April 3, 2017

CINEMA | Scarlett Johansson Haunts 'Ghost in the Shell'

"Maybe next time you can design me better."
Scarlett Johansson Rupert Sanders | Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell is the controversial live action Hollywood adaptation of the famed Japanese series of manga crime stories (aka Mobile Armored Riot Police) created by artist Masamune Shirow and adapted iconically through animation by Mamoru Oshii in 1995. Obvious issues of whitewashing aside, Rupert Sanders directs Scarlett Johansson as Major Mira Killian (originally named Motoko Kusanagi), a cybernetic humanoid with a transplanted human brain, in a visually stylish but dispassionately hollow film lacking any cultural awareness.

It's nearly impossible to divorce this cinematic adaptation from the original beloved Japanese manga/anime series and the accusations of whitewashing its influential source material for American audiences. Johansson's look presents a vaguely Japanese style despite being a cybernetic android with a synthetic body. However, the real kicker is that Major Motoko Kusanagi is in fact actually presented as a Japanese character—actress Kaori Yamamoto appearing in flashbacks with her face hidden—whose brain has been transplanted in a robotic body resembling a Caucasian woman for no reason other than so a white actress can suitably portray her.

There's a scene with Major's human mother played by Japanese actress Kaori Momoi who confusingly speaks English with a Japanese accent (among many other lazy cultural mash-ups in the film) to further complicate the problematic racial insensitivity throughout. All this means Johansson effectively plays an Asian character inside a Caucasian shell.

In a film all about identity and the nature of the body and consciousness, the story bends over backwards to narratively justify why a white woman is playing a Japanese character set in a purposely vague but futuristic Japan (which currently has 98.5% native Japanese population) populated almost entirely by English-speaking white actors (many of whom play seemingly "raceless" robots). This includes bland but serviceable performances from supporting players Juliette Binoche and Michael Pitt who feel out of place as pure exposition machines in the mishmash of a setting.

Johansson is icy cool and fairly performative in a role she, for the most part, effortlessly inhabits despite the colour of her skin. She purely embraces the idea of playing a robotic character but doesn't quite hit the mark when more of her humanity is slowly revealed. Scenes of her discovering her true past come off as rather awkward and stilted. Her Major is never quite able to explore the nuance of questioning her humanity while maintaining the "ghost" of her mind despite acquiring a new cybernetic "shell" of a body.

Scarlett Johansson Rupert Sanders | Ghost in the Shell

It certainly doesn't help that beyond Johansson as the race-bending lead, the rest of the supposed international cast of speaking roles is played mostly by white actors of European descent while none of the filmmakers appear to be of Asian descent. The further interpretations of the film's identity themes make for unfavourable comparisons where the film is so oblivious of its own ambivalence to the source material.

The concept of brains from non-white inhabitants coldly being put into identifiably white-looking robot bodies without exploring that inherently problematic subtext (see Get Out) is troubling in its lack of direct address within the film's narrative. At one point, Major's partner Batou, played ably and fairly charismatically by Danish actor Pilou Asbæk, referring to Major's lack of memories quips, "It's better to be pure like you," accidentally echoing the tone deafness of the film's racial appropriations.

Shirow and Oshii's works thoughtfully explored the natures of dualism and existentialism through themes of technology and robotics. The Japanese property was firmly established as an eastern look at globalization capturing Japan's commercial dominance of twentieth century technology. Most of these fluid themes and cyberpunk ideas interpreted through the lens of Japanese visual art are lost with the glossy exterior of Sander's shiny lens despite some impeccable visual expressions from cinematographer Jess Hall.

Sander's big budget American adaption of Ghost in the Shell remains visually arresting with an impressive pan-Asian production design from Jan Roelfs but is hopelessly emotionally hollow. It never overcomes the oblivious oddness of its white western cultural sensibilities grafted onto a uniquely Japanese product. It feels soulless despite a slick and shiny sheen. Thematically, it's only a shell of any greater ideas where its original material fully embraced a ghost of an identity.

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