Review: Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Otsuka. Written by Kazunori Ito (based on the manga by Masamune Shiro). Directed by Mamoru Oshii.

I confess that although I’ve had Ghost in the Shell on my radar for at least ten years, I finally saw it because of the whitewashing accusations hurled at the 2017 live-action adaptation starring Scarlett Johansson, and I wanted in on the discussion. I don’t think whitewashing is as big a deal as some of my friends think it is, but I didn’t want to engage in the conversation without knowing what I was speaking about.

And you know what? Even if I did care about whitewashing, I wouldn’t make a big deal out of this one. The main character, Motoko Kusanagi, exists in a world where cybertechnology allows living brains to exist in cyber bodies. Further, it’s also possible for a human mind to exist in a cyber brain, the titular ghost in the shell. It’s unclear to me what in Motoko’s body and brain are the stuff she was born with, making ethnicity, race, and even biological sex meaningless. Yes, the film is set in Japan, but would an adaptation necessarily have to be, if we’re talking about some imagined world in some very distant future?

On a scale of meh to outrage, I rate the casting of Johansson in the Motoko role a meh, although my thoughts might change if I see the live-action adaptation.

The story is pretty complicated, and I had to pause the DVD several times so I could read the subtitles slowly, not so much in order to follow the plot as to get a grip on the multiple philosophical discussions. When the essence of your mind can inhabit a manmade physical brain, and when that brain can inhabit a manmade body, all kinds of issues related to the self come into play, and the film’s characters seem to spend a fair amount of time thinking about them.

A ghost in a shell can access information networks, apparently, and all the stuff this implies. If you’ve seen Her or Lucy, one wonders if Johansson is being typecast here, if such a role is typecastable. I know I’m being silly here, but consider the way actors like Wilford Brimley and Paul Giamatti are often cast, based not only on physical traits but a certain kind of chracter space they inhabit well, and is it so outrageous to cast Johansson based on acting history as opposed to skin color or the birthplace of her parents?

I’m not going to summarize the story because I don’t honestly know exactly what it is. This is not to say it’s not knowable. It’s just kind of complicated, begging for repeated viewings I couldn’t give it. I understand the major plot points, especially in the beginning and end, when I hit pause and rewind several times, so I’ll just say that the plot serves the philosophical mysteries pretty well, with a pretty decent balance between who-are-we-and-why-are-we-here conversation and i’m-going-to-shoot-you-with-this-blaster action.

The artwork is lovely if the animation is kind of rough at times. If one of the purposes of animation is to put you in an imagined world you wouldn’t see in real life, it accomplishes at least that goal beautifully.

Honestly, I kind of want more, except that I want a finite more, and this is the kind of plot that could go on and on with no real end. I don’t really want to get sucked into something like that. I still feel bad for having given up on The Big Bang Theory.


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