As a fan of anime for many years now, I have seen my fair share of poor (borderline horrific) live-action adaptions made both by Hollywood and Japan. Admittedly, when I heard the announcement for a live-action remake of the ‘90s animated classic, Ghost in the Shell, I was as apprehensive as I was excited. With flashbacks of past failures in mind, such as The Last Airbender, a film which can only be described as traumatic, my expectations for this adaptation were low, to say the least.
In the distant future, when cybernetic enhancements are commonplace, Ghost in the Shell questions humanity and the presence of a soul when consciousness is just another set of electrical impulses. This is depicted onscreen through our protagonist, Major (Scarlett Johansson), a cyborg cop on a mission to understand her life prior to her synthetic body. When greeted with the opening shots of Major’s formation that so elegantly replicated the iconic opening of the original, I couldn’t help but smile. The success of the original and its equally famous predecessor, Akira, rely on their arresting visuals that draw you into their world. Likewise, this adaptation’s strongest feature is the breathtaking and alluring metropolis it has created. The cluttered skyline, with its gigantic holographic adverts surrounding its skyscrapers, is presented beautifully. Echoes of the iconic haunted chanting of Kenji Kawai’s original soundtrack further demonstrate the respect that the director, Rupert Sanders, has for the original in this mostly faithful adaptation.
That being said, the adaptation goes so far as to surpass its source with the addition of characters, like the Nurse and Major’s mother, Hairi. It also fleshes out existing characters. I have a soft spot for Matoko’s friend and second in command, Batou, so I was happy to see him have a better development as a character. Similarly, our protagonist gets more screen time and her existential questions expressed in far more depth. A scene involving Major performing the simple yet slightly disconcerting act of touching a woman’s face on the street to determine what makes her human, showed another, subtler side to the film behind all the CGI and well-choreographed fight scenes.
With so many advancements in visual technology, the original should never be able to stand against this newer model made over ten years later. And yet it does. When Makoto prises open a tank and you see synthetic muscles ripple, her skin rip and the metallic sinews beginning to break, the intensity and momentum in that moment are palpable. The original film possesses a weight and tangibility which make it so captivating. These have been lost in a version that have should have a better grasp at bringing this vision alive. The new Ghost in the Shell adaptation also fails to deliver the same mystery and melancholic atmosphere that sets the original apart from most other sci-fi films. Could it be another case of style over substance?
While the disappointment of veteran fans possessing encyclopaedic knowledge of the original franchise (complete with two films, several spin-off series, and 3 volumes of the manga) was expected, critics have also been less than impressed. Reviews of the new adaptation highlight how the complexity of the original’s plot is lost in this version’s simplistic portrayal of good versus bad. Some also argue that the new Ghost in the Shell reduces Major’s original search for humanity and a soul to merely a quest of tracing her past. Despite all these criticisms, the adaptation could have been worse. It could have been so much worse. Its redeeming qualities like the excellent cinematography, artistic direction and incorporation of the original entrancing soundtrack, arguably outweigh its flaws. I am also grateful for the adaptation’s genuine attempts to follow its source material, as well as its enhanced realisation of the visions in both the manga and original film. At least Hollywood and its audiences can be one step closer to appreciating anime as something more than just quirky Japanese cartoons.