Last night, Kotaku's intrepid anime and snack reporters, me and Mike Fahey, saw the anticipated and controversial live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, an anime we both love. It was, to say the least, an utter disappointment. We spent some time this morning sharing our thoughts on the film, and now we're sharing them with you.
Cecilia D'Anastasio: All right. We've seen Ghost in the Shell. We've made our judgements. But before we detail those judgements, answer this: What were you expecting going into it?
Mike Fahey: A couple of hours sitting in a dark room looking vaguely concerned and/or upset. I like to set easy-to-hit expectations.
Cecilia: Low bar, Fahey! Especially for a franchise I assume you enjoy. You didn't have any expectations based on the [apparently infinite parade of] trailers or other live-action anime adaptations you'd seen? Just a vague foreboding?
Fahey: Any excitement I may have had has been severely dampened by the casting controversy surrounding the film. I had no problem with Scarlett Johansson being cast as the Major. A lot of other people did, so every cool visual or just-like-the-anime scene in the trailers was accompanied by a flood of angry voices. It was hard to stay excited.
Cecilia: I also did not have a big problem with that, but definitely understand why others did.
Fahey: Let me clarify — I had no problem with it before seeing the movie.
Cecilia: Let's start from the beginning, then. What was the first thing about her playing Major that bothered you?
Fahey: Well, for starters, how uncomfortable that particular ghost was in her shell from the get-go.
Cecilia: Are you referring to how many trite questions she asked in the beginning of the movie? "What happened? Why can't I feel my body? Who am I?"
Fahey: Not so much that, more shortly after that, when we see her in action the first time. She speaks of herself as nothing more than a machine, complains about her lack of memories, and just generally seems pretty uncomfortable being who she is. Maybe it was just Johansson's acting range, but I expected a stronger presence.
Cecilia: That was totally an issue throughout Ghost in the Shell. Compared to the anime movie, in which the Major is alive with confidence and purpose, this movie's fixation on her self-doubt definitely took me out of it. But I don't think that was Johansson's fault. I blame 90 per cent of that — and I'm going to get shit for this — on the script, which was irredeemably bad. I actually think Johansson understood the Major completely, and acted her true to how she appeared in the anime movie, but to a degree that conflicted with the movie's horrible screenwriting, which portrayed Major as more uncomfortable.
Even her facial movements, I think, reflected Major's in the anime. It's just that there weren't many.
Fahey: Bad script? You're nuts! It was perfect, the way it got the title of the movie laid out within the first five minutes or so. To paraphrase: "But you've still got your spirit... your ghost... in this shell." Now that everybody knows what the name of the movie means, let's strap on the awkward skin suit and kick some arse.
Cecilia: Hahaha, are you serious? I actually can't tell if you're serious.
Fahey: I am not serious. It was a horrible, horrible thing. I literally facepalmed.
Cecilia: Every time she said the movie's title, I buried my head in my friend's lap and whimpered. But do you agree with me that the movie's worst asset was its script? Or do you really think Johansson sucked all on her own?
Fahey: If I had to pick a single thing it would likely be the script, but it's a stew of bad ideas with only the briefest of shining moments. I liked the fighting. I liked pre-horrible cyber eye prosthetic Batou. I loved Beat Takeshi as Aramaki.
Cecilia: The fighting was very good. I also liked everyone's costume and makeup designs. Really killer stuff. What did you think about the world? Evan said, "The kaleidoscopic visual cacophony and futureshock design porn quickly emerge as Ghost in the Shell's biggest strength." He put that really well, in my opinion.
Fahey: OK. Here we go. I loved the world design. The giant holographic billboards featuring skyscraper-high models, the random holo-carp floating through the street. Evan does put it well. I just feel like the movie leaned on it a bit too hard. It felt like every other scene began with an extended pan across the CG-crafted skyline. I get it. It's impressive. Can we go back to the movie now? Maybe trim some of this and develop us some characters?
Plus, it was a very Japan-centric design, so much so that while I went into the movie fine with Johansson being the Major, by the time I left it seemed stupid that she wasn't Japanese. Aramaki is talking to her in Japanese, she's responding in English. It's rude. It's even worse when you take the big plot secret into account.
Cecilia: What do you mean, "get back to the movie?" I'm curious because the original Ghost in the Shell told its story through its world-building — the gritty streets flooded by some environmental disaster, the animals scurrying around it — and sprawling pans of its setting. I think it was designed with a ton of care. You could really feel the different economic statuses of different parts of the city and how they bled into each other. And, for me, that conveyed at least a third of the story, with no shitty dialogue necessary.
With the live-action movie, the world design felt so disjointed. Here we are in this "futureshock design porn" Shinjuku-esque digital signage farm! Here we are in this grungy apartment complex! And here's some insanely trite, haphazardly-inserted, two-sentence exposition! Here's the ocean! We're here! Look at the shiny lights!
Fahey: The original Ghost in the Shell used its time more wisely and was smarter about what it showed and when. This movie felt like it was cutting to scenery when it didn't have anything to say, which was pretty often.
Fahey: And speaking of that dingy apartment complex... One of the film's clumsiest scenes takes place there. The meeting between Major Jane Smith (or whatever) and a Japanese woman whose daughter mysteriously disappeared a year prior... around the same time the Major was created.
Cecilia: What made it feel clumsy?
Fahey: Johansson wanders about the apartment looking bewildered, which seems appropriate for the situation. The woman describes her daughter as "wild" and "free". Then she says, "You remind me of her." HOW?! How does this mostly expressionless American woman remind you of your wild and free Japanese daughter? Luckily there weren't many people in the theatre at my 7PM showing, because I actually semi-shouted "How?"
Cecilia: Hahaha. I almost shouted that too! There was the weirdest dissonance there. It was so disorienting.
So, we hit the setting, the acting, the script and the fighting. What are we missing?
Fahey: The really sad spider tank.
Cecilia: That was a moment that suffered from the movie's unrestrained desire to tell and not show. "Release the spider tank!" did they say? In the anime, you just fucking see the spider tank. They say a few things and then it's dealt with.
Fahey: The spider tank we control with a virtual joystick, because the villain needs a chance to look really evil while doing something. Never mind the fact that a tank is probably one of the least effective ways to deal with two humanoid targets. It felt like a video game boss fight here, and not a good one. Like, a boss fight that's mainly dodging and quick time events.
Cecilia: Before I saw Ghost in the Shell last night, I was getting Korean food with my best friend in a restaurant that was playing the anime movie. She's never seen it. I pointed out to her scenes I knew would appear in the movie: Jumping off the building, the water fight, you know. I told her, take note, because the movie will mar those scenes. It didn't, though, or not entirely.
When scenes adhered entirely to the anime, it got along OK. But we had eaten and left before the anime got to the ending scene, where Major's tearing off her own arm sinew by sinew. It's one of the most brilliantly animated scenes in anime history. That is just not something CGI can do. I guess I'm saying that some more faithful moments got the "gist" of things or deviated in cool ways, but when it comes to hitting the anime's high notes, the movie felt flat.
Fahey: I think a lot of people in the West don't give anime enough credit as an art form. Hand-drawn animation can impart emotion in movement and action that CGI can never replicate.
Cecilia: What did you think of the villain? And by villain, I don't mean Kuze who was actually low-key very attractive and charming.
Fahey: You mean the evil warmongering stereotype who just wants to turn people into killing machines?
Fahey: He was evil. And wanted to turn people into killing machines. It was like he was lifted off of a manga page in two dimensional black and white.
The real villain of the film was whoever wrote the ending.
Fahey: Here we have a movie based on a beloved Japanese property. A movie that caused quite an uproar by casting an American actress in a role that many felt should have gone to a Japanese actress.
As it turns out, this is a movie about a Japanese girl kidnapped against her will and transformed into an American actress.
Cecilia: I thought Ghost in the Shell was a movie about super clutch co-workers who hang out in the ocean and help each other out with spider robots, but maybe we were watching different things.
Fahey: The best shot of the movie comes right before the obligatory pre-credits hero-crouching-on-rooftop-while narrating scene. Johansson stands in front of a tombstone. Seeing her standing in front of a grave marked "Motoko Kusangi" felt the perfect ending to this bad idea of a film.
"Fuck you guys, we're out!"
Cecilia: Somebody misjudged how poorly American superhero movie tropes would map onto Ghost in the Shell. That final scene tried to do that "satisfying our need for closure" thing American directors think is kind, but is actually condescending.
Ghost in the Shell's genre of anime does not give a fuck how you feel at the end. I think this is a good ending to a sad conversation. I'm glad we had it.