By the time you read this, Ghost in the Shell may already be gone from local theaters, and our lives. It’s probably going to stay gone—it didn’t really make that much of a splash beyond the controversy it brought along—and I hope that with it finally goes this Hollywood need of remaking everything in a white (Caucasian) light.
If there has to be something good to say about it, I will say that the movie is definitely pretty. It’s clear, even from the very first scene, that a lot of thought and effort was put into how this version of our future looks. All the hologram technology serving as both advertisements and ornaments are dazzling, and great care was taken to place most scenes in this wonderful universe.
I spent a lot of time, too much time even, trying to work out this future’s backstory in my head, and how corporations have taken over and made the metropolis one big advertisement. Of course, the rest of the dystopia and how the world got there isn’t really as relevant as the issue of turning humans into partial—or sometimes full—machines. Despite the never-ending curiosity about all the capitalism, all that matters is that we’re here.
But of course, we must address the white elephant in the room, because to review Ghost in the Shell is to speak directly about the specter hanging over it. A quick spoiler about that particular issue to lay down the logic of the rest of this review: Ghost in the Shell pretty much stayed true to the spirit of the original movie, merely updating its themes to better reflect how our (real-life) society interacts with technology and that interaction’s effects on our individuality.
Other than that, though, it also attempts to assimilate the controversial Scarlett Johansson casting issue into the remake’s universe—her Major character is actually literally whitewashed in the movie by the bad guys, which serves as some sort of symbolism of how too much modernization and technology can make us lose our respective identity and individuality. Our own souls, even. Or something like that.
I was asked to write about Ghost in the Shell, and moments after leaving the theater, I was at a loss at how best to explain the plot they served us. It turns out that Major was originally a Japanese runaway, killed by the bad guys and remade as a white girl for their own nefarious purposes; she rebels against this programming and embraces her original identity, but she can’t go back to being Japanese.
On one hand, at least it was the villains who made her into something she isn’t, which could have really been an avenue for the filmmakers to critique and satirize this very same problematic Hollywood trend they’re being accused of, using the controversy as cinematic clickbait for a strong message we need at the moment.
On the other hand, after the big revelation is made, there is no way for Major Mira Killian to return to being Motoko Kusanagi, and the movie makes no effort to change her back. Apparently they can’t make her a new Asian cyborg body, or no one even tried. In the end we get a white girl who is awkwardly really Asian inside, and must continue living as an Asian. Any sort of meaningful representation is still denied, save for Asian-Americans who look more Western than Eastern. The problems still remain.
It’s honestly this unnecessary complexity—that solves absolutely nothing and helps no one—that people have a problem with when it comes to Ghost in the Shell. Yes, its creator Masamune Shirow can argue all he wants that the cyborg isn’t even the real body and could theoretically look like anything, any ethnicity people want it to look like, and it’s valid for Japanese people to feel proud that a product of their culture is getting exposure and attention. This goes the same for other problematic titles like The Last Airbender and Dragon Ball, which may be interpreted liberally in theory because of their fantastic nature. But the real world is more complex than that; we here in 2017 are tirelessly trying to dispel the long-established notion that Caucasians are the dominant race in society, that everyone else exists in the population and deserves the same exposure too.
The backlash against and lukewarm reception of Ghost in the Shell may finally be a sign that we’re likely getting a new attitude from Hollywood, even if it’s later rather than sooner. (We’re still about to get an Americanized Death Note care of Netflix, but other than that, Netflix is doing a good job of steadily bringing to life properties from outside the Western world.) Now that they’ve seen the strong reaction toward this, and how audiences are slowly getting more and more woke as time goes on, maybe some things will finally stay being ghosts.
Screengrab from Ghost in the Shell