But is that a good or bad thing?
One week after its U.S. premiere, DreamWork’s live-action Ghost in the Shell arrived in Japan, with Scarlet Johansson playing the lead role in the latest branch of the franchise that began as a manga in 1989 and became a breakout anime movie in 1995. Our Japanese-language reporter Kaori went to check out the film on its opening weekend, and her impressions are below.
Ghost in the Shell started as a manga from Masamune Shirow, and was then made into a theatrical-feature anime by director Mamoru Oshii. Oshii’s anime had a strong impact on many animators and film industry professionals, and so Hollywood’s live-action version has filled the hearts of existing fans of the franchise with both expectations and trepidation.
▼ The Japanese trailer for Ghost in the Shell
For those wondering if you’ll be able to understand the live-action Ghost in the Shell without having seen the anime, rest assured that the live-action version is, in a positive sense, intended for a general audience, and is an entertaining film. I’d go so far as to say it’s a science fiction film I hope other women will watch.
Briefly covering the premise, after miraculously surviving a tragic accident, The Major (played by Scarlet Johansson) has all of her body replaced with a mechanical substitute. As an officer of Public Security Section 9, she and her comrades hunt down a terrorist who has been hacking people’s brains in order to control them. Her powerful new body gives her superb combat capabilities, but at times she has a sense of sudden, vague uneasiness clouding her memories. Who is she really, and are her body and mind being controlled by someone? Soon, she may just find out the truth about her identity.
I believe many fans who were already emotionally invested in the original manga and anime have asked “Why is the protagonist played by Scarlet Johansson?” The Major’s original name is a Japanese one, after all.
But the movie is set in the near future, where aside from her brain she has an entirely artificial body, so in terms of outward appearance, I don’t think even physical gender is such an important factor. There are likely cyborgs whose brains were originally male, and now simply have female artificial bodies. In the world the film takes place in, anything is possible, and the people living within it likely don’t see ethnicity or skin color as something that makes any significant difference.
Of course, if you trace the roots of a brain, you get to the question of which country they were born or raised in, and how their family influenced who they grew up to be. Johansson’s performance in this film, though, has an unusual, difficult-to-define quality to it, perhaps because the Major is beginning to doubt the accuracy of her own memories, which helps drive the plot forward.
When Oshii heard Johansson would be plying the lead, he was very pleased, saying “She has a great physical presence, and can convey a dramatic tone simply by walking with a stern expression. She has so much presence and charisma.” I think his assessment was spot-on.
Johansson’s strength lies in quiet acting and body language. She has a real talent for those, and shown in her roles in Girl with the Pearl Earring and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In Ghost in the Shell, the Major is forced to fight while grappling with complex psychological pressures, and Johansson is an excellent choice for such a role.
Also, while I’ll skip the spoiler details, the Major has a bit of a love scene, too. I really recommend this film to women. Johansson is cool, and if you watch it with another women, I think you’ll be really excited.
The manga and anime both include deep, philosophical meditations on what constitutes human identity and existence. The Hollywood Ghost in the Shell, however, puts the emphasis on entertainment in an effort to attract a wide audience. To that end, the film is filled with exotic, near-future visuals and heated action scenes. Though I saw the film in 2-D, I imagine the 3-D version must be intense, especially during the scene where the Major jumps off a skyscraper rooftop.
The result is that the Hollywood Ghost in the Shell feels like a movie anyone can enjoy. I’ve heard that many critics in the U.S. are upset that “the appeal of the original version has been diluted,” but I was glad to see that the live-action version is an accessible film. After watching it, I think many people will feel compelled to watch the anime, and so, for newcomers to the franchise, this is a good way to start exploring the world of Ghost in the Shell.