Ever since science-fiction has taken to the mainstream, we have held a certain masochistic fascination towards dystopian worlds where advanced technology has sucked out all emotion from the human race, turning us into pseudo-machinas breaking and making new world orders. The internet describes this sub-genre of science fiction as Cyberpunk, as if to compensate for its outrageousness by an übercool name. Cyberpunk’s dystopian romanticism dreams of characters who are social outcasts and find themselves pulled into a fiery battle with the corrupt fiefdom that exists in their city. Besides the humongous amount of literature on the subject consisting of short-stories, novellas and graphic art, the art-style saw a meteoric rise only after film-makers saw merit in the subject and gave us a glimpse of the scale of those gotham-esque cities.
Also read : Origins of Cyberpunk
Cyberpunk evolved over several decades since the 80s with an entire generation of films that built the foundation to the kind of design language and ingenious computer graphics we see today. From Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner to Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element to the Wachowski’s Matrix, the genre gradually transformed into a more nuanced version of the drab and disingenuous technology that defined those stories.
Ghost in the Shell is an adaptation of the highly acclaimed 1995 anime cyberpunk classic by the same name as directed by Mamoru Oshii and written by Shirow Masamune (adapted from his manga by the same name). The story is established in a dystopian future where Hanka Robotics Corp., has broken new ground in Cybernetics and it has become possible to infuse a human brain into a cybernetic body or shell, somewhat like Robocop which incidentally is another cyberpunk classic. The Major, played by Scarlett Johansson, works for an organization called Section 9 which is a special task-force responsible for preventing high-profile crimes in the city. Being a cybernetic human herself, The Major is a tactical expert and is one of the first people who have proven to be a successful amalgamation of man and machine. However, things are not as simple as they look from the outset. The Major is plagued with flashes and hallucinations which feel a lot like memories that she had never had. As she chases criminals through the city, memories show themselves like glitches in the matrix, making her doubt her capability as a law enforcement officer. As she fights with this existential crisis, word rises about a hacker who has been breaking into the shells and manipulating the psyché or ghosts of his victims. While trying to investigate a particular attack, the Major connects herself into the ghost of a geisha and finds herself delving into her memories hoping to catch a glimpse of the perpetrator. As she goes deep into the brain pathways, she is confronted with a strange figure who could very well be the hacker himself or a program that he had precisely placed there to engage her and bring her right into his hack-code. What ensues is a battle to the death between a cop driven by the shadows of her past and an elusive criminal who threatens to break the whole city down.
Director Rupert Sanders does a fair amount of justice to some of the signature scenes from the original. The film opens with the iconic shot of the creation of The Major as various parts come together to form the body and the face at the end of which we watch the brain being plugged into the shell of the skull. The body then rises up and is surrounded by an emulsion like substance which provides the human-like skin to her appearance. The sequence is kept close to how the anime version goes complete with the haunting soundtrack that accompanies it.
You can catch the opening sequence of Mamuro Oshii’s film here:
Sanders also pays homage to Ridley Scott’s vision of a cyberpunk city as seen in Blade Runner. While Oshii took inspiration from densely populated cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong and crafted his city into a giant mesh of buildings interspersed with refuse and filth, Sanders added a layer of strong virtual and consumerist feel through gaudy holographic imagery throughout the city. Due to this aspect, there is much more color and pretense in the mood of the film which runs the risk of putting off a large section of true anime and cyberpunk fans.
Ghost in the Shell suffers from the same cultural gap that American animation suffers from as compared to Japanese anime. Sanders’ version is so caught up in delving into the Major’s past that he doesn’t spare time to establish the character of the city which is the essence of the anime. Masamune’s manga adaptation infuses the screenplay with intricate long-shots of the city providing a perspective which has absolutely nothing to do with the flow of the character arc, giving an appeal which makes the story much larger than the characters. Having said that, Scarlett Johansson’s profile fits well with the personality of Major Mira Killian. Even though the deep, brooding style of the original is not fully portrayed on screen, Johansson carries the “walk” and the action sequences with flair. Pilou Asbæk’s (also known as Euron Greyjoy from GoT) gives an accurate projection of Major’s second-in-command Batou who is this rugged, heavily built cop with a military hairdo. The origin of his characteristic prosthetic eyes, was an interesting addition to the original giving the much loved character a bit of depth.
Since the first look of the film, Ghost in the Shell has been shrouded in controversy in terms of casting choices and white-washing. And it is understandable considering the deeply integrated asian influence that is central to the story. You cannot and should not cast an American actor to play the role of Motoko Kusanagi, especially when you have so many suitable faces in Hollywood doing mainstream roles who would perfectly fit into the role.
Keeping the accusations aside, there was no other actor more suitable for playing the Major in the White fraternity at least (well except Carrie Ann-Moss maybe ?). With her rounded angular face and eyes, Johansson fits in well into the anime image and does a fair bit of justice to the story where she has to strike a balance between a cyborg’s mannerisms and a human who is coming to terms with her emotions and memories.
Despite its misgivings, the film has been able to established a good foundation to the next films in the series. We hope that Sanders brings in Masamune san’s as a collaborative advisor to make the design and character language more in tune with the cyberpunk anime style. That would be exciting beyond words !
gobblpoint: This is perhaps one of the most sincere adaptations and renderings of cyberpunk since the Wachowski’s. Watch it for the mesmerizing visuals and one of the most intriguing characters in sic-fi history.
Disclaimer: The images used in this post are the sole property of the makers of the films and the anime, and are not owned by us in any form whatsoever.