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Ghost in the Shell movie review – with full body whitewashing

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Allegations of whitewashing have dogged Ghost in the Shell – a remake of, until now, a thoroughly Japanese franchise – since news circulated that Scarlett Johansson had been cast in the lead role. But nobody said anything about full body whitewashing. As an arse-kicking cyborg protagonist known as Major, Johansson runs around in a tight, skin-coloured bodysuit, doing things bionic people in cyberpunk dystopian universes do – such as running through glass and jumping backwards off skyscrapers.

This quasi birthday suit raises the curious idea that robots have to get dressed to get naked. Smoothing out the actor’s bumpy bits (no homage to George Clooney’s Batman nipple suit) and sticking to her flesh lecherously, like a Venom costume or an unclothed, vacuum-sealed, cream-coloured Barbie doll, Johansson somehow looks both naked – sort of – and fastidiously covered.

I waited for the moment Major would realise she’d been screwed out of a decent wardrobe for her slam-bang action scenes, remembering that the kids in The Matrix got kick arse leather and swanky eyewear. Ghost in the Shell is after all about an agent with no memories who discovers she might be working for a corrupt entity – the domain of Jason Bourne, or Robocop. But it appears the protagonist’s self-realisation doesn’t extend to fashion sense.

The film exists in the shadow of director Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 Japanimation (based on a comic book of the same name) that mines fertile Dickian territory spanning simulated experiences, implanted memories, the nature of sentient beings and elevating consciousness to a higher plain. In one of those future megacities that looks best when it is dark and raining, cybernetically “augmented” humans are everywhere: a vaguely Gattaca-esque world where upgrades are the norm, rather than genetic engineering.

Major (Scarlett Johansson) has been told her brain was taken from an immigrant killed by terrorists.

Major has been created as a weapon for an elite, anti-terrorist squad. It is led by the great Japanese actor Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano, who again demonstrates a remarkable ability to chew thin air is if it were acrid tasting bubblegum. Major works with her partner Batou (Pilou Asbaek), who at one point goes under the knife for a spot of surgery and comes out with a couple of binocular eyepieces jammed into his face. Somehow he can see better.

Major has been told her brain was taken from an immigrant killed by terrorists, but all is not what it seems etcetera etcerera. The screenwriters (Jamie Moss and William Wheeler, adapting Masamune Shirow’s manga comics) reinstate a familiar caution: that technology is Something To Be Wary Of, unless it is used for the purposes of dazzling us with special effects. They virtually ignore medical precedents that might exist in his world, or how plug-and-play cybernetic progression has influenced consumer culture.

Director Rupert Sanders is certain to receive recognition for his cyberpunk-chic visual flavour.

Perhaps enhanced body parts can be bought next to lollies and chips at the supermarket; the cure for cancer in aisle nine, next to Panadeine. Major’s existential pondering also comes across half-baked, drowned out by robo-posturing (in the style of ‘why was I programmed to feel pain?’) borrowed from any number of playbooks.

Director Rupert Sanders is certain to receive recognition for his cyberpunk-chic visual flavour, the city’s steamy stimuli-crammed streets a dream setting for production designer Jan Roelfs (who gave the locations of Gattaca rather more sterile treatment). These streets are strikingly populated with huge titan-sized holographic advertisements, visions of real people rendered as God-like projections in order to sell things – like the commercials that came alive and attacked Springfield in an old Treehouse of Horror episode of The Simpsons.

The holographs exist in daylight though this is clearly a place, like Vegas, that comes alive at night. While The Great Wall, which also airlifted Hollywood actors into a quintessentially Asian storyline, presented a paean to nationalism, Ghost in the Shell’s neo-liberalist world clearly gave up borders and redefined citizens as consumers long ago: a society that views competition as the defining feature of human relations.

In this future, people don’t die easily and don’t die gracefully. I suppose you could parallel the tangled economies of this universe with the tangled body parts of its people, each person their own compromised society of nature and artifice. And a world-without-borders could perhaps justify the casting of Johansson, a decision Mamoru Oshii himself recently defended. She plays a cyborg with no fixed race or gender, he says, so how could it possibly be whitewashing? Still, Johansson’s presence is distracting. And so is that silly mannequin-like bodysuit, which makes the star of the show look like a sexy Crash Test Dummy.

6 responses to “Ghost in the Shell movie review – with full body whitewashing

  1. John’s comment in relation to “whitewashing” just above is spot on. I saw the movie this afternoon. I know nothing of this “franchise” – it was the sic-fi/S.F. nature which attracted my interest. I enjoyed the film – I recognised aspects of Hong Kong – the visuals were fantastic – brilliant I thought – and there was “Beat” Takeshi! A favourite from my many years in Japanese. Brilliant actor – and a truly pleasant surprise to find him in the movie. Maybe my overall appreciation of this genre of film is unsophisticated but I certainly did not read it in the way Ben has found it!

  2. It could have been worse, not a patch on any of the original stuff but personally I give it a bit more than two stars since it’s different enough to be worth making.
    One galling thing (but not a spoiler) is that the main character is still called “Major” despite it being an origin story, and her team are all acting as if she’s been working with them for years and has that rank (as she did in the original stuff). Changing the name would be less confusing and annoying than turning her job title into her name. As for the “real name” of the character (of which a great deal of fuss is made) it’s mentioned once in the original comic/manga with the words in brackets after it “obviously an alias” because it is a name taken from a popular Japanese TV series of the 1970s.
    The original was a deliberate dig at paramilitary policing. The movie is unfortunately a bit of a dig at something else that seems to be covered by a lot of Hollywood movies lately. I won’t tell you what plot has been very poorly grafted into this setting, but I will say it detracts a lot for the movie without totally ruining it.
    One last thing. there is a lot of “homage” to the Japanese material that is just thrown in there for probably no reason related to the plot, since it comes from varied parts of three TV series and more than half a dozen movies. If you see things like a basset hound being focused on for no reason it’s just an “easter egg” for the fans.
    Personally I think it’s worth seeing just for Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano’s short scenes where he takes an already interesting character and shows what more can be done.

  3. This concept of whitewashing is curious. A director casts actors based on a range of factors, of course acting ability and fit for the role is paramount, followed by star-power to attract audiences. Films, in and of themselves, are entertainment pieces, and do not have a duty to anyone, to do anything. If the director decided to cast Johansson in the role (of which her resemblance is quite adequate to Major in the original animated film) then that’s their choice. Call it what you like; but whitewashing insinuates that somehow different ethnic groups are ‘owed’ representation in a film. If anyone in particular wishes to remake the movie, and cast an asian for the main role, go right ahead, that’s their prerogative. This doesn’t however objectively diminish the film, and whitewashing is becoming a tired term where it appears there is perceived offence that people should take to issues of racism. This seems overly melodramatic, and creating a victim culture.

    As for the body suit, that’s reflective to the original film, and creates authenticity the audience will enjoy. Again, here though, there’s an insinuation that Major (or Johannson?) is unaware of what clothes they need to wear? Is the body suit a hindrance, can the cyborg killer not do their job in this suit? Well clearly not, Major is highly effective in it. Is it believable this type of technology could work in this way, sure why not? Is it likely also designed to look sexy; yep tick there as well. There appears to be a block of the community who are against the concept of women being sexual; being sexy. Women are sexy, so lets let them be sexy. It doesn’t diminish how awesome Major (or Johannson as an actor) are, it actually demonstrates they can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time. I can kick some serious ass, and look sexy at the same time. I respect that.

  4. ” elevating consciousness to a higher plain”. Incorrect homophone, or very clever dig about the true value of higher consciousness?

  5. If you have seen the original Ghost in the Shell and its many iterations, as well as *any* anime, you would be well aware that there are in fact very few anime with recognisably Japanese characters. This is due, in part, to the ‘westernisation’ of Japanese manga in the 50’s after WWII since the soldiers in Korea really liked the comics. It’s also the Japanese ideal that they aspire to, thus the ‘casting’ of obvious caucasians in animated film (ie anime); it has absolutely zip to do with ‘whitewashing

  6. “FULL BODY WHITEWASHING”? I guess the more recent Godzilla movies were reptile washing?

    “look like a sexy Crash Test Dummy” – yeah – I’m up for that.

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