The Terrible Hollowness of “Ghost in the Shell”

There’s a wordless sequence in the middle of Mamoru Oshii’s animated 1995 Ghost in the Shell in which the movie’s main character travels through the city and glimpses her own face, twice, in the crowd. The first time, it’s a doppelgänger whom she makes eye contact with through a window, sitting in a café. The second is a dummy in a shop display, staring blankly outward.

It’s not just eerie symbolism — Major Motoko Kusanagi is literally seeing herself. She’s a cyborg with a state-of-the-art body and, these mirror images imply, an off-the-shelf face common enough that it gets recycled on mannequins and makes it possible to run into twinsies on the street, the high-tech equivalent of spotting someone wearing the same dress you are. She’s designed to be formidable and attractive, but also to blend in.

All of which lends an especially piquant irony to the casting of Scarlett Johansson in the role in Rupert Sanders’ splendid-looking but otherwise dreadful new live-action adaptation of the Masamune Shirow manga saga. Johansson’s face is currently one of the most famous in the world, and while the movie occasionally deconstructs it and strips its panels off to expose the mechanical hardware underneath, it also takes care to have others praise its beauty.

As the Major, who goes by Mira Killian in the latest version, Johansson is periodically reminded of how exceptional she is — not just in how she looks, but in her very being. In this new Ghost in the Shell, the Major is the first of her kind in an already robotically enhanced world, the first fully successful “cerebral salvage.” Her human brain was transplanted into a prosthetic body after what, she was told, was a terrible accident that would have killed her. “Try to understand your importance,” pleads Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), the scientist in charge of the program that birthed Mira. “You’re what everyone will become one day.”

Which is to say, white. Or such is the unstated argument Ghost in the Shell makes in its casting choices.

The film takes place in a dystopian future in a city in which the majority of the population appears to be Asian, but the majority of the important characters are not. Johansson’s casting in a Japanese property that still, while not explicitly stated, seems to be set in Japan caused a righteous uproar when it was announced, in what appeared to be yet another case of a non-Asian actor taking a part originally intended for an Asian.

But in watching the film, which was written by Jamie Moss and William Wheeler (who wrote the far more considerate Queen of Katwe), what becomes evident is that Johansson’s presence is not the usual act of erasure, but that whitewashing is actually and obliviously built into the revamped narrative.

Juliette Binoche as Dr. Ouelet and Johansson as the Major. Paramount Pictures

The Major has the brain and background of a Japanese woman plunked into a robot body that could have looked like anything — but rather than resembling the majority of the population nearby, it was constructed to look like Johansson. The film offers up what is essentially a reverse Get Out, without the awareness or the satire. In Ghost in the Shell, white characters — led by Cutter (Peter Ferdinando), the sinister head of the government-owned Hanka Corporation leading the cybernetics charge — steal the brain of a person of color rather than the body.

And the movie similarly slips on the idea of Japaneseness like a purloined garment. Its futuristic city is a gorgeously conceived (and let’s be clear — this thing looks great, the screen crowded with hallucinatory detail) if not convincingly functional. It’s a place in which holographic ads are projected skyscraper-sizes over streets filled with noodle stands, sex workers, and luxurious restaurants at which grandees sit around low tables being waited on by robo-geishas. Those men wear kimono-inspired suits, but the humans in them, at least the ones who matter, tend to be white.

The signage is Japanese, and Japanese is what legendary filmmaker and actor Takeshi Kitano speaks as Aramaki, the head of Section 9, the shadowy anti-terrorist agency at which the Major works. She and her multi-ethnic colleagues — her trusted partner Batou (Pilou Asbæk, the definite MVP); the less-developed Togusa (Chin Han), Ishikawa (Lasarus Ratuere), and Ladriya (Danusia Samal); and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em Saito (Yutaka Izumihara) and Borma (Tawanda Manyimo) — understand Aramaki perfectly, and vice versa, but they default to English the same way that the Major is defaulted to white, as if it were clearly the premium option.

Anime and manga really shouldn’t be any less adaptable than any of the other intellectual property getting sucked into Hollywood’s forever starving maw, though like all imported material, it poses more complicated questions about cultural specificity and translation. But what’s so aggravating about Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell is that it borrows wholesale visuals — the high-rise jump, the garbage truck, the spider tank — from Oshii’s movie and from the Stand Alone Complex TV series, while substituting in a simplified story that feels like a blunted, offensive Robocop knockoff.

And for all the insistence on the part of the filmmakers over Johansson as the only conceivable choice to star in the film, she looks a little lost in the role, never coming across like she has a good grasp of the character she’s playing. Her Major opts for expressionless stares and quizzical head tilts borrowed from more memorable Johansson turns in Under the Skin and Lucy — she may have a human brain, but the Major doesn’t feel nearly as alive as the AI Johansson voiced in Her. She doesn’t feel nearly as alive as the Major has in animated form in Oshii’s venerable, moody movie and Kenji Kamiyama’s lighter-toned TV series.

The new Ghost in the Shell turns the character from a complicated and highly experienced one hovering between humanity and whatever comes next to one whose agency is largely denied — that is, until information from Kuze (Michael Pitt), the terrorist the Major’s department has been chasing, leads her down a rabbit hole of self-discovery.

Gone are the dense political machinations and much of the melancholy philosophizing of the original, and in its place is a hollow but ringingly American affirmation of individuality as the most human of qualities. Which, somehow even more than the casting problems, is what’s truly depressing about the film — not just that Sanders and company couldn’t figure out how to adapt the source material, but that they never understood it in the first place.

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