So the weekend has come and gone and the reviews are in. The 2017 remake of the 1995 anime ‘Ghost In The Shell’ has scored a less than impressive 43% on Rotten Tomatoes and the otaku fan community has been quick to denounce the project as an “all out affront to the quality and decency of anime” (my words, not theirs).

“But Steve”, you say to your computer screen out loud because you’re the kind of person who does that, “I thought you wanted us to see this movie, not hate it?” Right you are, fictional example required as a framing device. It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I can be… ‘easy’ on media properties I like, but I will make the case here that most critics, fans and professional alike, don’t really know how to review this movie.

For the record, I thought it was great. It wasn’t groundbreaking, it didn’t shift the world on its axis, it wasn’t ‘Shin-Godzilla’, but I was thoroughly entertained. It does a great job of adapting the anime to a Hollywood format while also honouring its source material. That sound you just heard? It was a thousand neckbeards (who apparently read this without showing up on my website stats) spitting out their Mountain Dew: Kickstart all across their Pokemon Sun/Moon branded keyboards. Total disbelief, I’m sure. They’re cracking their knuckles now, getting ready to blast me into oblivion with the sharpness of their words and strength of their ridicule.

Yet I will continue to write MY article as I see fit, entitled otaku be damned. Yeah I liked it. No It wasn’t the greatest thing ever. Yeah it could’ve been improved. No I don’t hold that against it. Let’s examine what I’m getting at.

One of the biggest criticisms (whitewashing aside, more on that later) leveled at the film is the way they “changed” (or in this case, “created”) a backstory for the protagonist. Here’s what you should do: Go take 100min out of your life and watch the original GITS, and then come back here and talk to me about it’s ‘protagonist’ Major Motoko Kusanagi. Okay, done? What was there to say about The Major? She’s a cyborg, yes. She’s an operative of an elite cyber-counter-terrorism intelligence agency, check. She likes the existential thrill of floating underwater in her dense-as-metal body, gotcha. That’s pretty much it. There isn’t a whole lot of her character there in the story (I’m not talking about the way The Major develops in the TV show ‘Stand Alone Complex’, since they haven’t adapted GITS as a TV show, yet) In fact, she’s actually kinda boring when you take out the cyborg element and the ‘goes invisible when she gets naked’ part. There’s an important reason for that. The original anime isn’t about her character. The anime is about an IDEA, the idea of artificial intelligence and where it can emerge from, and what form that intelligence can take. In the original, the artificial intelligence is what the story is about, and The Major is presented as a kind of ‘touchstone’ for examination. She is a human brain in a cyborg body who still considers herself to be Human, yet she encounters an intelligence that is different from her in only one way, it has no Human components to it. GITS explored the nature of being human and artificial intelligence by comparing and contrasting these elements, and it did it very, very well. In an anime that does not obey the same storytelling laws as a Hollywood film, you can do this without having to worry about the standing of your ‘protagonist’.

But 2017’s GITS is a live action Hollywood adaptation, and if my screenwriting books and classes have taught me anything, it’s that CHARACTER comes first in story. Without a real character to hang the story on, you essentially don’t get made in Hollywood. It’s pretty clear they came up against this problem early in developing the live action GITS. As compelling as the cyborg-cop thing was, The Major needed to become more than just a counterpoint in an existential discussion. So the writers built a backstory for her, one that functions just fine in the structure of the GITS universe, while also not being exceptionally original or unique. Yeah, they could’ve come up with some different angles on the backstory than they did, but with so much cyborg mumbo-jumbo going on already, you need to keep a few things simple and straightforward. Those were the choices made for The Major’s character. Instead of being a cold, distant guide through the plot, ScarJo’s Major has pathos, conflict and depth. It may not be the greatest depth, but it’s there. Original GITS fans will be all butthurt about how they ‘ruined’ The Major’s character, but my reply is simple: It’s not like they had that much to work with in the first place.

The film is also being panned as ‘soulless, empty’ (this time their words, not mine) primarily because the original GITS was groundbreaking and thought provoking (on it’s entry into the North American market) and the concensus seems to be that the remake needed to be AT LEAST as affecting to warrant praise. This stance is nonsense, as it’s essentially impossible for a remake to be as ‘relevant’ as the original, since it’s already late to the party, so to speak. To be ‘groundbreaking’ at this stage demands an entirely new take on material and a property, and that’s a lot to ask of a Hollywood film that exists because of beloved fan affection in the first place. If critics are asking that this film live up to the grandeur of the original film, they seriously don’t understand how this all works. It’s nigh impossible to surprass the standards you already set 22 years ago by making the same thing over again. To expect such is intellectual infantilism.

Which brings me to another point regarding critics: I’m not anti-critic, I believe their opinions are valuable and (mostly, as we will see) educated on their material. But here’s the catch; I’m willing to believe that most critics reviewing this film have seen a total of 3 original animes: Ghost In The Shell, possibly either Akira or Princess Mononoke, and what was that other one, with the girl and the black guy in the mask… Spirited Away! Now I’ve seen plenty of good and bad anime, and I know that many of the things the original GITS is praised for; its pacing, its existentialism, its examination of the duality of Human being both as ‘ghost’ and as machine, are actually hallmarks of MOST anime’s. People raved about the isolated sense the film brought, The Major discussing what the artificial impulses being sent to her brain mean in relation to being a computer versus being human while the camera panned across a still background as a lesson in solitude and the way we keep ourselves seperate from each other. Except if they watched more than 3 anime’s they’d know that characters regularly go on soliloquies about the nature of Humanity while panning across a static background. It’s not insight they’re courting here, it’s cost savings. Showing the same empty background or back of a head while the voice actor recites an epic monologue is exceptionally CHEAP to produce, and one thing anime’s aren’t known for is their lavish expenditures. So much anime is listening to a character talk while staring at an essentially still photo. This is not profundity, it’s how the medium works. What some would call amazing introspection is really just ‘Anime screenwriting 101’ and if they sat down to watch some Evangelion, or Cowboy Bebop, or Gurran Lagan, Attack On Titan or One Punch Man, they’d find their reverance for anime’s pacing evaporting.

Now for that dirty word: Whitewashing. Yeah, this was originally Japanese content where they have chosen to cast North American actors in key parts. The question to ask here, Is ‘Ghost In The Shell’ a peice of Sci-Fi that originated in Japan, or is it a Japanese story being disseminated through science fiction? Sorry, but unless there’s a deep history in Japan regarding Human-cyborg relations, I’m prepared to back the former. If Brett Ratner decided to re-make ‘Spirited Away’ and they cast a little white girl, yeah, I’d be a little choked by the insensitivity. In writing my ‘Evangelion’ adaptation (HBO, Fall 2020 people!) I make a point of keeping Shinji Japanese, because the nature of Shinji’s relationships with others in his life is deeply connected to the modern experience of young individuals growing up in Japanese society (says the white guy living in Canada…) GITS is about cyber hackers and robots, there’s very little that’s uniquely ‘Japanese’ about it. (Perhaps 22 years ago that was not the case, but the world has globalized and technologized – {it’s a word, shut up!} since then.) Go ahead and call me a bigoted racist, but if you plan to do so I would encourage you to arrive with proof. I understand the modern plight of minorities being written out of work from their own cultures, but I also bristle at the idea that just because a story originates in a certain culture, it is bound to be interpreted along the same lines as that culture going forward. I encourage all of us creators to find more places for minorities at the forefront of our storytelling in the hopes of mitigating this pressing issue. But to be fair, casting ScarJo as a lithe action/vixen in a psuedo-dystopian world in 2017 is kinda like casting Bruce Willis in your action movie 25 years ago: Actors play to types, and thanks to Black Widow and Lucy, ScarJo has done a good job cementing herself as a contemporary action star.

And they keep the rest of the team essentially the same! And even give them *JUST* enough screen time that you want to know more. I enjoyed the ‘transition’ they worked into Batou, rounds him out a tiny bit more. I think I genuinely cheered when I saw Togusa on screen, and I was pleased with how the story effectively used Aramaki. And Saito? He was there! Which is about as much as you can ever say for Saito. Part of me wishes deeply that the Tachikoma’s made an appearance, but then the other part of me that isn’t silly is glad they didn’t.

Tachikoma

So why should I see this movie again? Because it’s good. It’s Sci-Fi action with a little existentialism thrown in. It plays to the strengths of the original material while expanding it and editing it for a larger audience. The effects are good, the ideas are cogent, and it moves. There isn’t a moment when you’re in the theatre aware of the passage of time. Lost in all the chatter about whitewashing and otaku fan-kid outrage is the tale of a Sci-Fi story that has long influenced popular culture finally coming home to roost. Sadly, the reception of this film has led me to believe we will continue to see a slow burn of anime adaptations as opposed to a blockbuster deluge, but that doesn’t hurt my opinion of it. It won’t be the game changer some people think it needed to be, but I was never those people, so it doesn’t affect my opinion at all. I still have my original copy at home, no one is burning it (like JJ Abrams paid all those Ninja’s to do to all the DVD & Blu Ray sets of Star Trek TOS back in ’09, so as to prevent anyone from being able to prove anyone OTHER than Chris Pine was ever Kirk) and one day I *might* have a copy of this too (streaming has really killed by Blu Ray purchasing… thankfully).

Ghost In The Shell isn’t terrible. It’s good. Don’t let the reviews influence you (except this one, this is the one you can let influence you) Go and see for yourself. I’m willing to bet no one will be disappointed.

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