original and the tendency of live action adaptations to suck, my expectations weren’t incredibly high, but I aimed for impartiality.
As a stand alone action thriller, Ghost in the Shell would have been good. However due to the tie in with the former works, it felt lacklustre. The genre occupying the advancement of technology and human evolution has been run somewhat dry over the last two decades, with films like Limitless, Lucy, etc exploring many of the different angles that this film failed to do. Nice throwbacks and references to the original at times, and yet the whitewashing was hard to look past, even when an in-universe explanation was offered.
Did well –
Highlighted the divide between the high class living (illustrious human augmentation around the higher classes, deformity and lack of hygiene rife through the slums) very well, particularly with the architecture. Die-hard fans will enjoy the shot for shot similarity the film embraces at times, including the well loved spider tank scene, and the chase through the sprawling Hong Kong metropolis and building diving scenes. Beat Takeshi’s portrayal of Daisuke Aramaki’s character was excellent (though at times felt jarring considering nobody else spoke Japanese to him really) and succeeded in painting him as an old hard-ass character.
Did badly –
As previously mentioned, the whitewashing is slightly hard to ignore, and the culture of the setting feels skewed (robotic geishas and too many English speaking characters overlay the film with a poor sense of realism and integration). The less prevalent characters in section 9 get little to no screen time besides action scenes, and over all I feel would have been better left out, or at least be given a better opportunity to contribute to the Major’s narrative. Compared to the imagery and metaphors used in the original (shooting of the fossils during the spider tank encounter, angelic imagery associated with the Puppetmaster), the live action fell a bit short – as is usually the case with adaptations, as they are forced to sacrifice more nuanced implication for a more understandable story line.
Life: Life was an interesting film. I am not going to go into too much detail on it since my co-reviewer on this Ren Bromiley is planning to do a full review of the film and I would prefer to read what he has to say and leave something in the comments section. But to sum up my thoughts briefly, it was exactly what I was expecting it to be. It’s feels like a knock off of Alien, which wasn’t helped by the fact that the trailer just before the film came on was Alien Covenant, which I will be reviewing later this year. There’s not much really to say. It had some really good tracking shots, some decent performances and some decent effects, but yes, this will be a forgettable film, especially with another Alien film out later this year.
Well, that’s my thoughts on all these film. If you have any thought on Ren’s or my comments of these films then please leave something in the comments section. We love to hear all your thoughts, good or bad. We would especially like to get them in advance of our recording of Anime Amigos on 26 April as we would like to gauge the general response. Also, please tell us if you are a long-time fan of Ghost in the Shell in your comments or if you went to see it with no prior knowledge of the original Anime.
Anime April must continue. Next week I will be reviewing Silent Voice, the latest Anime movie from Kyoto Animation, which will be out on DVD and Blu Ray on 18 December.
Thanks for reading my review. I hope you have enjoyed reading it as much as I have enjoyed writing it and go out and check out Ghost in the Shell, it’s really worth your time. Not just the movie, check them all out, proceed with caution if you are reading the Munga as that has some pornographic scenes.
Calvin – Nerd Consultant
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