I use hands to help my fellow man / I use hands to help with what I can / But when I face an unjust injury / Then I change my hand into FIST OF FURY

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

In my view Scarlett Johansson can do no wrong. But the live action manga and/or anime adaptation GHOST IN THE SHELL probly did itself a fatal wrong by casting her as the human-brained robot cop Major, a role that probly should’ve showcased an exciting up and coming Japanese-American actress.

I was skeptical about the controversy at first, because the animated version of the character looks white to my American eyes, and I mean she’s a robot she can look any way they want her to look, plus the story takes place in a very international future, and anyway it’s an American remake of a foreign film so by definition it’s gonna be changed for American culture, and additionally the director of the anime Momoru Oshii said that Johansson was perfect for the part, and it’s true that her roles in UNDER THE SKIN and LUCY prove that she’s uniquely qualified to play an ass-kicking almost-naked robot lady, and furthermore it’s not like it’s easy for her to get a lead role like this either, and anyway a couple years ago all the clamor was for Hollywood to make more big genre movies based around women, and back then nobody specified “white women don’t count.” So I feel bad for her.

But… I think the criticisms were legitimate.Oshii’s right, but he’s coming from a Japanese perspective that doesn’t have to take into account the struggles of minority actors being ignored and disrespected in the films that come out of our diverse country. Johansson is awesome, but so are many other actors who haven’t had the chance to be seen. And the reasonable argument that there aren’t any Japanese-American actresses famous enough to open an expensive movie like this is kinda moot after Johansson’s star power failed to make it a hit like the ones where she stars alongside Chrises who were not marquee names when they first headlined big special effects movies based on beloved comic books.

Whether or not the casting is defensible, the perception of whitewashing put a stink on it that probly knocked off some of the already limited “sure, I’m interested in a live action version of an anime” audience. There’s even an element of the story that seems to me like the writers trying to subvert or comment on the casting decision, which was probly set in stone long before the script was. So if you get to the end without it bothering you then they kinda draw your attention to it.

ATHBSMF (all that having been said my friends), on its own terms GHOST IN THE SHELL is… kinda good? Certainly it is on a technical level. It’s a showcase of extremely impressive design and FX artistry, full of cool technology concepts. BLADE RUNNER 2049 is a way better and more substantive movie, but on the surface this is a more detailed look at a BLADE RUNNER-inspired live action version of an anime city itself inspired by BLADE RUNNER. Giant advertising holograms rotate above, people open up body parts to reveal machinery and inputs beneath their flesh, porcelain-skinned geishabots fire machine guns from their faces and fold themselves into insects to scurry up walls, 75 Buddhist monks sit in a circle all plugged into a super computer, animated graphics float above streets and around the bumpers of taxis, people do weird things for fashion like wear latex over their lips and eyelids…

It’s the 2010 equivalent of those flawed but colorful and ambitious movies from that stretch in 1996 through 1997 when arty people tried to make sci fi. It even has Takeshi Kitano (JOHNNY MNEMONIC) as the boss and Michael Wincott (ALIEN RESURRECTION) as the robotics company CEO and there was a deleted scene with Tricky (THE FIFTH ELEMENT). I wonder if they ever considered Ice-T or Casper Van Dien for the Major’s partner Batou?

Of course, if this was 1997 it would have a soundtrack with “More Human Than Human” and a bunch of bands that try to bridge heavy guitars and the dance floor. In 2017 it’s a driving analog-synth-inspired score by Clint Mansell.

Come to think of it there’s a little 1993 in there, because the birth of Major’s “shell” in the opening, though based on the 1995 anime, reminds me of Angelina Jolie’s character being created at the beginning of CYBORG 2. Both depict a milky liquid skin pouring onto a robot skeletal structure and make it look beautiful.

Kitano’s dialogue is all in Japanese, everyone else speaks English, but understands him. At first it seems like kind of a nothing part just to get him in the movie, or even a prank to get him to wear a cosplay wig. But he ends up getting a badass turn that’s easily a highlight. Seems like a good boss to have.

It’s a world where almost everyone is “enhanced,” and therefore vulnerable to hackers. So, very much like our current reality, except it’s our bodies getting fucked with instead of just our data and our thoughts. When a garbage man suddenly interrupts his run to attack a doctor, Major and her team capture and interrogate him and figure out something he doesn’t know: he lives alone, and the family he always talks about are an implanted memory. When Major plugs into a dead robot for a “deep dive” into its memories they worry she will get a virus. And there are some imaginative visualizations of these concepts – she can walk through frozen three dimensional images, the people are right in front of her but they flicker with glitches, and pixels float off of them like ash, revealing hollowness underneath. Because memories don’t have x-ray vision.

My favorite stuff in the movie is the police stuff. There’s this team (you don’t get to know most of them), they seem very confident in each other’s abilities, they know what they’re doing and they’re very serious about getting the job done. Johansson does this thing where she puts her head down and shoulders up and in a scene where she’s doing that while wearing a flight jacket and combat boots I wasn’t entirely buying her as that type of tough girl. Had to chalk it up to being a robot.

But she acquits herself well in some fights (including a re-creation of the famous one in a giant puddle while she’s flashing in and out of invisibility), and the police raids and shootouts are handled well. In fact, the action unit director was Guy Norris of ROAD WARRIOR and FURY ROAD fame.

I like Major’s relationship with Batou (Pilou Asbaek, BEN-HUR). She has this GRAN TORINO thing of showing affection by insulting him. When she visits him after they get blown up and he’s had his eyes replaced by machinery she asks if he can see her and then “How many fingers am I holding up?” while flipping him off.

He has little binocular eyes now, and she sort of teases him about having done that by choice. “They’re tactical,” he explains. Being functional for his occupation is more important to him than looking human. I like that they took something that’s just a design choice in a drawing and made it into a character moment.

Major is very stubborn and always putting herself in danger after being warned by everyone else. They’re very protective of her and there’s a struggle between the Section 9 agency (who value her as their teammate) and Hanka Robotics (who see her as their most expensive piece of equipment on loan to the government). The doctor who looks after her (Juliette Binoche, THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING, GODZILLA) is caught in between the two, acting as a therapist and motherly figure to Major while beholden to bosses with sometimes conflicting motives.

The movie is a little clunkier with the philosophical stuff, which is too bad because I think that’s a big part of what made the anime so popular. Major has some somewhat forced dialogue about wondering who she is, and they take some of the wind out of the poetic title by repeatedly referring to bodies as “shells” and identities as “ghosts” as if that’s just the lingo everybody prefers. There is, however, a good scene (SPOILER) after Major has learned that her memories are false, tracks down her former home and has a brief encounter with a woman who is clearly her mother.

This brings us back to the whitewashing issue, and this is also a SPOILER. Early on, Major remembers her parents dying bringing her “to this country.” I thought this was interesting for it to be treated as an immigrant story, maybe even implying that there’s some kind of horrible thing going on in the States causing people to flee for refuge in safer places like here. But it turns out that she’s not American, she’s Japanese, a runaway, perhaps found dead, perhaps murdered, and used by the Hanka Corporation under the incorrect assumption that no family would miss her.

So it’s this company in Japan run by white English speakers, they’re resurrecting a dead Japanese girl, they make her into a white English speaker. And this is not portrayed as a good thing. I definitely think this is an attempt to acknowledge the sort of cultural colonization of Americanizing the character. But does that make it okay? Is that enough? It doesn’t feel like enough. It’s like a subtler version of that Tonya Harding TV movie where they make fun of those ridiculous people at NBC making a Tonya Harding TV movie.

The adaptation is credited to Jamie Moss (STREET KINGS), William Wheeler (QUEEN OF KATWE) and Ehren Kruger (REINDEER GAMES, SCREAM 3, THE RING, various TRANSFORMERSes).

I’ve heard many people say the movie looks great but is really boring, which is how I felt about director Rupert Sanders’ previous film SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN. To me this was a much more involving story and a world that’s more exciting to experience, but that’s not saying a whole lot. It’s one of those movies where you feel like the sequel might’ve been better but sorry, too late for that.

BONUS FEATURE: Before this came out in theaters I thought I should watch the earlier anime version, so I did. I must’ve been busy at the time, so I never finished writing a review of it. But here are the two partially written paragraphs plus one cryptic word that I wrote down about it, demonstrating that I picked up on more interesting ideas behind the cartoon version.

Ghost in the Shell

philosophical talks about what qualifies as human in a world where most people are part machine, and where data can mimic a personality. She has a preference for people who still have human brains, because they’re not standardized. But she argues against her partner using old guns out of preference, since she believes a more advanced model is measurably superior. She likes to dive underwater – this is scene [sic] as risky, because if something went wrong it could destroy her machine parts. But of course something could go wrong for a human underwater too. So wanting to take that risk does make her more human.

camouflage

I’d heard people say this was an influence on THE MATRIX, or even that THE MATRIX was a ripoff of it. The first one is definitely true. The story and premise are not the same, but many individual parts are similar: the idea of programs trying to take over the earth from humans, and humans being given a fantasy life that they’re tricked into believing is real (though here it’s with TOTAL RECALL type implanted memories), people with jacks on the back of their necks to hook into computers, fighting a large, faceless killer machine. Also, just alot of similar imagery: streams of green code on black background, a car in a rainy alley, helicopters firing machine guns, sunglasses, a shootout that blows apart cement pillars revealing the rebar beneath, certain similar camera angles (like a shot looking down through falling shards of glass, much like the shot looking down through falling shell casings).

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 24th, 2018 at 10:48 am and is filed under Action, Reviews, Science Fiction and Space Shit. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

34 Responses to “Ghost in the Shell (2017)”

  1. This is an entry in the ‘ol ‘I can’t really disagree with any of the complaints about it but I still liked it for whatever reason’ genre. The white-washing is problematic in and of itself but the plot twist just makes it worse when they were clearly trying to make it better (results of re-shoots to tackle the controversy?). It’s a shame as I think that plot-point had it’s heart in the right place but they did not really pull it off.

    I like both cartoon movies by Oshii way more still and at times this one does come across as what I feared from the trailers in it being kinda a greatest hits reel of the Oshii movies and the TV series and the original comic but in the end I think it justified it’s existence at least somewhat.

    Even though I enjoyed it I can’t really disagree with those who felt it was boring. It’s definitely slow-going and there’s even a bit of a mild art-house vibe in that it’s a ‘whole shit guys look how beautiful this thing is!’ I appreciate when movies are visually stunning so I guess that’s the number one reason I still enjoyed it even though it is a very flawed movie.

    As for the boycott due to white-washing, I will never tell anyone especially POC, that they are wrong for not wanting to support something that tries to exclude them. Still, I thought it was important to support a big budget movie headlined and focused on a woman. In the RESIDENT EVIL THE FINAL CHAPTER comments section I stated that I always had a like of female-driven action stories and I’d love to see way more produced. I guess it’s failure isn’t a complete blow to that mini-genre/category though since they are finally making a BLACK WIDOW movie (funnily I think it’s obvious Johansson probably only did this movie because Marvel Studios were still denying her an awesome solo movie) though it took WONDER WOMAN and ATOMIC BLONDE being hits to finally produce it. We also have that not NAKED KILLER movie RED SPARROW coming out as well.

  2. I watched the whitewashed trilogy (Ghost in the Shell, Exodus: Gods and Kings, and Gods of Egypt) all around the same time, and I’ll at least say that Ghost in the Shell isn’t the worst of the three (that’s without a doubt Exodus), but it’s also not the best (Gods of Egypt). I guess I agree with the consensus that the movie is nice to look at but kind of bland. I think the film suffers from the fact that so many movies have borrowed from the original film, so the premise unfortunately doesn’t seem all that unique or thought-provoking over twenty years later.

  3. “Looks great, but is really boring” is something, that I heard many people say about the anime, when it got a boost in popularity in the late 90s, because of a music video that showed nothing but clips from it, although the song was completely unrelated to the movie.

  4. The anime is super boring, or at least has a weird, slack pace and drowsy feel to it. But that’s okay, because it looks great and the sleepy vibe is kinda interesting in how it seems incongruous to what should be a more thrilling story.

    Not sure if I have any interest in seeing this version, but people calling it “boring” seemed like a sign that maybe the filmmakers knew what they were doing.

  5. CJ: Though it is way more liked I wouldn’t argue with that assertion for both Oshii movies. Brother and I have a joke about how in the comic it’s a world-building procedural where they stop and talk about tech shit and the movie is a world-building procedural where they stop and talk philosophy shit.

    For those who have seen both, how does this one compare visually to BLADE RUNNER 2049? I ask because I see tons of people saying BR2049 should win the Oscar for cinematography and the trailer to BR2 made it look visually very similar to this one (they both ape the same movie after all). On top of that did BR2 define it’s own unique style, cause if it’s just OG BR but more modern then they should probably just give the Oscar to the makers of OG BR instead or am I being too much of deuch*?

    *I DO plan on seeing BR2 soon-ish btw

  6. geoffreyjar – Visually I think the big difference is that much of 2049 doesn’t take place in a megalopolis. When I think of the look of it I think of barren, foggy, yellow places on the outskirts.

  7. Put me in the “looks great but really boring” camp except change “great” to “who gives a shit?” and “super” to “world-fucking-record-breakingly.” There was something neat onscreen every five seconds and something interesting never. I think the only time I was able to pay attention to two consecutive lines of dialogue was when Michael Wincott was speaking, because that guy’s always awesome. Other than that there was just no earthly way to give two shits about these people or their problems or their world. I get that making everybody really dull and placid and robotic fits into the theme of the line between humanity and technology blurring, but if it the result is this fucking unwatchable even with Scarlett Johansson running around in a nude body stocking murdering shape-shifting robots, then maybe pick another theme. This one is good for a think-piece but you can’t make a movie about it without anesthetizing your audience.

    After about 45 minutes, I realized I’d just watched a major action scene and had no idea what was or wasn’t accomplished or even what anyone was trying to accomplish. So I shut it off and watched something with human beings in it. Maybe if all my organs could just be replaced with mechanical ones, life would be long enough to justify suffering through the rest of this well-appointed but utterly inert avant grade furniture store window display of a movie, but I doubt it.

  8. The killer geisha robots were super creepy. I liked the stuff between Major and Batou. The fx of the city were cool. Everything else they dropped the ball.

  9. I personally don’t care about the whitewashing. White men run Hollywood, so it’s to be expected. It just doesn’t bother me at all. What bothers me is that this conversation seems to come up mainly about movies that are pretty bad anyway( Gods of Eygpt, Exodus , Prince Of Persia, etc). It ends up being an excuse for their failure when the real truth is the movies are just plain bad. Ghost in the Shell would have been just as bad with a Japanese lead. Not only would it have been bad but it would have failed regardless. If a Japanese actor was involved it would have been an excuse to say a movie isn’t bankable with a Japanese actor as the lead(money will always have the final say). It’s actually a great thing that all those bombs were whitewashed. Eventually there will be more actually good movies that have faces of color as the leads which end up being worldwide hits. That’s the only thing that will change the whitewashing for good. Money talks period.

    I really don’t see how anyone could like Ghost in the Shell. It’s one of the more boring movies I’ve ever watched. For everything happening in the movie it almost feels like nothing is happening of substance. Like some have said already though, the actual Anime isn’t all that good anyway. It’s pretty overrated so it didn’t surprise me ,when I finally watched it out of curiosity, that it isn’t very good. The Matrix already covered this ground in a better way anyway.

  10. The Parallax Viewer

    January 24th, 2018 at 4:15 pm

    I do not understand the white washing criticism this movie got in the slightest. I think the a priori racist connotation is that because the Manga is Japanese the character is supposed to look Japanese, which she obviously doesn’t as you point out in the review yourself.
    I liked how they expanded on the Manga’s subtext of what it is to be human into their musings on the nature of identity and in how far the individual is in control of it, and itself. This should have made it a darling of the gender- and race identity focused media (additionally there is some very interesting stuff in there about the naturen of consent), but the discussion got high jacked by this silly “how can a white woman play a japanese robot” argument, obviously to derail the movie, as it is obviously _about_ this topic. But instead of a mature discussion of themes one simplistic reason to shrug a movie off gets elevated to narrative and off we go.
    + Impressive visuals, multi-layered discussion of themes of gender and race identity, a kick-ass Takeshi Kitano and beautiful next chapter in a long series of Ghost in the Shells
    – a bit long winded, and in the beginning they really lean way too much on dumb “her GHOST is in a SHELL, get it” dialogue (though thankfully it gets smarter from there)

    A great time at the movies if you manage to stay clear of media induced talking point dictation in my opinion.

  11. The Parallax Viewer

    January 24th, 2018 at 4:28 pm

    Additionally i think it is disingenuous or at least discongruous to be champions of all kinds of “American Ninja” and “The White Shaolin” style movies and at the same time to have a problem with Johansson playing this part, just because talking point media ignores the former and jumps on the latter.

  12. I pretty much agree with geoffreyjar’s assessment. I understand the complaints and every reason why someone would not like this movie, and yet I really dug it.

    I’m a sucker for this live action genre, though, and since it truly excelled at the superficial stuff (glossy neon city scapes, synth scores, cyberpunk beings, gun-fu, Wincott, etc) I was all in.

    I should mention that as much as i love the aesthetics, i strangely dont like anime. Cant explain it.

    Sidebar: I think, all controversies aside, another major factor in the lack of this films success is what I like to call “The John Carter Effect”. Wherein a source material has been picked apart and paid homage to in so many different types of films that when a direct adaptation finally arrives it feels derivative of the films that took all the ideas in the first place.

    Still, i thought it was a good time. It probably Helped that I saw it before I saw Blade Runner 2049. The cannabis treat and IMAX screen also helped.

  13. Chitown’s remark kind of reminds me about all the hullabaloo about Proud Mary. It’s possible the producer was being racist or whatever but I think there is something admirable that black female leads can also star in shitty action films that get dumped in January with little advertising. I think we’ve come a long way if you ask me.

  14. Also, I love that Cherry 2000 is a related review!

  15. Parallax – As a white person who is more enamored with Asian and African-American culture than most I can’t really see these issues as cut and dry and often don’t agree with the “talking point media” you’re talking about. But I don’t know, I feel like I wrote a fair review that offered about 10 pro-having-a-white-person-in-it thoughts that I sincerely believe right at the beginning. Ultimately I fell down on the “I get why they were offended” side, but still kind of liked the movie. I think you’re right that there are interesting ideas in it, and you clearly picked up on more of them than me.

    I do think AMERICAN NINJA is a different issue that people might accuse of being cultural appropriation as opposed to whitewashing. I don’t buy it because from the title down the gimmick is “what the hell, this is a white person doing this normally non-white person thing” and it’s not like it’s taking away from Asian martial artists, because they have way more and way better movies available from all eras.

  16. I thought this movie was pretty bad. I don’t think the original anime is a masterpiece (this is probably unfair of me, but I get a very “dumb persons idea of a smart movie” vibe from it) but it was very frustrating to watch this movie replicate every interesting shot and cool action beat in CGI while gutting everything that made it interesting. It reminded me of the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET remake in the way it replicated lo-fi effects in expensive but soulless CGI, to much lesser effect. The robot Geishas were the only time where I felt the movie was showing me something new and cool.

    I wouldn’t have minded that they’d excised all the philosophical musings if it actually had something interesting to say, but all they did was cram it into the mould of a boilerplate Hollywood thriller. The original movie (I haven’t seen the TV series or read the manga) gets a lot of milage out of how it contrasts the dirty, overcrowded city streets (a lot of the city designs were based on overcrowded metropolises like Hong Kong) with slick technology. The city in the movie version has a sparsey populated, Apple-Store-meets-Blade-Runner aesthetic that is completely artificial and boring and misses the point completely. I mean, why was this movie set in Japan at all?

    Anyway, I hope Hollywood stops throwing money down the Anime adaptation sinkhole because there’s much better things they could be spending their money on. At least Takeshi Kitano got a paycheck, even if he had to wear a dumb wig.

    PS – I don’t think the whitewashing would have been such a big deal if they hadn’t addressed it in the movie in such a tone-deaf way.

  17. The whitewashing is unfortunate, but I thought the movie was good and actually handled the issue of racial erasure in a poignant way.

    The anime isn’t a fave of mine, either. Its storytelling just feels lopsided (it’s almost all exposition, but delivers it in the most confusing order possible).

    This is a great article about Japan and its handling of racial-identity in pop culture following Hiroshima.

    Ghost in the Shell and anime's troubled history with representation

    A controversial casting is exposing the many complications and contradictions of Japanese animation.

  18. Aren’t they coming out with a live action AKIRA someday? IMDB says “in development”. Hopefully it will star Dane DeHaan and Ashton Kutcher.

    I haven’t seen the live action but I watched the anime twice in the last 6 months to prepare for it, since I think I saw it once long ago and forgot all about it. I hadn’t meant to watch it twice but I sort of forgot what happened after I watched it once and had to try again. I think maybe I remember it now, finally.

    I guess the idea that the voice acting, animation, characters, and plot are kind of stiff and robotic does go along with the overall theme of the movie but I wouldn’t exactly call this a brilliant design choice. I suspect this wasn’t 4D chess on the director’s part and the boringness just came about by a happy accident. There are some interesting and cool set pieces (the fight in the puddle, Major fighting ED-209, etc) and some decent ideas, but it’s kind of a slog to get through and it’s a lot of potential wasted. Much like AKIRA, actually.

    SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER If you’ve ever read Neuromancer then you have to think this is where they got the idea of some vague and all-powerful and yet stuck behind the scenes AI that never really accomplishes much except escapes in the end. It took a few more years but people are finally getting past the “malignant AI will kill us all” trope, but in this case it’s more like “unpredictable and ruthless AI that might someday kill us all just wants out of its little prison”. And that’s just not very interesting, they way they tell it. Lots of buildup with no payoff. Yet another good concept that fails to entertain.

  19. The Parallax Viewer

    January 25th, 2018 at 12:03 pm

    Maybe the issue is to conceive of the movie less as an adaptation of an Anime but as a Scarlett Johansson movie. It is obviously part of the overarching theme of her starring vehicles lately, her being the glossy surface representation of a deeper, kind of inhuman intelligence. Ghost in the Shell is a story tailor made for her. But anyways:

    You want to make a Ghost in the Shell movie. You cannot simply rip off Ghost in the Shell, you would be cheating the original creators of any credit for the work that is a huge influence on your movie and people would yell ripoff. You cannot simply set it in Newark, people would yell whitewashing. But you are still an American movie company, you make American movies, so you will not cast all Japanese Americans. Even if you did, it would be American-washing, critics would insist the characters aren’t Japanese Americans, they are Japanese – so the only solution would be to shoot this American movie with an all Japanese cast in Japanese, to be on the safe side the crew better also be Japanese (“Why does a movie set in a fantasy Japan need a white director?”).

    It goes ad absurdum, basically a culture in self destruct mode that is only allowing itself to show itself, inspired by itself, simply to uphold an ill thought out ideal with no solution. Intellectual Stalemate, perfectly captured by the inability of most critics (you are one of the least bad offenders in this, Vern, i don’t mean to rail on you, only throwing out thoughts) to engage with a movie deeper than just shrug it off with the first talking point that sticks.

    I don’t even think it’s that much of an amazing movie, it isn’t. But it is a shining example of the problem of discourse that is devouring the culture as a whole, and for that alone already quite fascinating.
    Also: cool robots.

  20. Parallax Viewer,

    I dunno, is that all true? I think people are allowed to set remakes in new locations.

    I mean, SOMEONE probably called Spike Lee’s remake of Oldboy whitewashing or Americawashing or whatever, but the vast majority of people understood that it’s okay to set a remake in the country the remake was made in. It never became a real controversy. (Granted, no one saw it, so that might also be why).

    I think part of what threw people off with the GitS remake is that they set it in Japan but then threw in a white cast, anyway. (It also sounds like this whole thing were her being reconstructed from an Asian woman complicated things further). My sense is, if they moved the story to New York (or whatever) this would have been less of an issue. I mean, someone would have complained (someone always does), but you know… also maybe it’s not a bad thing if we have these conversations sometimes? It’s not like the movie got banned because people had complaints about the casting.

  21. The Parallax Viewer

    January 25th, 2018 at 3:05 pm

    I think a quick search of “oldboy remake whitewashing” will prove you wrong, Dan. You should also read what people have been writing about the plan to relocate the Akira remake to New York for years now.

    I agree it’s not bad to have this conversation, if it would be one. But as is the case with this movie and most others with the same problem – it is not a conversation. The knee jerk reaction of “this is whitewashing, white washing is bad, move along” stops all discussion in its tracks. Even Vern has to bookend his review with paragraph after paragraph of the same old same old before he can begin to talk about the movie itself, and most reviews don’t even reach that second part. Maybe i am just bored to read the exact same talking point with nothing added to it over and over again, especially as it seems the topic isn’t brought up by the reviewers themselves but forced upon them based on the whims of the media (and i suspect in part directed by rival studios, as it is an easy way to whip up negative emotions).

    It is no problem for example to have scenes like the one in Doctor Strange where he gets attacked by a street gang in Nepal composed of a white guy, a black guy and a Japanese guy – how is that fine? Why does not every single article written about Scarface discount the movie as a whole because Al Pacino is not Cuban? Why is it okay for Chadwick Boseman to play a fictional African, shouldn’t the role go to an African actor? It all just seems very arbitrary.

    This i find especially egregious in the case of Ghost in the Shell: It’s the rare (i can’t even think of another) movie with the whitewashing problem that _directly_ addresses it and engages with it as its primary theme! But no, the robot is supposed to be Japanese, no reason for deeper thought. Just puzzles me.

  22. Well, I knew that this issue was the main thing people had discussed about the movie. I think it’s an interesting part of the movie, but if I hadn’t wanted to address it I would’ve known it would be all the comments talked about anyway. Instead I chose to get it over with at the beginning and then go into what I liked about the movie. And the counter-arguments I list at the beginning are all things I brought up with people on Twitter and elsewhere before the movie came out and didn’t see anyone else saying. I was trying to write something more layered and nuanced than what seems to have come across. But I do appreciate the discussion.

    I personally don’t think relocation in an American remake is a problem. If this had been moved to New York I would consider it to be equivalent to UNFORGIVEN being remade in Japan or YOJIMBO/RINGU/DARK WATER/LET THE RIGHT ONE IN being remade in America (or Italy-as-America). As a dumb American I found LET ME IN more relatable than the original, which is the reason for those types of remakes. I understand that other people don’t agree, but I don’t think it’s as broadly looked down upon as setting this in Japan but with all white stars and one of them playing a technically Japanese character.

    I think we do agree though that people are trying to righteously draw clear lines on issues that are more complex and murky than they’re willing to acknowledge, and it leads to silliness.

  23. If you remake INFERNAL AFFAIRS with Irish people it is not a big deal because the story and its themes are not especially related to the culture it came from. Ditto for SEVEN SAMURAI, etc.

    But take GODZILLA out of Japan and you just have a weird and dumb monster movie. Take AKIRA out of Japan and you have lost the nuclear angst that drives it.

    I don’t think GHOST IN THE SHELL necessarily has the same distinct Japanese flavor to it, but it certainly has some. And maybe OLDBOY had some Korean flavor too. You have to admit that these cultures have their own style and maybe even philosophies that are immediately recognizable, and remaking them into mainstream American fare is going to lose some of that charm.

  24. All my quick google search came up with was some bloggers complaining about it. Which is kinda my point.

  25. One other aspect of the racial controversy (Is it really a controversy or just everyone reacting to 100 people on Twitter? I can never tell.) that I haven’t seen mentioned is that this is clearly a future, much more multi-cultural version of Japan, hence the many different ethnicities on the team and the fact that they are all able to converse in at least two languages. A white character makes at lot more sense in that setting than if it was supposed to basically just be a slightly updated version of modern Japan. Still, I could have gone for Rinko Kikuchi in the role.

    “She likes to dive underwater – this is scene [sic] as risky, because if something went wrong it could destroy her machine parts. But of course something could go wrong for a human underwater too.” – Vern

    The risk for the Major is not that it could destroy her machine parts, it’s that it’s impossible for her to swim with her metal body. So if anything happened to the floaters keeping her up she would die pretty horribly by dropping to the bottom of the sea, while remaining conscious. So it’s much more risky for her underwater than a human. At least in the anime. I seem to recall they don’t bring that risk up in the live action version.

    “And maybe OLDBOY had some Korean flavor too. You have to admit that these cultures have their own style and maybe even philosophies that are immediately recognizable, and remaking them into mainstream American fare is going to lose some of that charm.” – rainman21043

    Couldn’t you make that argument about OLDBOY (Original, undefeated and still champion version) then, since it was based on a Japanese comic? I’ve never read it but I suspect there were some liberties taken with the Korean adaptation just as with the American remake.

  26. This seems like a pretty clear example of whitewashing. You have to do some pretty unconvincing logical backflips in order to argue otherwise. I mean, the movie takes place in Japan, but there are few Japanese there. It’s not just one role that’s whitewashed. There’s only one major character who is actually Japanese. Sure, maybe Japan just had a lot of immigration in this future, even though this is never addressed in the film and conflicts with current Japanese policy. Or, you know, maybe in this future, most Japanese suddenly disappeared in a rapture-like event. But it would take too long to explain this, so that’s why they had to hire a bunch of white actors. It gets pretty ridiculous pretty fast.

  27. “Sure, maybe Japan just had a lot of immigration in this future, even though this is never addressed in the film and conflicts with current Japanese policy.”

    I think you could make the same observation of the anime film. It shows a city modeled on Hong Kong with all the signs in Chinese implying a huge, never addressed influx of Chinese people at least in the city where it takes place. Also, I believe current Japanese policy is for as much immigration as they can handle due to their declining birth rate. So I don’t find it as far-fetched as you do.

    But I should clarify I’m not really arguing against it being whitewashed. It seems clear to me the makers of it realize Asian films almost never make a ton of money in the U.S. and so they decided to go with the safer bet instead of taking a chance with a Japanese lead. Unfortunately this will no doubt continue until studios are willing to take enough chances with Asian leads that we finally get some break out stars.

  28. I look at the “whitewashing” controversy here as the wrong answer to the right question. It’s definitely a problem that non-white actors, including Asian actors, are frustratingly pigeonholed and struggle to get good roles. It’s a huge problem overall, but to make it distinctly GitS’s problem is meaningless and unfair. The solution to that problem is not to try and dictate which races are entitled to which roles. Then you just end up with, at best, tokenism, and at worst, more (not less) specifically raced roles. The question should not be “why did Johansson steal a role from an Asian” — the question should be, “why aren’t all (or at least most) Hollywood roles available to non-white actors?”

    Otherwise, that poor hypothetical Japanese lady who gets to star in the GHOST IN THE SHELL live-action remake has one starring role, but then is going to wait a heck of a long time for someone else to write another role which the culture deems to be the rightful property of her specific race and gender. That’s not a solution to the problem. It’s definitely good we’re discussing this important issue, but if we’re not asking the right questions it’s going to be a lot trickier to make real progress. And it doesn’t help that the kind of people who spend their time writing thinkpieces are not always the same ones who have much real interest in, or affinity for, art for its own sake, absent its socio-political implications, meaning any discussion about the subject can easily devolve into people talking past each other and not realizing it.

    Anyway, at least in retrospect we can all be happy that some poor up-and-coming Japanese* actress didn’t have this flop kill her career right as she was getting started. It’s always good to find something to be positive about.

    *(and by “Japanese” I mean, anyone vaguely Asian. Let’s be real: even the most Liberal American would have been completely satisfied to have a Chinese or Filipino actress given a Japanese name and pretend to be Japanese, despite how mortified the actual Japanese would be at that. I couldn’t believe people weren’t mad that John Cho, a Korean-American, got cast as Hikaru Sulu in STAR TREK, a specifically Japanese character if there ever was one. But, that’s racism for you. Since we get to make up the whole concept of race, we get to decide who counts and doesn’t count based on the whims of our day.)

  29. Well, with a 100+ million dollar level of invesment on the line, one mitigates risk as best one can. That Scarjo’s starpower failed to make “Ghost” soar doesn’t necessarily prove that casting an unknown Japanese actress to get, what was at best a cult franchise ( as far as the U.S. audience) off the ground, would’ve been any less of an untenable risk. In all likelihood, “Ghost” simply would’ve tanked harder. By the same token, the risk of casting the two Chris’es was heavily mitigated by the mainstream iconic status of the given title character, in the one case, and the, at that point, bankable brand status of Marvel Films, in the other.

  30. rainman: “I guess the idea that the voice acting, animation, characters, and plot are kind of stiff and robotic does go along with the overall theme of the movie but I wouldn’t exactly call this a brilliant design choice. I suspect this wasn’t 4D chess on the director’s part and the boringness just came about by a happy accident.”

    It’s just Mamoru Oshii being Mamoru Oshii, including the thematic material.

    I remember having the same common issues as others regarding the anime’s exposition and pacing. The movie seemed to have built up a reputation as a pretentious slog, but I had a pleasantly surprising experience rewatching it last year for the first time since its initial video release. It’s a short movie and it felt short, while the plot seemed to move forward at a nice, balanced pace. Coming in with expectations about the movie’s problems at the top of my mind actually seemed to result in a better viewing experience. Oshii’s sequel, INNOCENCE, seems to have been forgotten and is probably even more of a patience-testing bore for numerous viewers, but I’ve always felt it was a bolder, better movie than the first one.

    A common criticism of this Hollywood version is that it’s 20 years too late for an adaptation, but it doesn’t really follow any of the animes closely. All of the storylines from the animated adaptations are far more interesting, but this just took certain elements while also trying to be a new ROBOCOP. I still generally liked the movie and how it presented the team as an efficient unit, although there’s a lot of squandered potential there as well. What a waste of the sniper character, Saito.

    Regarding casting issues in adaptations of Asian work specifically, at this point I actually prefer something like GHOST IN THE SHELL to THE DEPARTED. THE DEPARTED is a remake of a HK film, but for some reason it throws in some goofy Chinese gangsters whose purpose is to basically stand around while Jack Nicholson cracks racist jokes. Initially, I thought they were inserted as a kind of homage to the original, but it ended up being such a ridiculous scene. The script had additional stuff that wasn’t in the movie, like this gem: “See, no surveillance here. They didn’t figure we had a navy. Always figure an exit for your business partners. What with everything all dug up, you can’t trust a slant to find the Mass Pike and, with or without Staties out front, frankly I don’t approve of orientals driving to begin with.” I think the screenwriter really just wanted to get a bunch of Asian jokes out of his system. At least GHOST IN THE SHELL let Kitano be a badass. If they did cast a Japanese-American actress, I think Karen Fukuhara (Katana from SUICIDE SQUAD) would’ve been a cool choice.

  31. In complete agreement with Joe. Right down to INNOCENCE being better and THE DEPARTED being a far inferior remake of INFERNAL AFFAIRS.

  32. If I took what others have written the wrong way, i apologize, but it seemed to me that some were downplaying the fact that this film is a near textbook case of whitewashing. And it doesn’t stop at Scarlett Johansson. For a film set in Japan, they somehow managed to cast nearly every major character with a white person. I get that sometimes the internet goes overboard with claims of whitewashing (see: The Great Wall), but that doesn’t mean that when it does happen we shouldn’t call it out. Eventually Hollywood will get the message.

  33. Rbatty024 — I took the film’s diverse cast as an indication of a futuristic Japan which is much more heterogeneous. Watching the original anime, it’s clear there are at least some white characters (two have brown hair and are said to be American) and her main partner, Batou, has a French name. Its impossible to tell from the animation what race people are supposed to be (the main character is a robot anyway), as the characters who the script heavily implies are white look identical to the ones we’re assuming are Japanese. Or, possibly, in the future “races” are much more fluid things, which would also make sense. So, given the material being adapted, and the stated blessing of its creator, I’m struggling to get too incensed about this one particular case.

    I mean, would it have been better to set this in Newark to dodge this problem? I don’t see how anyone would be helped by that. Would it be great to have given a young Japanese (or anyway, phenotypically Asian) actress a spotlight feature? Sure, but then again, it would have been great to do that in LADYBIRD or BLADE RUNNER 2049, too, so, I kinda think singling out GitS for special criticism misses the real problem a little bit.

  34. I think this movie should have been based more on the Ghost in The Shell Stand Alone Complex TV series than the original 1995 movie.

    The TV series is more down to Earth, there’s still plenty of heady sci fi but it has a more police procedural feel, I like the movie but you have to be in a certain frame of mind to really get into it, it has a very dreamlike feel and while I like that for what it is, SAC has always been my favorite incarnation of the franchise.

    Plus I always really liked the Major’s default getup in SAC, that leather jacket, one piece swimsuit type thing and rubber thigh highs, would have been cool to see an actress sporting that.

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