It seems Hollywood has realised there are only so many comic book superhero movies you can crank out in the space of a decade. Now, the focus is on anime. The live-action version of cult classic Akira is still being forced to life, Netflix is remaking the international manga and anime series Death Note – the trailer looks terrible, and of course they've set it in America rather than Japan – and Ghost in the Shell, another of the anime cult greats, opens in UK cinemas this Thursday.
This trend has been rightfully plagued by controversy. On the one hand, there's the arrogant refusal to use Japanese actors, and on the other, the inevitability of Hollywood gaudiness being stamped onto stories and themes that are distinctly Japanese. It's one thing doing a crap live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, quite another pumping out limp versions of stories rooted in another culture entirely. Essentially, American film doesn't have the heart for the very specific subtlety and depth of feeling that fans love Japanese film for.
Ghost in the Shell is no different. A conversation around whitewashing has been ongoing since Scarlett Johansson was announced as the lead, Major, a cyborg with a human mind and soul.
But the question upon watching it is: is the new Ghost in the Shell any good? The 1995 original by director Mamoru Oshii – which follows a counter-cyberterrorist organisation, Section 9, and Major's development in understanding who she is – asked big questions about what makes us human in the context of an evolving world of technology. It was the direct inspiration for The Matrix ("We wanna do that for real," said the Wachowskis) and religiously talked about in the same breath as Blade Runner. So there was a lot to live up to.
Obviously, this film comes nowhere close.
Immediately you're hit with by the production value, which is impressive and makes for an aesthetically stunning feature. The futuristic Asian megacity imagined in the 90s anime now feels present, so this is the Japan's electronic district Akihabara monstrously imagined, all neon glare and towering hologram adverts. Major soars through it, having a Spiderman moment, ready to cyber-battle hackers and terrorists wherever they may be. Unfortunately, the bold soundtrack that helped make the original a hit is replaced with the same eerie synths that have helped to buoy other projects (Nicolas Winding Refn films, Stranger Things) to success – but played in the background, where it goes completely unnoticed.
The filmmakers seem to have tried to justify having a white woman play Major by turning this Asian city – that suggests Tokyo – from monocultural into a multiracial futuristic vision. As Major smashes through a pane of glass to destroy a room of rich men in a stunning opening scene, you wonder why there don't really seem to be any Japanese people there. This is answered desperately quickly as we're introduced to the team working alongside Major: a black American man, a British woman, French star Juliette Binoche and others. Some early reviews have praised the global appeal this provides, but to me it just seems jarring – a device employed by the producers in a bid to quell complaints around representation.
It's clear why Scarlett Johansson was picked for this role: she engages audience memory. She has been the sad, beautiful outsider in Lost in Translation; the dangerous superhero in the Avengers movies; the alien woman in Under the Skin; and the sensual voice of a robotic operating system in Her. When we see her as a robot with a soul we make these connections subconsciously and feel protective over her otherworldly reality. She's OK in the role of Major, who has existed since her "birth" with the knowledge that her brain had been taken from an immigrant drowned after a terrorist attack.
However, she's not as interesting as Major should be. This is not all down to her – the subtle themes present in the original anime are both flattened and exaggerated throughout the film, to its general detriment. In the animated version there's so much nuance Major's feelings as she probes what it means to be alive. Here, the mantra she must follow is repeated throughout the film until you feel like you're being whacked over the head by it: "We cling to memories as if they define us, but they don't. What we do is what defines us." The past doesn't mean anything; it's how we live now that matters – deep. This Hollywoodisation was to be expected, and if emotions had to be sacrificed for the spectacular action to exist, it's almost better to just accept that and try to enjoy it for what it is.
This remake relies on recreating the iconic cult moments of the original, in gripping HD action sequences. There's the part-invisible fight scene between Major and the runaway driver in ankle-deep water, the many-fingered typist in the van, the lengthy chase scene as the trucks swerve around streets of squalor. If director Rupert Sanders didn't include them, they'd have to imagine something better. If he did, there's the danger that viewers would view the remake as just copying the original. But this was one good decision on Sanders' part: it was the right decision to include these moments; on an IMAX screen they're textured and beautiful.
This Ghost in the Shell is going to invite confused feelings. It's hugely ambitious and successful in some areas and glaringly lacking and vapid in others. Overall most will agree that it's a decent sci-fi action film and a template for how to make those dull superhero formats better. It's not insultingly bad, but also hardly one – as the Telegraph has already said – to "prove the purists wrong". Either way, you should probably go and see it, because I imagine someone is drafting a Scarlett Johansson-led three-film franchise as we speak.
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