Ghost In The Shell: What We’ve Learned About the New Film

The live-action Ghost In The Shell got its unveiling in Tokyo last week. Here's what we learned...

Pitched somewhere between a mournful chant and a military march of drums, Kenji Kawai’s soundtrack for 1995’s Ghost In The Shell cast an unforgettably eerie pall over the entire movie. The makers of the new, live-action take on Ghost In The Shell clearly recognize the power of Kawai’s music because, as the lights go down on the movie’s Tokyo unveiling event, the composer and musician himself is here to thrash out a live version of his score.

As blue light emanates from huge LED screens and Kawai thrashes his barrel-sized taiko drum, the effect of that percussive soundtrack is borderline overwhelming – a testament to how much dramatic weight it brought to director Mamoru Oshii’s 90s anime.

Set in a future world where humans have evolved beyond the confines of their fleshy bodies, Ghost In The Shell introduces Major Kusanagi, head of a special government agency dedicated to countering cyber-terrorism. Kusanagi herself is entirely cybernetic; the ghost of her consciousness is all that remains of who she once was.

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Adapted from writer-artist Masamune Shirow’s manga, Ghost In The Shell was and remains a superbly-designed and unusually cerebral cyberpunk thriller, its ice-cold meditations on memory, consciousness and what it means to be human remaining urgent themes in the 21st century. A sequel (Innocence) and a spin-off series, Stand Alone Complex, followed Ghost In The Shells global cult success, and now, there’s a starry Hollywood version on the way from Snow White And The Huntsman director Rupert Sanders.

The announcement of Sanders’ starry adaptation was, however, overshadowed by the vocal protests over the casting of Scarlett Johansson – as opposed to a Japanese actress – in the leading role. Now simply billed as The Major, Johansson heads up an international cast which includes Japanese star Takeshi Kitano, Denmark’s Pilou Asbæk and Australia’s Lasarus Ratuere. That’s a diverse line-up, for sure, but it couldn’t immunise the production against widespread accusations of white washing; all of this might explain why Den Of Geek and an array of other writers, bloggers, vloggers, journalists and anime fans have been summoned for an unusual event in the heart of Tokyo: to help shift the narrative from casting to the futuristic content of the film itself.

“We’re here to say, ‘This is what we’ve done, this is what we’re doing’,” Sanders will later explain between clips of footage from his forthcoming movie. “We’re not remaking, we’re reimagining alongside you.”

Before all that, we’re guided around a small yet handsome selection of costumes and props – the bionic eye attachments belonging to Asbæk’s character, Batou, the Major’s combat outfit, assorted guns – before emerging in an industrial-looking hall buffeted by thumping house music.

Lights flash, speakers hum, and on LED screens of varying shapes, images and slogans emerge: triangles, Johansson, the words “Everything you know is a lie,” one of those sinister robo-geishas we’ve seen in early promo footage. 

The throbbing dance music then gives way to the dramatic crash of drums and Kenji Kawai’s score. On the big screen in front of us, the thrumming, chanting music accompanies a familiar scene: the ‘birth’ of the Major. Bit by bit, the skeleton of an android forms in a high-tech chamber, before it’s baptised in a vat of liquid which adds a layer of artificial skin. This, of course, is a verbatim quote from the opening of Oshii’s movie, and it looks as spooky and oddly beautiful as it did 20 years ago. Gradually, Johansson emerges from the production line, her hair chopped to the same angular style of the Kusanagi from the anime.

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Next, a host takes to the stage and, one by one, brings out Sanders and his two stars – first Kitano, then Johansson – to increasingly enthusiastic applause. Some bouts of light Q-and-A between host and talent are punctuated by the presentation of two short clips from the movie, which provide a taste of the darkly stylish world Sanders is currently polishing and editing. One shows Section 9 chief Aramaki (Kitano), endure a bullet-strewn assassination attempt in an underground parking lot. As Aramaki hunkers down in his car, a squad of masked, capable-looking figures emerge from the shadows and open fire with automatic weapons. Aramaki fires back and, despite his advancing years, proves to be a formidable opponent; as he icily dispatches the last of his would-be killers, he mutters (in Japanese) “Don’t send a rabbit to catch a fox.”

Kitano later explains that Aramaki is a mentor and surrogate father figure to the Major; while the pair speak in their respective languages throughout, they understand each other thanks to their cybernetic implants, which translate on the fly like a Babel fish. Before he leapt to international fame in such tough thrillers as Boiling Point, Violent Cop, and Sonatine, Kitano was, among many, many other things – movie director, writer, game designer – also a stand-up comedian. Even when heard through a faltering translator – transmitted to our ears with a radio device like a less efficient Babel fish – Kitano’s elegantly dry sense of humor shines through; when asked what his memories of working with Johansson were, Kitano gave this spectacular reply:

“I said I didn’t really want to speak in English – because I can’t speak English, actually. They said I can speak in Japanese. But then I also said that I can’t be bothered to memorise my lines, and I need a prompter. Then I said I can’t really read them… I made all these complaints. The best thing about doing the movie was having Scarlett Johansson holding the cue cards in front of me.” 

When later asked to sum up what it felt like to appear in such a big American production, he replied, to a ripple of amusement from the audience, “I think I could make 100 movies with this movie’s budget. But that’s what Hollywood’s about…”

The next clip is perhaps the most intriguing: it’s a scene inside what we’re guessing is Section 9 HQ, where the Major interrogates a scruffy prisoner. It’s another sequence lifted largely intact from the 1995 film – there, a refuse collector is hacked and manipulated by a cyber criminal called the Puppet Master. As in Oshii’s movie, the prisoner has false memories of a wife and child that never existed – mental images placed there as part of the Puppet Master’s nimble string-pulling. Visually, Sanders changes up the scene’s design, throwing in a holographic Major inside the prisoner’s cell and a fairly long mid-shot of Johansson in profile which creates an appropriate scene of unease: appropriate because of the philosophical musings uttered by Batou (Pilou Asbæk). In a nutshell, he asks whether simulated memories are really any different from ones produced organically; one of the questions also posed by the first anime:

“What’s the difference? Fantasies, reality, dreams, memories… it’s all the same. Just noise.” 

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Indeed, the new Ghost In The Shell appears to lean far more heavily on the old than we were expecting; costume designs, such as Batou’s cybernetic eyes and the Major’s figure-hugging outfits are immediately recognizable images from the ’90s. In the trailer, which made its debut at the event, there are entire shots almost identical in composition and lighting to the previous film – including a moment where an invisible Major sends a villain cartwheeling into the Tokyo air.

What we don’t yet know is how significantly the plot will depart from what we’ve seen before. In a round-table interview, Sanders later explains that his process of adapting the story involved cutting up scenes from the anime and pasting them together to create a kind of graphic novel-screenplay hybrid. The result, it seems, is a kind of futuristic dance remix: the villain, Michael Pitt’s Kuze, might sound as though he’s taken straight from the later anime TV series Stand Alone Complex, but he’ll share more than a few character traits with the 1995 film’s Puppet Master.

“Kuze’s kind of a bit of a few things,” Sanders explains. “He’s not like specifically from Stand Alone Complex, and he’s not specifically from the Puppet Master. But he has elements of both within him. I think Michael Pitt did this incredible job of finding… it’s a big challenge when you’re playing a villain in a big movie. You see it with the Joker – you’ve got to be at the top of your game.” 

From what we’ve seen in Ghost In The Shell so far – the trailer launched on the night and the other clips we saw at around the same time – it’s clear that the imagery and several of the themes are still intact in the US take on the material. The greater question is whether audiences beyond the faithful will be equally drawn to this American take on a much-loved sci-fi fable. When we put this to Sanders, he replied that the casting of a Hollywood star like Johansson is one of the film’s sharpest weapons; in addition, the new Ghost In The Shell will, the director says, be less “philosophical introspection” and more action; this is certainly implied in the trailer, which looks distinctly intense in places and – as Sanders concedes – is pretty graphic for what its studio appears to be angling as a PG-13 film.

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“We’ve been trying to push the boundaries of what’s acceptable as much as possible,” Sanders says. “We haven’t actually got a rating yet, so that might be all you see of some of those scenes. But the beauty is, androids bleed white, so you can get away with quite a lot. But it’s a violent movie, and we wanted to keep the sexuality and the provocative nature of the original.”

Snow White And The Huntsman demonstrated Sanders’ abilities as a creator of sharp images, and Ghost In The Shell follows suit: at once futuristic and retro (Batou’s car, which looks to us like a modified supercar from the 1980s, is one of the major attractions at the exhibit), it’s clearly made with a knowledge of its source and a desire to add new elements of its own. We particularly like those android geishas, whose faces split open to reveal the bronze, clockwork underpinnings beneath; it’s as though the debt owed by, say, Bjork’s music video for All Is Full Of Love has come full circle. 

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During our interview, Sanders reveals that composer Cliff Mansell (Requiem For A Dream, Moon) will be providing the music for Ghost In The Shell. It’s an astute choice, given his talent for coming up with rhythmic, unforgettable melodies; one of the questions pitched to Sanders, though, is whether Kawai’s own score will feature in the finished film – perhaps in the ‘shelling’ sequence of Johansson’s Major, as presented at the Tokyo event. Sanders sidles around the question, instead joking that we don’t realise how far from completion the film is.

However Ghost In The Shell turns out, it’s evidently being made with the potential to produce at least one sequel; there’s mention early in the event that it could form the basis of a live-action franchise if this film proves successful enough (for her part, Johansson seems cautious about playing a character like the Major again in the near future, having already appeared in such films as Under The Skin and Lucy; “I’ve been a body without a mind and a body, and a mind without a body. Next I want to be a mind and a body,” she says.) 

Shirow’s Ghost In The Shell manga and the animated adaptations which followed it are all very different from each other, but they’re nevertheless products of a country that understands the transactional nature of progress; for every advance, something is inevitably left behind. Japan experienced an unprecedented explosion of prosperity after its defeat in the Second World War, but its industrialisation came at a heavy penalty for its environment, as mile after mile of countryside vanished beneath a blanket of concrete.

Ghost In The Shell asks a similar thing of cyberspace; as humans and machines edge ever closer to complete unity, what might be gained, and what might we lose along the way? Those are magnetic, pertinent questions, now more than ever in our interconnected, post-web 2.0, post-Snowden landscape. We’ve seen how hacking and disclosure can change lives and even alter the outcome of world events; what might we see if and when computer science starts fiddling with the makeup of the human brain?

Sanders, it’s worth noting, doesn’t appear to display this kind of ambivalence towards technology and what it might bring. “One thing I’m trying to transmit through the film,” Sanders says during his Q and A, “is that there’s hope in technology. It’s not an evil thing. It’s something that will be part of us as humans; we won’t be obsolete.” 

Such optimism aside, there’s clearly a dark streak running through the American Ghost In The Shell, and once again, its tone appears to be closer to the 1995 film than the racier manga. Johansson’s version of the Major is given a mysterious past, which involves a company called Hanka Robotics and a certain Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), who were collectively responsible for transporting the Major’s ghost into a machine. “They didn’t save your life,” a character says during the trailer; “They stole it…”

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According to Johansson, her Major’s story is one of self-discovery. “Even though it’s set in this [sci-fi] world,” the actress says, “and it’s so action-packed, to me it’s a coming of age story. It’s about the loss of innocence and the rebirth you can have from that. I hope the fans can connect with the Major in the way I connected with her.”

While the controversy surrounding Johansson’s casting is unlikely to vanish, it’s at least evident that Sanders and his team have approached Ghost In The Shell with affection rather than cynicism – and ultimately, Sanders hopes that affection is what will win over audiences both in Japan and elsewhere.

“We’re not taking this beloved, cherished property and stamping all over it,” Sanders told us. “We’re not steamrolling anything that was great about it. That was the biggest challenge: people were thinking, ‘Oh shit, you’re going to make a really shitty Hollywood version of it.’ That was never our intention, and I hope that’s what people respect about it. That they’ll go, ‘It’s more than we thought it was going to be.'”

Ghost In The Shell opens on March 31, 2017.

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.