Reviews for Rupert Sanders’ adaptation of the anime film Ghost In The Shell haven’t been too promising. The film stands at a 42% on Rotten Tomatoes, with a general negative consensus shared across the board. From the very beginning fans of the classic anime were weary of this adaptation, most noticeably due to the announcement of Scarlett Johansson playing the main role. Considering that the original Ghost In The Shell’s protagonist Motoko Kusanagi (otherwise known as The Major), is a Japanese cyborg, fans saw picking Johansson as Hollywood whitewashing. The other major critique shared among these reviews is the loss of what made the original so masterful. The true gift of that film was what it had to share and teach us through its characters and themes.
Directed by Mamoru Oshii, the original Ghost In The Shell takes place in a futuristic Japan where human beings have the ability to cybernetically enhance their bodies. The Major is a member of a public-security agency known as Section 9. The plot involves a mastermind hacker (The Puppet Master), and tons of political corruption that lead The Major and her team through a web of existentialism. The film gets its name from the concept of human beings cybernetically enhancing their bodies – the body (shell) acts as the vessel for the “ghost” (consciousness/soul).
While the film has some pretty intense action sequences, it establishes itself more as a means to open a dialogue on mortality, man in a machine world, and gender. Given The Major existing mostly as a cybernetic being, she questions her sense of consciousness throughout the film. Questioning her ability to have memories and personal beliefs, she blatantly expresses she has her own understanding of her destiny. What is fascinating about this is that one would not necessarily consider a mechanized being to have “feelings”. We as humans look at machinery as one-dimensional creations, given a set design to follow on an endless loop until turned off. It is through The Major and the Puppet Master, that the themes of mortality and man in the machine world are challenged. The Puppet Master furthers the debate when discussing sentience in himself as Artificial Intelligence, placing himself on the level of man. There is a line where The Major asks what the point of being human even is, after the Puppet Master shares how they as non-biological beings, carry the means to reproduce. In the end, the story asks the viewer: If machine can think and feel like man, then what really is the difference? Can you sincerely value one life over the other? And how far can one integrate themselves into the other?
This also leads into the themes of gender and identity. The Major throughout the film has a unique ability to camouflage herself when going into covert missions. To do this she strips down into a body suit. While this suit covers her body, it is still possible to visually make out the shape of her breasts, nipples, and buttocks. It never bothers her however to do this in front of others. She does not view herself as a sexual being. This being said, she still maintains a level of interest in what her body may mean to the outside world (and herself). The audience is given three scenes that demonstrate these views. Two moments involve The Major’s male partner Batou, one upon him witnessing her in a fight, and one catching her undress after swimming. After beating up a bad guy from her camouflage mode, The Major reappears in her body suit; Batou comes up from behind her as she looks down at the foe, and places his coat over her. In the swimming scene, the two of them are having a discussion, and upon him turning to see her nude, he turns immediately away in disgust. It’s interesting to note that while he feels this discomfort of seeing her bare, she shows no hesitancy in being herself. These scenes demonstrate the uncomfortable nature of the male gaze, the notion that “women should not be bare”. The one time this tends to be okay in a patriarchal society is if the woman is doing something sexual, but for The Major, she is simply going about life. To her, there is no distinguishing of when she may appear sexual or attractive to an outside presence. Funny enough however, the third scene briefly involves this point of view. Here, The Major comes across a mannequin that looks like her. She witnesses how its body shape reflects hers, and that it’s wearing a particularly feminine dress. No dialogue is uttered, but it gives the viewer a moment to tap into what she may be trying to wonder here: Is this how I look? Is this how others perceive me? How would I feel if I appeared this way?
Sander’s adaptation pokes at these themes, but appear to never fully bloom beyond acting as brief pauses between action scenes. What makes a work of art step out is the heart and soul of it. Art should evoke questions such as: What does this say about me? What does this say about the world I see? How does this challenge my beliefs? Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost In The Shell asked these questions along its existential quest of personal and societal exploration. If there is a lesson to take away from this, it isn’t simply honoring the source material, but eloquently representing the heart, or ghost, of a given work of art.