There are few anime that have had as much of an impact in the West like Ghost in the Shell. Debuting in 1995 and based off of Masamune Shirow’s 1989 manga, Ghost in the Shell became influential in media even while remaining a relatively niche product. But when it was announced a live action Hollywood remake, many fans were worried. Previous attempts to adapt anime in the West like Dragonball Evolution and Speed Racer had been remarkably underwhelming, and the backlash continued when it was announced Scarlett Johansson would be the lead, rather than an Asian American actress. Now that it is finally released, can the movie shake the concerns and weight of expectation to do the original justice while also winning over a new legion of fans?
The movie’s central plot surrounds Major Mira Killian, whose brain is saved after an incident and placed into a fully cyborg body meant to combine the benefits of real and artificial. However the group that created her are being targeted by a cyber criminal, and it is up to the Major and Section Nine to get to the bottom of it all. The mystery that forms the basis of the plot is kept at a nice pace, with the world surrounding these characters building with each new piece of information and scene.
The Major isn’t the same Major we get from the anime, despite sharing plenty of similarities. This is like an alternate universe, and while this might be disappointing for hardcore fans, the end result works within the context of this particular adaptation. The Major is a little more emotional, and she only seems comfortable in her skin when the action is going down. Scarlet Johansson is fine in the role, serving her role without standing out or detracting from the experience. She’s at her best during a fairly important subplot around two thirds of the way through the movie, as well as during her interactions with Batau. Pilou Asbaek does a great job capturing the nuances of Major’s right hand man, and even though the focus of the story is on the Major’s place in a world of man and machine, Batau gets an enjoyable about of characterisation, though it never takes away from the pacing or progression of the main story.
The rest of Section 9 outside of Aramaki are mostly in the background, so Togusa fans may be disappointed at how much screen time he gets (though he’s not completely absent).Aramaki is fine, though as the sole Japanese speaker in the movie he does feel somewhat detached at times. Kuze makes for a fairly compelling antagonist even if his character isn’t as complex as those that already exist in the franchise. He serves as a great counterpoint to Major and fits well within the world crafted by the movie.
The original Ghost in the Shell is heavy on the philosophy, and the dense packing of ideas and intellectual discussion is one of the more notable aspects of the franchise. This is definitely diluted in this adaptation, but that’s not to say it’s a mindless flick. There is an overarching concept throughout the movie that underpins much of the action, and for better or worse the concepts are all pretty explicitly spelled out for the audience so there’s no room for interpretation. The signs of Hollywood adaptation shine brightest in this respect, but there’s still more to be found here than in your average blockbuster.
The trailers had already suggested there would be nods to the franchise, and it’s not just the scenes hinted at in the trailer which show a clear appreciation of the source material. The impact of these scenes will be lost on newcomers, but for hardcore fans they help connect the series together, because while this is clearly a Western adaptation on the franchise, they take the concepts of the characters rather than the fully fleshed beings. The action in general is well handled, featuring some tight and story heavy events that never become unnecessarily bloated for the sake of escalation.
Visually this movie is absolutely stunning, and has crafted one of the best looking worlds I’ve seen on the big screen. The “Hong Kong in Japan” visual inspiration found in the original movie is present in droves here from the skyline, the harbour and the back alleys. Meanwhile, the futuristic design of the advertising might be a little overwhelming, but adds a lot of depth into the world of Ghost in the Shell. There is a grit and grime littered through the glamour, capturing the cyberpunk aesthetic when the movie strays from the heights of the city and dives into the seedier underbelly.
Tinkering with such a beloved and challenging franchise such as Ghost in the Shell was always going to be a risky move, even before people starting questioning the casting of a white actress for a distinctively Japanese product. The film had to appease a skeptical fanbase while still managing to make a challenging franchise accessible to a new and mainstream audience. The end result is surprisingly impressive, but you have to go in understanding that this is not the anime that crept into prominence years ago. Ghost in the Shell might have turned its difficulty level down a bit, but it didn’t lose its ‘ghost’ in the process. The world it builds sucks you in, and the story has enough meat to sink your teeth into.