Film Review: Ghost in the Shell – Manga + Anime + Live Action = ?

In a world where every third movie coming out is based on a comic book, rarely does a western-produced film find its inspiration from manga – Japanese comics. Ghost in the Shell started life as a comic only to see its core concepts and ideas improved upon and more clearly realized by the classic anime, but can the live-action film do for GitS what the animated version did? Let’s talk about it.

Ghost in the Shell began its life in 1991 as the brainchild of writer/artist Shirow Masamune. It didn’t take long for the cyberpunk serial to gain tons of acclaim along with a global following. Fast forward to 1995 where the page makes its way to the animated screen, giving birth to one of the most highly regarded anime features to date. But while the animated film uses the manga’s characters and elements of its story, it streamlines and improves upon almost every aspect of the already very good books.

Jump ahead once more to 2017, where fans of the franchise finally get to see the Major in flesh and blood. Or is it plastic and oil? While it’s not a shot for shot reproduction, Ghost in the Shell draws far more from the anime than it does from the comics. Unlike the anime, GitS live-action doesn’t try to reinvent or reimagine aspects of its source material, instead it serves more as an homage to its already brilliant predecessor and it gets quite a bit right.

Retelling of a retelling

Despite all the cool Matrix-style action in GitS, its single most important component is the story. In both the anime and the manga you follow the Major, a special ops agent who also happens to be 100% cybernetic except for her human brain, the only part of her to survive a horrible accident she can’t quite recall. While the manga has many more plot threads, the anime film focuses on one where the Major and her team investigate the terroristic actions of an unknown hacker. This trip down the rabbit hole forces Major Motoko Kusanagi to confront questions about her own humanity and whether or not she still has a soul.

The Scarlett Johansson lead feature pushes things in a similar direction with a few changes for the sake of pace and keeping an already informed audience guessing at least a little bit. The moments they pulled straight from the animated version are great, important moments and the ones new to or changed for the film work very well when posing the existential questions facing a changing yet stubborn humanity. Though it’s not quite as impactful, the overall arc works very well in keeping with the animated title’s tone and mood.

Where Ghost in the Shell stumbles a bit is in the dialogue department. There are great moments where little is said letting silence powerfully convey the scene’s emotion, but countering those are other times where what comes out of the actors’ mouths could have been better written. Most of what’s said works, but you’ll find yourself – more than once – scratching your head a little, wondering about some of the conversations. It’s not film-breaking, it just feels a little lazy or cliche at times.

The only other issue some might find is the film’s position in the story’s timeline. You’re neck deep from the opening credits and those who don’t catch on at the start could get lost along the way. This is a technique I absolutely love, but I know it’s an issue for the “I want popcorn and explosions” crowd. You’re asked to fill in the blanks as you go and it makes for an engaging ride all the way till the end.

In the future…

Maybe you’re not in love with the story, but you absolutely will be with the look of Ghost in the Shell. It is visually stunning. From the physical set design to the CG cityscapes, every inch of the screen is eye candy. Like the anime, color and lighting are key in showing this near-future version of the world and they did such an awesome job.

The scenes where you get a good look at the city itself are some of my favorite. I could not get enough of the futuristic yet depleted depiction of things to come. Once things make their way indoors there is no drop off in visual quality. Each office, or building, or bedroom, or lab, or abandoned warehouse just look perfect for the world they live in. Wardrobe is another visual area that also excels. It’s so easy to ignore or simply not even notice what the cast is wearing unless it doesn’t work, which means it sticks out like a sore thumb. Not here, like the backdrops I loved what they were putting in front of me. It all felt like it fit in this wonderfully conceived place in time.

So the settings looked good, the characters looked good, now what about the action? Awesome. There are a few moments taken right from the anime and they all looked so good. A fight sequence where the Major is cloaked in optic-camo (she’s invisible) fighting someone in a few inches of standing water with the city in the background is just perfect. I felt that way more than once as a few other moments called back to my favorite anime film of all time. The spider-tank fight at the end… wow. Without feeling like a cheap knockoff, everything was so Blade Runner-esque I would believe you if you told me this takes place in that universe.

Castaway

If you’re someone who’s part of the #whitewashing hype train, you’ll want to get off at this stop. I totally understand that the gap between sexes and nationalities being represented in entertainment – and pretty much everywhere else – needs to be bridged in a way that represents a more accurate cross-section of our world, but come on with this one. There are shows flipped from white to black (Uncle Buck), characters switched from male to female (Battlestar Galactica), and all for the purpose of retelling a story in a new and different way. But in the case of GitS it simply comes down to the best person for the job. And by “best person” I’m including factors like popularity and marketability. When you have a $110 mil. production budget, you need to make that money back and then some. I understand going with the heavy hitter in Johansson, people love her, she’s a proven action star and a high level actor.

But what gets overlooked in all that nonsense is that this is an incredibly diverse cast, all a very solid representation of their animated counter parts (see above photo comparison of both Majors). While the Major has a Japanese name, she does not have Japanese features in the original film. At least her android body didn’t. And real fans of manga and anime can also attest to the fact that the Japanese use tons of Euro and American names and character models in most of their comics and cartoons.

Once you’re past all that, you can really enjoy just how good the cast does at filling those awfully big shoes. Not only does the original Ghost in the Shell tackle some pretty heady sociological matters, it pushes the scope of information, globalization and the idea of self to new places. Getting that to read on the silver screen can only be done with the right people. I’d list some standout secondary characters but I really like who they got for almost every part. Parts that weren’t taken from the original sources had more hits than misses, but the players pulled straight off the page or animation cell all really worked on screen.

In Closing:

This one was hard to break down. I’ve read the books and seen the anime – film and series – and have to take all that into consideration when evaluating the new film. And even with that huge amount of material to compare to, Ghost in the Shell turned out great. Its story was solid and appropriate considering the source materials with only some gripes when it comes to the dialogue. The look and feel of the film are just beautiful. Rounding all that out is some very solid camera work and eye candy action. It’s not perfect, but it gets way more right than it gets wrong.

If you’re a fan of GitS in any form: WATCH THIS MOVIE!

If you like thoughtful sci-fi and awesome action: WATCH THIS MOVIE!

If you’d rather cry about who they cast despite not actually having seen the original manga or anime: GROW UP, THE WORLD HAS BIGGER PROBLEMS.

About The Author

Michael Pellegrini

Michael is a classic example of a child trapped in an adult's body - and I use the word "adult" very, very loosely. With interests ranging from comic books and movies to theater and fine art, Mike has followed humble journalistic beginnings that have led to interviews, reviews, news write-ups and opinion - though it's ever changing - pieces covering those same interests. All of that brings us here, to a site where a community of like-minded geeks can inform the rest of the world on the topics we adore. And on the personal side of things, Michael squeezes time for his lovely wife and house full of dogs between all the comic reading and video game playing.

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