Don’t Look Back – Know Who You Are At Every Age: Ghost In The Shell

Thoughts on Ghost In The Shell 2016 by M.Schinke

I’m not real and I deny, I won’t heal unless I cry

I can’t grieve, so I won’t grow, I won’t heal ‘til I let it go

Know Who You Are At Every age

Cocteau Twins – Four Calendar Cafe

I don’t know if those lyrics are totally in tune with the themes of Ghost In The Shell but I am a big Cocteau Twins fan and the title felt right. And it’s my blog, so shut up.

The 2016 adaptation of Ghost In The Shell had a lot working against it from the moment it was announced. This was a film that a lot of people did not want to see made and they were very vocal about it. These problems were only compounded when the decision was made to cast actress Scarlett Johansson in the lead role of Major. I don’t want to open that can but, unfortunately, it’s become impossible not to talk about the controversy that followed that decision. And that’s a big problem, I think. At the time of the film’s release there was so much talk about the movie that it seemed no one was talking about the movie. I don’t plan to do movie, “reviews” on this blog but it’s going to be difficult to keep my personal, emotional response from this piece as I do feel the movie got a bad rap due to the pre-release hullabaloo. However, I think there are some interesting ideas at play in the film that are worth discussing outside the bounds of the controversy surrounding the casting and I’d sincerely like to be able to do that.

But, I just know I’m not going to be able to.

So the quick rundown in case you don’t know, Ghost in the Shell is the 2017 live action adaptation of the Japanese comic book series of the same name, originally produced in 1998 by writer/ artist Masamune Shirow. Despite what many will say, this is not a live action remake of the 1995 animated film of the same name. Rather, this film is an adaptation of the GITS franchise, taking elements from the original manga and its adaptations to create a new adapted work.

The film is the story of Major (Johannson) and the members of Section 9; a government anti-terrorist group that is tasked with stopping cyber-terrorists in a world that has increasingly accepted the cyberdization of humanity. Major is the first of her kind amongst a group of cyberdized people; the product of a human brain and a completely robotic body. She is considerably more powerful and durable than a normal human, but this comes with some drawbacks. Major no longer feels physical sensations and she has severe memory loss due to the circumstances of her creation. Because of this combination of factors, she begins to question her humanity.

I’ll preface this by stating that I am no good with picking out themes on my own. If someone give me an idea of where and how to look I do ok but, as an initial evaluation; I’m not great. It takes me a good long while because other elements of the film making tend to get in my face first and I have to shove them all aside before I can see these more subtle elements. Luckily for me it would seem the themes in Ghost in the Shell are kind of up my alley so they made themselves a little more apparent.

A theme that is introduced by Major into her story is a sense of distance and isolation. She states that she fills disconnected from humanity. This theme begets a visual motif used throughout the film where Major is portrayed in some isolated fashion. Even when working with her team she is often show to be separate from them, rarely overlapping them in the shot or separated by some divide in the image where one can be applied without drawing attention. A personal favorite moment in this theme is the scene of Major awaking the morning after the opening action piece. We see her in an overhead shot isolated by the illumination of the couch by the window. There is a noise in the background; a chattering, screeching noise just loud enough to be notice under the score. This noise, and the score, both immediately cease as soon as she unplugs the cables from the back of her neck. The sudden quiet sucks you in and you realize how isolated and lonely her world is. That scene alone features multiple shots of her being isolated or boxed in by her surroundings. This emotional disconnect was likely picked up by critics who said the film felt cold or distant.

The lack of physical sensation the character experiences is noted in her first scene, and is obviously noticeable in how she moves and interacts with the world around her. Much has been said about Johansson’s walk in the film but she was clearly trying to get into the physicality of someone who is in a mechanical body and has to relate to the world through only mechanical input. This might bring to mind Robocop by comparison but the key difference is that while Robo’s body had a limited range of motion contributing to actor Peter Weller’s performance, Major’s body is perfect for all intents and purposes; better than. So I can see how Johansson would try to bring some of that characterization into her performance. This lack of sensation is emphasized when Major picks up a street walker and engages in some physical activity, kissing her and asking her how it feels. What’s less noticeable, unless you’re paying attention, is the lack of comfort items in her apartment. The entire room is concrete and metal. The bed is an enclosed, circular area of illumination that we don’t see her use; which leads us to question if she even sleeps. If she doesn’t sleep, does she dream? There is no shower, no bathroom; just a charging interface, a desk and racks full of gear. It looks more like the interior of a workshop than a living space. This all contributes to the mechanical, lifeless feeling that Major carries.

Major also does not seem to carry many personal relationships, likely owed to her feel of disconnect from humanity. Major states a few times in the film that she does not feel a part of humanity, that she is just a weapon created to do a job and nothing more. She is never seen interacting with anyone outside of work other than Dr. Ouelet, played by French actress Juliette Binoche. Her only friend seems to be fellow Section 9 team member Batou, played by Danish actor Pilou Asbaek. Dr. Ouelet sees herself as a maternal figure to Major, having created her and maintaining her body and mind. Batou’s relationship to Major is not romantic leaning but protective as he tells her he, “has a thing for strays” while feeding some of the local alley dogs. She doesn’t engage in the friendly banter of her team mates and only seems to have a minimal relationship with her boss Aramaki, played by the legend Beat Takeshi.

Owing to the animated films influence, this movie questions what identity is and where it lies; is it in the memories of the individual or is it something deeper? Early in the film a character ponders the risks of cyber-enhancement to individuality, to identity and to the human soul; and the film gives it’s answer by it’s end. With the revelation of Majors origins the film makes the statement that who you are I more than just the sum of your experiences; that the intangible soul or consciousness will carry your true identity, your true self, with it.

This is, unfortunately, where I must touch upon the controversy because the subject of Major’s identity is steeped in the discussion surrounding Scarlett Johannson’s casting. In the manga and animated film the Major is given the name Motoko Kusanagi, a name of Japanese origin. Whereas the live action film takes place in Hong Kong, the manga and anime both take place in Japan, leading one to the obvious conclusion that Major Kusanagi is Japanese. There are a couple of caveats that must be taken with that from a purely technical point of view. In the anime, Kusanagi is not given a specific ethnicity and is not rendered to read as Japanese. Momoru Oshii, director of the animated film, was quoted as saying that neither the Majors name or body are her original and any identity she has is entirely assumed, so he saw no issues with the casting. I cannot speak to the sincerity or intent of this statement. In the original manga her name, Matoko Kusanagi, is stated to be, “certainly” an alias and there are questions as to whether or not she is even one person. So, in terms of faithfulness to the sources, this new film is running in the same, “WTF” circles as that material.

Instead of tap dancing around the issue, the film makes the apparent racial difference between the actress and the character part of the story. In the film, Matoko Kusanagi is a rebellious Japanese youth protesting against the increased cyberization of humanity, with Hanka Corporation as the focus of her ire. In an attempt to quash these protests, Hanka kidnaps Matoko and steals her brain for use in creating Major, who they name Mira Killian. They erase Matoko’s memories and concot a story about a terrorist bombing on a refugee boat to explain what happened to her and to give her a motivation in combatting terrorism. Eventually her true identity, her ghost, wins out against the lies and she seeks to find the truth about herself and he mysterious cyborg called Kuze.

I like the way that different characters approach the idea of what they were doing in regards to Major and her creation. Dr. Ouelet clearly believes that that Majors ghost, her spirit, is real despite the memories she has. She speaks to this on a couple of occasions, believing in Major’s humanity as a given. The head of Hanka Robotics only sees the parts; the brain is just a component to be programmed and utilized. In creating Major they didn’t just steal a brain; they tried to erase a person. They tried to create an entirely new being by treating the brain like a hard drive; just wipe it clean and start over with whatever operating system you want.

Actress Margot Robbie was in early talks to take on the role of Major before Johansson was cast, with some early concept art featuring her. I do not know if the aspect of the story involving Majors origins was always part of the film, done to address the fact that they were likely never going to be able to cast an Asian actress, or if it was added after the fact. The production, unsurprisingly, was not able to discuss this aspect of the film as they would have given away the ending. This made them sound as if they were being purposely cagey in order to avoid discussing a touchy subject that the knew they, “botched”. Likely it would have meant very little in terms of the broader conversation concerning diversity in Hollywood, and I am not qualified to speak on it any further than to report the facts as I can find them.

The issue of Majors origin are reflected in the films questions about identity. What makes us who we are? Are we the sum of our experiences or is there something more? During the film, Major finds her way to the home of Matoko’s mother. The woman is immediately drawn to something in Major that she can’t explain but the indication is clear that she feels some connection to her because inside Majors shell is the soul of Matoko Kusanagi. This is something that exists outside the cumulative effect of memories or learned cultural behavior. It is something more energetic. In the film Dr. Ouelet explains that Kuze, who had undergone the same process as Major, was a failure because he had a violent and unstable mind. Outside of his learned behaviors and cultural affectations Kuze is as he is because the spirit of the person within him has these tendencies. It’s not possible to know if this is the truth or if it’s part of an obfuscation on Dr. Ouelet’s part.This touches upon the question asked early in the film in regards to the possible threat to soul that cyber-enhancement brings.

If one is interested in the subject, much information regarding the nature of memories in relation to identity is being collected in research regarding Alzheimer’s and other degenerative brain diseases. Alzheimers is particularly devastating in the effect it has on memory, but the question has long been asked if losing those memories changes the person in an indelible way; the same question being asked in the film. Recent research suggests that, perceptually, this is not the case; that the person does not change simply because memories are lost. What we recognize as the person has more to do with decision making matrices and perceptual morality than just what events we recall. How the person processes and interacts with the world around them is regarded as more important than stored experiences.

I believe there is a misconception with how Major’s arc resolves. Despite the revelations of her origins, Major does not attempt to recover the identity of Matoko Kusanagi. She does not go home, at least as far as we know, and does not refer to herself as Matoko by films end. There is the acknowledgment of that person, certainly, and the reassurance to her mother that she lives on. In my evaluation though, this is more in spirit than an acknowledgment that she, “is” Matoko. After Batou asks her about her name, “from before” he further asks, “Is Major still in there?”. When she replies in the affirmative he responds, “Good enough for me”. While her spirit and her true self live on that is not specifically tied to a name or a set of memories. I feel this is what the movie is saying and I think that’s a concept that deserves some thought.

I have a soft spot for these kinds of films, so I’m probably a lot more forgiving of what might be some of the films flaws than others would be. A common criticism of the film is that it is, “boring”. This I put on the shoulders of marketing; the industry does not seem to know how to sell sci-fi or fantasy films that are not exclusively action films. As it stands the film is another in a long line of modern sci-fi films, like Tron: Legacy, that falls into the strange area of having too much action to be a ponderous drama but not enough to be a full out action film. As that goes it takes more work to find the films groove unless you are someone, like myself, inclined to find that are and nestles easily within it. Simply put; it’s not for everyone.

Personally I feel the film is a somewhat rewarding experience. I believe there was a fear in the critical community that contributed to the films acceptance. The fear was of giving praise to a film that had such a controversy surrounding the casting of the lead. I don’ think anyone wanted to be the critic that was seen as supporting white washing. Like I said; I’m not qualified to speak on the subject. I would not have been bothered if they had cast a Japanese or Japanese-American actress in the role any more than I am bothered by the cast of Scarlet Johansson; I simply don’t have enough skin in the game to get my hackles up about it. I think you can fairly evaluate the movie without having to make that element of it’s production part of the conversation. I don’t know if that is the, “right” thing to do or not; I just know it can be done.

I’m iffy on using this platform to make recommendations. Unlike my DC movie articles, which attempt to answer criticisms of movies that a lot of people saw, Ghost In The Shell is a movie that a lot of people skipped. I don’t want to feel like I’m telling people that they should partake in something. I can say this; I greatly enjoyed the film and have watched it multiple times. If you have read this article, and others I have written, and you don’t believe I’m a complete imbecile then maybe you’d enjoy it as well.

Clever endings aren’t my bag.


Ghost In The Shell is available on Blu-ray and 4K UHD from

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