Aftermath in the Shell: When Hollywood Meets Japan

So, how about that Ghost in the Shell movie? Y’know, the movie that came out a while back? The one with Scarlett Johansson? The one where she played a Japanese woman? The one that opened to abysmal reviews and poor box-office results? That movie?

Before anyone says anything: no, I didn’t see it in theaters. I have no intentions to, for obvious reasons. However, even though it got buried by The Boss Baby, of all films, at the box-office, I can’t help but be sad that it didn’t turn out better. Especially in-light of the underlying circumstances, as evidenced by this video from Glass Reflection:

Hmm… (Courtesy of Glass Reflection.)

There’s a lot to unpack, but I won’t go overboard because I’ve already dissected this film numerous times on Infinite Rainy Day. However, since Arkada brought up points I hadn’t discussed prior, I figured I’d do so. Here goes:

I’ll begin with Arkada’s take on the movie: he thought it was fine, if not un-Ghost in the Shell-like. He enjoyed the visual aesthetic of the film, but felt it was hollow and had little to add to the franchise. His biggest distraction was Johansson, although he doesn’t fault her because she had little to work with. That said, he was fond of Takeshi Kitano as one of the side-characters, as well as the movie’s focus on The Major’s relationship with Batou. Overall, he understood where the film was coming from, but felt it could’ve been better narratively.

This is fine criticism, but it doesn’t excuse the blatantly-offensive writing and casting. I’m well-aware of that now-famous YouTube video of Japanese citizens sharing their thoughts, but it doesn’t negate the core issue. Ghost in the Shell missed a real opportunity to cast an unknown actress from Japan in the lead role, and given that the script played up its casual racism as something to be applauded, I can’t help but feel like that was ignored in favour of the aesthetic. Plus, given that Japan perpetuates the “Little Black Sambo” stereotype in its depictions of black people in anime, I don’t think they’re the right group to be discussing this.

I also find it troubling how Hollywood viewed this IP as an excuse to be its vapid, cash-greedy self. I’m not really the biggest fan of Ghost in the Shell, but it deserves better than it got. Ignoring the whole “Blade Runner imitation” component, it was never meant to be a standard, paint-by-numbers story. It had themes of identity and gender politics that permeated its runtime, and ignoring that in favour of Jason Bourne-meets-Total Recall is laziness. It’s like Bob Chipman said when analyzing why The Amazing Spider-Man failed: a film can survive many shortcomings, but a bad lead isn’t one of them.

But the part that really struck home was the grander implications of the movie itself. Honestly, this is the part of the video that I agree with Arkada on. I remember a while back writing about how anime’s perceived in the West, as well as why. Not much has changed, but anime isn’t the exclusively-insular market it once was. Investors and film execs are acknowledging the anime bubble’s presence, adapting and incorporating certain aspects into film culture. We’ve seen that with Pacific Rim, which paid homage to the Kaiju genre in ways that hadn’t been done before. And this is coming from someone who wasn’t big on Pacific Rim anyway.

However, anime’s influence on Hollywood has come into play in more subtle ways via Ghost in the Shell. Be it the subtle musings of Dark City, or even the loud existentialism of The Matrix, there’s no denying the impact anime has had on Western entertainment in recent decades, as well as the continued impact it’ll have in decades to come. Even children’s TV like Avatar: The Last Airbender, as well as its sister series Avatar: The Legend of Korra, have incorporated aspects of anime in their aesthetic and storytelling styles. Anime continues to indirectly shape the experiences of 21st Century filmgoers, and it’s not looking like it’ll stop. That’s what the live-action Ghost in the Shell failed to understand with its half-baked attempt at cashing in on a 22 year-old property.

I’m not sure what to make of having anime eventually become an accepted mainstay. I enjoy discussing it with friends and family when possible, but the novelty factor keeps it exciting. There’s something special about introducing my favourite Miyazaki films to people for the first time, even if they aren’t so enthused. Attack on Titan becoming water-cooler talk would be a little disheartening, even if it’d also be kinda cool. And, lest we forget, we might have another GamerGate, and we’ve had enough trouble with one of those!

It might also lead to some decent anime adaptations in film form. Unlike video game movies, which have been improving in recent years, anime has an advantage of being adaptable to the storytelling medium of film. It has a linear narrative, it flows in a structure and it tells its narratives through visuals. With the right tweaking and talent, we might get films to rival Speed Racer, assuming you’d even consider Speed Racer good to begin with. There’s real potential with the medium, in other words.

So it’s a shame that what could’ve been a contender, i.e. Ghost in the Shell, turned into a mess, especially with Netflix premiering Death Note and horror director Jordan Peele being courted for Akira. It’s not like these have to be automatic failures, even when all the cards are stacked against them, but when the takeaway of “whitewashing = bad” only occurs once big-budget movies bomb financially, well…what else should we be expecting? Are we supposed to throw in the towel, claiming this is a lost cause? Do we keep experimenting and taking risks, all-the-while hoping to get it right? Or do we find the middle ground of adapting anime into films when they offer a Western angle, making sure they're functional and respectful to the source material? It’s tough to say, but since this trend will only escalate as the anime bubble starts to burst, it seems as though an inevitable choice has to be made.

That having been said, one reality is for certain: anime water-cooler talk is about to get a lot more heated in the coming years!


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