'Ghost in the Shell': Why It's So Hard to Get the Anime Classic Right

In 1995, the animated Ghost in the Shell was in many ways a revolution.

It explored of concepts of evolution, identity, and the human soul — and in a lineup of praiseworthy films that tackle those issues —such as  Metropolis, 1931’s Frankenstein2001: A Space OdysseyBlade Runner, and Ex Machina Ghost in the Shell remains a standout.

Now that Rupert Sanders’ remake has hit theaters, it’s worth reflecting on Mamoru Oshii’s film and examining which of his anime’s praiseworthy elements have made their way into the 2017 film — and which didn’t. 

Even those who’ve not seen the ‘95 film will likely recognize a number of its striking visuals, many of which have been repurposed in films like The Matrix and Dark City. A moody, intricately designed cyberpunk Hong Kong. A nude, gun-wielding policewoman. Line after line of green tinted computer code. And those who have watched the entire anime know that every one of its 82 minutes is stuffed with enough additional detail to make even Terry Gilliam envious.

Unlike with Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch or Rupert Sanders’ Snow White and the Huntsman however, every ounce of Oshii’s stylization is used to serve his story and its themes, instead of the other way around. His visual flair, even more than dialogue, is what communicates the film’s cerebral and philosophical ideas.

By designing the humans’ and cyborgs’ bodies/shells to be indistinguishable from one another, for example, the filmmaker is visually asking, “are then their souls/ghosts indistinguishable?” It’s a shame then that the design for a pivotal character like Kuze, from Sanders’ film, as compared to the Puppet Master in Oshii’s, is made to look so cybernetic.  The design is admittedly cool to look at, but also stunts the same sort of musings.

While on the subject of the shell, the use of nudity in both films cannot be overlooked. Even while the live-action version, to keep its PG-13 rating, opts to clothe the lead character of Major in a skintight suit, the intention and effect is quite nearly the same. Both versions open with a near nude Major, instantly making us aware of how much we obsess over our own shells; not only are they a measure of our beauty, but a mark of our identity. From there however, as the character blatantly disregards her own body, unfazed by ogling eyes and destructive bullets, the pedestal on which we’ve placed our bodies begins to fall. If every part of our natural shell can be altered and synthetically replaced, then that which defines beauty and identity must go deeper.

In the anime, instrumental to the effectiveness of each of these distinct visuals is the pace that Oshii doles them out. From the opening to closing credits, the director never rushes, inviting us to ponder the moment more than expect an outcome. Even his action sequences replace speed and forward propulsion for an unnerving grace and haunting beauty. In them, we and Major alike aren’t adrenalized by her cybernetic body’s ability to quickly dispatch her enemies. Instead, that unnatural strength and inhuman agility only forces us to focus on that character’s undefined humanity and nebulous identity. 

Here, Sander’s aim seems to be quite different. The director can’t help but construct set pieces, comprised of thrilling choreography and a punctuating soundtrack that simply define Scarlett Johansson’s character as an intimidating force to be reckoned with.

Even while both films’ design work and style impressively display Ghost in the Shell’s intellectual concepts, the aspect of Oshii’s that elevates it most over the Sanders’ is the emotional current with which he surrounds them. 

Nearly every one of his characters is emotionally detached, keeping the aforementioned concepts from feeling pretentious and the characters’ explorations of them cloying. The lead characters of Batou and Major especially are made inscrutable in the way that Oshii animates their eyes: the former’s are constantly covered and the latter’s almost always wide and blank. Even when delivering dialogue as on the nose as, “I feel fear, cold, alone… sometimes I even feel hope”, Oshii doesn’t allow his actor’s vocal performances to betray too much melancholy or longing. Instead he displays those emotions by juxtaposing the characters to the color, light, and motion around them. In murky canals, we perceive Major’s confusion. On rain-streaked windows we see her tears. Through half constructed buildings we understand her identity.

In contrast, Sanders’ characters wear their emotions on their sleeves, conveying quite passionately and quite frequently what exactly they’re feeling and why. I certainly won’t deny that Johansson as Major, Pilou  Asbæk as Batou, or Michael Pitt as Kuze all give fine performances, but their searches for answers are far less nuanced and much more predictable than their animated counterparts.

When it’s all said and done, Ghost in the Shell is an incredibly difficult property to adapt. It revels in the enigmatic and rejoices in the undefined. It asks much and answers little. Even Roger Ebert thought the 1995 film was “too complex and murky to reach a large audience”. I however, believe that to be the film’s greatest strength — its confidence to plainly present concepts as confounding as the human soul and identity.  And though the aesthetics in Sanders’ film, by way of imitation, inherit some of its predecessor’s power, many of his contrasting narrative decisions undermine his film as a whole. By making it an exciting action film wrought with angst and concluded with clarity, he risks overshadowing our reflections on what makes us human and if we too are simply ghosts in a shell.

Ghost in the Shell is in theaters now.

Ghost in the Shell

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