I'm a big fan of Cyberpunk, the heyday of which seems to have been the 80s and early 90s. 2017's Ghost in the Shell, a remake of the 1995 anime film (really a remake of that film more than being based on the same manga), precedes the upcoming sequel to Blade Runner in what looks to be another push to revive Cyberpunk. Revive might not be the right word since this new Ghost in the Shell by English director Rupert Sanders is geared for a mainstream audience and in its heyday Cyberpunk was never mainstream. Despite concessions for a more linear plot and formulaic hero and villain conflict, I did enjoy this new take on Ghost in the Shell for its gorgeous visuals and performances by Scarlett Johansson, "Beat" Takeshi, and Kaori Momoi.
A big part of why I wanted to see the film was because I've been disturbed by the White Washing controversy surrounding it. I've already written about this at length last year in June in response to what remains the best written article I've read arguing that the new Ghost in the Shell engages in White Washing. After all that, I figured I should actually see the movie. Also because I'm a fan of the 1995 film and two critics I trust, Caitlin R Kiernan and Michael Phillips, liked the new movie. And I had a free ticket due to the fact that the projector was screwed up last time I saw Rogue One.
In the wake of Donald Trump's election, I've gone from simply disagreeing with the assertion that the film is engaging in White Washing to being downright disturbed by it. Largely because the tactics taken in forcing the argument are increasingly obliged to ignore inconvenient facts to the point where reviews accusing the film of White Washing actually engage in White Washing themselves. Reviews like this one by Evan Narcisse on io9 and this roundtable at io9, for example, completely fail to mention "Beat" Takeshi, called one of the best aspects of the film by many critics speaking from outside the bubble of this controversy. This film, which supposedly is guilty of erasing Asians, features one of Japan's biggest stars who speaks Japanese throughout the entire film. He also has my favourite line--"Don't send rabbits to kill a fox" in one of the scenes that deviates from the 95 film in a way that made me smile.
When a vicious, unqualified narcissist wins the election partly on the momentum he gained by destabilised trust in progressives, you can see why I'm disturbed when people try to advance baldly false arguments in the name of progressivism. We're at point where it's vital for us to be able to think things out for ourselves instead of chanting a party line.
And that includes for the issue the argument's meant to be championing--yes, there is indeed a lack of Asian stars in Hollywood films. Ironically, this is exacerbated by the fact that Hollywood films are being increasingly financed by Chinese companies--two Chinese production companies are attached to the new Ghost in the Shell. To look at one of the most cynical products of Hollywood and China collaboration, the Transformers movie set largely in China (I forget which one it was, it was the one with the wall to wall product placement), you'll notice the movie made massive gobs of money by putting Hollywood stars in China. The reason is simple--people all over the world like Hollywood stars, it's not because Chinese people don't want to see Chinese people in movies, but for China there's more novelty in white Hollywood actors. If anyone really wants to use Ghost in the Shell to fight against White Washing, they'd be better off doing so by celebrating the contributions by "Beat" Takeshi and Kaori Momoi.
Momoi is amazing though she only appears in a couple scenes. Apparently she was in Kurosawa's Kagemusha but I didn't recognise her. She has a scene with Johansson's character where she (Momoi) plays layers of heartbreak and uncertainty in such a passionate but credible way it took my breath away.
Scarlett Johansson proves once again she deserves her status as one of the leading stars in film to-day. Many filmmakers will cynically throw a pretty, skinny actress into an action role figuring women can't look like action stars anyway so there's no point in putting them through training. Johansson clearly has muscle and she has quick reflexes. I believe it when people seem to be hurt when she punches them. The choreography in this film isn't spectacular but Johansson sells her character's physical prowess. And she's gorgeous--although she's never as naked as the protagonist of the 95 film, there is something of the confusing and alluring sexuality mixed with technology that was an essential part of the 95 film's aesthetic.
That there is a critical culture in the U.S. absorbed in the justice of casting decisions and culturally resonant signifiers it's no surprise Cyberpunk has difficulty finding its footing. Cyberpunk can't find its footing in a way that's a bit like, but significantly different to how, punk is unable to get on its feet as a new artistic movement. Punk is an inherently post-modernist form that relies on knowledge of more traditional forms of human culture for its ironic humour to make sense as it wads those forms up and spits them back out--an artform that's inherently a rude gesture can't take root in a culture intent on advocating noble causes by micromanaging. Cyberpunk is antithetical to modern critical tendencies for a slightly different reason. Neuromancer and Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell are inherently about a post-post-modernist world. A world where symbols from all cultures and media have been so mixed together so many times for so many reasons no one remembers. So, at best, every symbol has begun to take on new meaning divorced from the history those symbols used to represent. That's a big part of the fundamental existential questions Cyberpunk is concerned with and it's an area where the 1995 film is far more sophisticated.
The 1995 Ghost in the Shell is a far less plot driven film. It has a plot, but it's more about its setting and sensory detail. Like Blade Runner, an enormous influence on Ghost in the Shell, the story is about unreliable memory and the difficulty in finding an identity without memory. While the Motoko in the 95 film ultimately must make a new identity without the assistance of even a single concrete physical form, Rupert Sanders' film is more simplistically about someone finding out the truth of her past. This is a concession to making the film the popular success it's likely never to be in the U.S. (but it'll make a tidy profit overseas) as is its broad, unsatisfying villain. Apart from this straightening of the Slinky, as it were, there is some disappointment in the film's rigorous reproductions of the 95 film's visuals even as they are enjoyable. The replication was so complete that, for example, before the fight scene in the water I found myself thinking, "Oh, this scene, right, this is a good scene." With the exception of Johansson's impressive performance, there's consequently little life in these scenes of their own for someone like me who's familiar with the 95 film. But the 95 film is hand drawn animation and over twenty years old, two things audiences are a bit allergic to these days, so this may just be me being a dinosaur.
My review for the 1995 film can be found here.