Extraordinary Machine

Paige K. Bradley on Ghost in the Shell

Mamoru Oshii, Ghost in the Shell, 1995, 35 mm, color, sound, 82 minutes.

THE PROBLEM WITH BEING SEMINAL IS THE SHRINKAGE. In 1995, Mamoru Oshii adapted Masamune Shirow’s late 1980s manga Mobile Armored Riot Police, subtitled Ghost in the Shell in tribute to Arthur Koestler’s 1967 book The Ghost in the Machine, into an anime film that for many years functioned as a subcultural gateway drug, hiding out in the more unclassifiable sections of American video stores. Its VHS cover design threw it under the cartoon category, but the prominent display of heroine Motoko Kusanagi’s enormous tits and her gun hovering over the title gave pause as to its suitability for children, or even YAs. While the internet was still catching on in the United States, GITS was often the sole exposure one had—unless you stumbled across the horrific, original English dub of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1988)—to a small, distant island nation’s powerhouse animation industry, or it was a brief taste of something that you took to Geocities to search for more. And, indeed, there is a lot out there. GITS is a blockbuster franchise in Japan, with several subsequent films in addition to Oshii’s original, an early 2000s TV anime, four video games across multiple systems, and more action figures residing in the rooms of Japanese hikikomori and Western weeaboo than you could count. The specter of the Major—hardware designed to give rise to and sell anything at all—keeps slipping through the multiple mediums of her empire.

Ghost in the Shell did not change my life; that would be Sailor Moon. If one seems to strike you as more serious than another, please know that most anime is just trauma in a cute outfit. But, somehow, I got it home from that rental-store shelf because I knew, from chatrooms where masculine usernames typed as if they knew things while I was sure of nothing at all, that I was supposed to. For years, all I remembered of GITS was the Major falling from a great height: This woman—who is not a woman, though her body goes through a multistep assembling operation during the opening credits that will hit femme-identifieds as close to home—falling into a futuristic city of no place, toward canonicity.

It starts ominously enough, white kanji text on a black screen informs us that “despite great advances in computerization, countries and races are not yet obsolete.” Sci-fi is so prescient! Our heroine is effaced from the start. Known as “the Major” to her colleagues, due to her rank in the federal Public Security Section 9 of an unnamed country, she is a cyborg, or, as Donna Haraway would put it in her 1985 manifesto, “a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” whose “main trouble . . . is that [she is] the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism,” but I suppose that’s extratextual. What is definitely canon is that her number one hobby is diving: The most beautiful scenes in GITS involve water, both the depiction of and the Major’s movement through it, most memorably when she KOs a two-bit criminal with her thermoptic camouflage turned on, rendering her invisible and becoming visually nothing more than the pressure on his bones or a ripple in the air as the shallow waters around their feet gracefully confirm the martial choreography.

Mamoru Oshii, Ghost in the Shell, 1995, 35 mm, color, sound, 82 minutes.

The story is ostensibly about international cybersecurity, involving the pursuit of a bodiless American hacker known as the Puppet Master. It shapes up into a case that may have been assigned to the Major’s unit as a smoke screen to destroy her along with him. As to why another government unit would want to destroy her remains unpacked. But that’s where multipart franchises come in handy.

Motoko Kusanagi may not be human, but she seems to know the limits of making things personal. After a dip in the depths around New Port City, she tells Batou, her partner in stopping crime, of her concern for “things needed to make an individual what they are,” including “the expanse of the data-net my cyber-brain can access. All of that goes into making me what I am, giving rise to a consciousness that I call ‘me.’ And simultaneously confining ‘me’ within set limits.” (Ray Kurzweil immortalists, take note.) She listens to the “whisper from my ghost,” as souls are colloquially referred to, and can make intuitive decisions, such as in the film’s climax, when she dives into the Puppet Master’s consciousness via what appears to be a USB cable connection, which has taken up residence in a broken blonde female’s bust.

The Puppet Master has already requested political asylum in this purportedly Asian country, proclaiming, somewhat generically: “I am a lifeform in the sea of information.” Aren’t we all, even if some can swim better than others? And yet the creators have insisted that these characters should appear in femme forms, fan service with a thesis. Motoko was built to look not merely female, but bodacious—her shell made by a shop called Megatech Body—and viewers are supposed to accept that this is the model best suited to transmitting nagging, ghostly whispers about the indelible momentum of identity, to say nothing of participating in stealth combat missions. (Heidi Montag is another figure in this tradition.) “I’ve heard celluloid dolls can have a soul,” Batou says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it had a soul.”

Rupert Sanders, Ghost in the Shell, 2017, 3D IMAX film, color, sound, 106 minutes. Major (Scarlett Johansson), Dr. Dahlin (Anamaria Marinca).

Spoiler alert: Women are made, not born. The female figure carries an imperative for maintenance, conservation, and regular upgrades while also serving as gendered proof of Hortense Spillers’s thought that flesh is empathy. But female flesh is also material, weaponized for affect across genre. Same shit, different canon: Creative men like to gather up their most radical—at least to them—ideas and test-drive them on a form not their own.

And now, another man (Rupert Sanders) in another country (USA! USA!) has made a new Motoko Kusanagi (Scarlett Johansson), kitted up in updated technology and ham-fisted ideological poses to meet contemporary action-movie standards. For instance, the Major is now a refugee, a victim of terrorism, salvaged by a certain Hanka Robotics company, whose CEO—named “Cutter” (Peter Ferdinando)—takes a zealous interest in his investment. In place of a personality or any particular motivations, he has the unenviable task of swaggering around as a caricature of capitalism, declaring, “I think of her as a weapon,” or, all but smacking his lips, lauding her as “the future of our company,” or, most confusingly, since it comes right before the climax and seems neither literal nor metaphorical, saying, “The virus has spread!” All he’s missing is a moustache to twirl, but I guess dissolving into a pile of silver cubes at will is the future’s version. “The Major” is also apparently now her name, rather than her job title. (The blurring of work and life!) Her identity is cleaved in two, with tragically misguided results.

Johansson never struck me as a bad fit for the role, despite the whitewashing casting controversy that has dogged this live-action adaptation for months. Given her previous work in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013)—a great film—and Spike Jonze’s more regrettable Her (2013), I had faith that she could pull it off. The film just had to leap far enough away from the source material and avoid pretensions of cultural authenticity. Instead, the writers lean into the cross-cultural tensions and try to have it all ways: The story is a radical departure, but it brings race along for the ride as a loaded caboose that runs off the rails and comes back around to smash right into the film’s beautifully made-up face. This is on a fan-fiction level, and it only resembles the anime insofar as it also has a tiresome habit of throwing a barrage of beautiful images and sequences at a viewer without any context to understand the connections between them. But the grace to let a picture hold without an explosion or a clever aside is wholly, predictably absent in the translation from animation to live-action. Rupert’s ghosts are anxious, dashing things desperate to prove their conviction; Oshii’s could at least stay still long enough for us to have a thought to ourselves.

Rupert Sanders, Ghost in the Shell, 2017, 3D IMAX film, color, sound, 106 minutes. Major (Scarlett Johansson).

The first movement in the symphony of tone-deafness begins when the Major, in a sulky mood—her emotional range has been greatly expanded; women without a vivid diversity of feelings just aren’t very likable—comes across a black girl on the street. She asks her whether she is “human.” Somehow, this comes off as a proposition. And yes, it gets worse: The girl (indeed human) peels off her makeup, and ScarJo paws her calm face and caresses her lip, asking her how it “feels.” End scene.

But wait, there’s more. With a quick stop for a tranny joke in a men’s bathroom, the movie canters through a confrontation between the Major and the vengeful Kuze—played by a wheezy Michael Pitt, who’s revealed to be a discarded Hanka prototype—and speeds toward the revelation that the white Major was once an Asian teenager who, as her mother explains in broken English in a ramshackle Frank Lloyd Wright x Guggenheim–inspired apartment building, ran away to the town’s “lawless zone” long ago to write “manifestos” about the evils of modern technology.

The Major’s doctor (Juliette Binoche) calls her “the best of us,” which I find hard to believe, since she tears out without even finishing tea with her new mom—no manners at all! Earlier, the Major had a vision of a small hut; it turns out this was where the girl Motoko and boy Hideo—who became sad-cyborg Kuze—had their own DIY jamboree, which was violently broken up by authorities, and the young leftist radicals were separated and turned into sexy cybernetic white people. To wrap insult tightly around injury, the film closes with the Major and her newfound mom hugging, a multicultural feel-good touch. Even if this could be mildly entertained as a critique of dystopian, authoritarian regimes cracking down on dissidence, or an allegory about resistance and rebellion, it quickly sinks into a hopelessly, unbelievably, hysterically, maddeningly silly plot frothing over a foundation of careless racist nonsense, to say nothing of its continual usage of “consent” as a buzzword.

Kenji Kawai’s entrancing, sparkling score for the 1995 film is allowed one meek chime in the intro to Sanders’s first action sequence, and is then given rein to keen throughout the final credits, like a sloppy high-five to the origins of this sloshy travesty. Perhaps our only comfort, and it’s a stretch, is to remember Haraway: “Illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential.” Yes, the body of the seminal work has now been resuscitated with a foreign breath, and yes, it is a bastard. The 1995 film ends with a diminutized Motoko looking out over a city, saying, “The net is limitless.” In 2017, the takeaway is that she is “built for justice,” and I wonder what happened to net neutrality in the interim.

Ghost in the Shell (1995) is now available with limited SteelBook packaging in Blu-ray. Ghost in the Shell (2017) opens Friday, March 31, in theaters nationwide.