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Ghost in the Shell

Entry updated 5 July 2021. Tagged: Film.

1. Animated film (1995). Kodansha/Bandai Visual Manga Entertainment. Directed by Mamoru Oshii. Written by Kazunori Ito, based on the Manga Ghost in the Shell (1989-1991) by Masamune Shirow. 82 minutes. Colour.

Released with a relatively high profile in the West, Ghost in the Shell became one of the most influential Anime productions of the 1990s. In a future East Asian metropolis, Cybernetics have become commonplace. As a side-effect of the computerized modifications made to human brains, it has become possible to hack into people's minds, changing their memories or making them slaves. This is the modus operandi of a criminal known only as the Puppet Master. Against this background, a covert Cyborg police officer, Major Kusanagi, investigates occurrences seemingly linked to the Puppet Master, all the while struggling with philosophical issues of Identity: for example, can a Computer have a soul? Is she still the same person as she was before her body was rebuilt artificially? The Puppet Master downloads his consciousness into a newly created cyborg shell and demands political asylum from Major Kusanagi's organization. He/it also claims to be an artificial intelligence (see AI) evolved from illegal programs created by the Foreign Ministry to justify their policy goals. The Foreign Ministry tries to cover its tracks by kidnapping the Puppet Master, but Kusanagi tracks it down and merges with its consciousness to create a new shared mind, portrayed as a form of offspring.

Ghost in the Shell struggles to cram its convoluted story into the short running time, and frequently resorts to lengthy exposition scenes to help the audience keep up. This sometimes awkward plotting is masked by how slickly crafted the film is, its fascinating urban images well served by an evocative and ghostly score. But under the surface Ghost in the Shell is neither groundbreaking as a work of Cyberpunk nor as an anime. It is nevertheless a well-made action thriller, and while it owes an obvious debt to the work of William Gibson, this makes it less culturally alien to Western eyes, and thus a good introduction to the Anime genre. [JN]

2. Film (2017 US-China). DreamWorks Pictures, Reliance Entertainment, Arad Productions, Shanghai Film Group Corporation, Huahua Media, Paramount Pictures. Directed by Rupert Sanders, starring Scarlett Johansson, Takeshi Kitano, Pilou Asbaek, Michael Pitt, Chin Han, Juliette Binoche. Written by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger. 106 minutes. Colour.

"Mira Killian" (Johansson) is a Cyborg officer in Hong Kong's Section 9 anti-terrorist unit. Although cybernetic augmentations are commonplace among 73% of the world's inhabitants, Killian is the first to have an entirely artificial body, with only the "ghost" of her memories retained from her earlier self. Killian pursues Kuze (Pitt), a terrorist intent on taking down the Hanka Corporation, eventually revealed as the organisation that manufactured both him and Killian from the remains of murdered runaways. Killian realizes that what she thought were hallucinatory glitches are actually the after-effects of a Memory Edit, and avenges herself on Hanka before returning to the only life she really knows, working for Section 9.

Director Rupert Sanders' Hong Kong is conceived in Blade Runner (1982) style, although it lacks much of the Kipple and Overpopulation of Ridley Scott's film. Instead, it takes a leaf from Steven Spielberg's Minority Report (2002) with invasive, 3D holographic Advertising, constantly bellowing from the rooftops that passers-by require augmentation to their inadequate bodies. The casting of Johansson, a paragon of Caucasian beauty, as the "improved" physical form of what is revealed to be a Japanese original, is hence tied intimately to the context of the film's world (see also The Great Wall), although this explanation was not good enough for the anti-whitewashing lobby, an increasingly vocal faction within Fandom that demands the casting of sf films reflects the racial lines of the originals (Race in SF). Such protestations were, a little conveniently, blamed by the film's producers for its lacklustre box-office performance in the United States, although the nuances and concerns of America's catch-all "Asian" minority are a world away from those of, say, the majority-Japanese audiences in Japan thrilled to watch Johansson share screen time with local star Takeshi Kitano, or indeed the Chinese investors who were unlikely to have considered a Japanese lead in a film intended to monetize in the People's Republic. Tellingly, the release of Edge of Tomorrow (2014) a mere three years earlier saw a substantially smaller outcry over a similar casting decision to put Tom Cruise in a role originally written as Japanese, suggesting either that awareness of whitewashing has reached a tipping point in the Media Landscape, or that the tension with Johansson might have rested on a subtly different discourse of gender issues (see Women in SF).

The deeper one goes into the politics of Ghost in the Shell, the harder it is to find the "original" state within a palimpsest of source materials. If one really must impose the morals and shibboleths of 2017 on the texts of yesteryear, Masamune Shirow's original Manga Kōkaku Kidōtai (graph May 1989-November 1990 Young Magazine) was set in the fictional, placeless Keep of Shinhama, in which a multi-ethnic team was led by a pseudonymous cyborg of unknown origin in a city where universal translators and bio-engineering had rendered racial distinctions irrelevant. We might, instead, call out Mamoru Oshii's decision to use Hong Kong as the location for his Anime adaptation Ghost in the Shell (1995) [see 1 above] as an act of cultural appropriation, which passes without notice now that the film is bolstered by Chinese financiers. Meanwhile, it was only in Kenji Kamiyama's later Television version Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (2002-2005) that the protagonist was given a backstory close to that of the character in the 2017 film, or indeed Kuze as an antagonist. Hence, the film is itself a mixture of influences, relying most heavily for its inspiration on the 1995 anime and the 2002 television show, and largely ignoring much of the intricacies, diversions and polemics of the manga original.

Johansson's casting was merely the most discussed among several manifest issues in world-building and identity politics. For an English-language encyclopedia entry about the English-language release of an English-speaking production, it should not trouble us particularly that the Linguistics of the piece have everybody's Universal Translator software set to English. That, after all, will be a self-solving problem when dubbed into local languages, and a more "realistic" release of the film might be expected to arise in a Cantonese dub, co-opting this film into the conversation of sf in China. But Ghost in the Shell also suffers, as do many other films in and out of the sf genre, from having characters of one race written for or directed by filmmakers from another. For example, Mira's encounter with Hairi (Kaori Momoi), a woman whom she believes to be her mother, is fraught with missteps in dialogue and body language. Meanwhile, the architecture of Sanders' Hong Kong shows the Bank of China Tower, once the tallest building in Asia, dwarfed by a forest of larger skyscrapers, suggesting that the Hong Kong of the Near Future plays host to around 20 million people, few of whom appear to be on the streets. The film is repeatedly redolent of the late twentieth-century sf that inspired Shirow's original story, most obviously RoboCop (1987), but also the assertion in The Bionic Woman (1976-1978) that the heroine's new body was government property and hence no longer belonged to her. The visuals are a showcase of iconic moments recreated from the 1995 anime, except, ironically, those that have already been pastiched in The Matrix (1999).

Ghost in the Shell may become a watershed film in the conversation of science fiction (see SF Megatext), but not because of any originality of execution or narrative. Instead, it is more likely to be remembered for the arguments that arose around it during the continued and progressive internationalization of sf audiences and texts, as paradigms once deemed acceptable were decried by a faction with a growing concern over the inherent Politics. The degree to which that faction will scare film-makers away from foreign properties, rather than encouraging an approach that meets with its approval, remains to be seen. [JonC]


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