Wednesday, October 18, 2017

IN-FLIGHT MOVIES: Okay, fine, here's my feelings on "Ghost in the Shell."

I thought I was going to get away with not seeing the live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell for like another decade or so. Like I figured eventually I'd trot back to it quietly, regard it from a distance, and go on with my life. But a lot of people have been asking for my opinion of it. Like, more than a handful.

Let's get that first question out of the way.

Initially, the question was what I thought of ScarJo being cast as the Major. To which my answer remains: I'm Lebanese. I can't speak for the Japanese-American population. And frankly I'm glad I can't because it's a very tangled issue.

As someone in the anime industry, I recognize where the discrepancy lies. Japan is, well, populated primarily by Japanese people, so no one there (including the creator) will see a Danish-American actress playing a fundamentally Japanese role as any sort of problem. Or, rather, it's more likely we'll see a lot less people upset. Japanese people are not a minority in Japan, so of course you'll hear more voices being all right with it and wondering what the problem is.

But in the US, where Japanese people are a minority (and similarly Asian-Americans tend to be considered "honorary whites" when it's politically handy), the issue is much different. I can see why Japanese fans living in America would feel hurt and robbed by seeing a character created within their culture -- and originally bearing a Japanese name -- suddenly being "taken from them."

Of course, other arguments pop up. The movie "fixes" this (more on that later), or she's got an artificial body so it doesn't matter, or the argument of whether or not Motoko Kusanagi was "white-coded" in the original art style. And the fact of the matter is... I can't speak to that. And I'm really not supposed to.

So if you're here looking for an authoritative opinion about the casting of the Major from someone with authority... go ask your Japanese friends. Preferably multiple ones because no group is a monolith.

Moving on.

Let's talk about the movie itself.

For those not steeped in the works of Masamune Shirow, know that the source material for Ghost in the Shell isn't just the one anime film that keeps showing up at your local art house theater. I mean, yes, that's part of it. But the franchise consists of three manga, four animated films, three animated TV series, four video games, and three OVA. And many of these function independently of each other. So there's about as much reason to critique plot progression in the live-action film as there would be in, say, any iteration of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I suppose someone very knowledgeable about Shirow's writing could do some deep-cut analysis of the plot... but I'm sure they also already have.

The first thing to note is, across the various media, the Major's personality is quite fluid. In the manga and TV iterations, she's far more outspoken and upbeat than in the films. The live-action film doesn't necessarily create an unbelievable character, but she is pretty much what anyone would typically write for a character in her position. If that makes sense. Tough with a sort of marshmallowy, Blade Runner-y center. It felt almost as though she had been written by someone whose friend had told them about the movie version of Motoko, but who hadn't then gone and seen it for themselves.

Which is... actually how I felt about a lot of it. I wasn't sure whether it was the jet lag, being crammed between two snoring fellow passengers, or something else. But all through my viewing, I felt somehow like I was watching a movie based on a story someone told someone else about watching Ghost in the Shell once. It's admittedly been a long time since I've engaged with the anime, hence my assumption that I was the source of the disconnect. But in retrospect, I'm not so sure.

Other elements of the original do exist, and are plucked from all over the franchise. We have Batou, of course. We have Beat Takeshi as Daisuke Aramaki, the only character in the whole film who ever gave me that magical "oh my God, it's really them" feeling. We also have a 2nd GiG character show up significantly, backwards engineered into the story. Not a bad choice, but a weird one in the midst of many many weird ones.

Counting electric sheep.

Of course, just shy of Blade Runner 2049 and in an era when we are flooded with stories of AI and personal awareness, there was no reason not to go hard with that topic in Ghost in the Shell. After all, it is a major element of the story and the setting. Our protagonist is the fullest version of what the future holds, the film's literal "ghost" in an artificial "shell," but augmentations exist at a variety of levels. And the question of humanity -- what makes us human, how far can we go before we aren't -- is indeed a theme of the franchise. Hence the name.

But dear God, that first scene where we had the meaning of the title hammered through our skull like a wayward railroad spike over and over was painful.

It's a hinky writing move, making the audience feel as though they are being praised for their intelligence when in actuality they are being vastly underestimated. I eventually grew so tired of Juliette Binoche explaining the Major's inner turmoil to me that I bought some airplane WiFi to level up my servants in Fate/Grand Order while I waited for the next big scene.

There were plenty of moments to create some very interesting philosophical discussion, or even to let the moments speak for themselves. Handled well, those could have been powerful, thought-provoking moments. As it stands, everything was laid out very flatly. And occasionally very awkwardly.

Mopping up.

All of the above said, the way events played out in Ghost in the Shell gave me a very distinct feeling that the screenplay was about 30 minutes of plot progression and 90 minutes of trying to explain away the producers' decisions. And it felt messy.

There were ways to handle the casting of the Major. Obviously one would have been to cast a Japanese actress. But even if we for some reason just stick with this, there were ways to write around it. One, I thought they'd done. They renamed her Mira Killian. And while it's not ideal, at least it's better than continuing to call her Motoko Kusanagi as she is played by a Caucasian woman.


Ex. Cept.

God, see, here's the thing. Most of the time I applaud people getting clever and bringing the stuff in the adaptation back around. And I love it when the thing you thought was missing from the origin story is actually totally there, or has been all along. But they kind of screwed the pooch here -- by trying too hard to make sure the Major was the same Major even with the casting discrepancy, they just made it more awkward.

Spoiler: Mira Killian was Motoko Kusanagi, a young Japanese rebel who committed suicide and then had her mind inserted against her will into a shell that looks like Scarlett Johansson. And then she continues her work as The Major while returning to her tiny grieving Japanese mother and. Dear God I don't know, there's just something so awkward about this.

And this wasn't the only case of this. So much of the screenplay feels like the writers were running around after the producers' decisions, trying to patch holes and explain things away in a way that wouldn't get fans too riled up, but there were just so damn many of them. By the end, I came away feeling sorry for the writer more than anything else.

The film as a whole felt like a battle between departments: some wanting star power and flash and bang for buck, others wanting whatever consistency they could hang on to. And the two did not meet in the middle. Which is a shame because they could have.

I'm going to be honest -- I don't think the whitewashing of the Major necessarily had to be a damning move for the film. I understand the Way Hollywood Works. I dislike and resent it, but I understand it. And if the studio wanted a specific recognizable face in spite of the country of origin, to me that would mean putting all the more effort into a solid, careful script. Not one that tries to lampshade the casting, but one that makes the film worthwhile regardless.

On the bright side.

Is there anything positive to be taken away from this? Yes. Some.

Sadly, Ghost in the Shell is probably the worst thing a film can be: it's mediocre. If it were straight-up bad, we could still find some laughs in it. But it just sort of... happens. It's there, it exists. Writing this piece was actually a bit difficult because, as much as I have to say about it, I don't particularly see much point because it's going to kind of fade out.

But it was nice to look at. The sound design was rad. From an aesthetic standpoint, it's a fun ride. If you know nothing of the original series and you just want some eye candy, then you will definitely have that.

Also, like I said. Beat Takeshi is a proper badass and quite frankly the best thing in the movie. And if you stick around long enough you can see him waste some jerks. Which is always fun.

I mean, frankly, I appreciate the original Ghost in the Shell franchise for what it means to anime, and I enjoy engaging in it where I can. I'm not married enough to it, though, that this new version causes me rage. So maybe that's why it's easier for me to sort of shrug and say it exists and that's about it.

I still think the sheer amount of press it got for the casting of Major is the most heated and emotional any talk of it ever got. In the end, the Japanese side of the franchise is what will move forward, anyway.

But should you choose to discuss it or speak on it, bear one thing in mind: no group is a monolith. Speaking to one "qualified" person who gives it a moral pass or fail does not decide it for life. Nor do I think enjoying it, if you did, makes you bad or stupid. Because subjectivity and different experiences are a thing.

I do, however, appreciate that it's opened the door for more discussions on casting decisions. Regardless of the casting being good or bad or middling, and regardless of Ms. Johansson's talent (it's not her fault this went down), the production of this film did poke the fandom nest, and made a lot of things rather evident. How that manifests in future productions, we'll have to wait and see -- but it may become important, as many Japanese studios are creating California offices with an eye to trans-Pacific productions of Eastern IPs.

Should you decide you'd like to try it for yourself, Ghost in the Shell is available on Amazon, YouTube, or Google Play for $3.99, and on iTunes for $5.99.