GIS Civic

Can Cyberpunk Manga Adaptation Fulfill its Promise?

Ghost in the Shell (2017) is the much-anticipated live-action sci-fi thriller based on the Japanese comic (manga) Kōkaku Kidōtai, subtitled The Ghost in the Shell and first serialized in 1989. Since then, there have been several anime (Japanese animation) film and television adaptations, beginning with the masterful Ghost in the Shell (1995), which inspired The Matrix (1999) and was just shown at the Civic’s “Member Monday” on March 27. The 2017 film is not simply a remake of the 1995 anime, but rather a new story using elements from across the Ghost in the Shell franchise.

Ghost in the Shell is set in the mid-21st century in a cyberpunk world that has experienced two more world wars. Technological advances have enabled individuals to have artificially augmented cyberbrains, which can interface directly with computer networks or other cyberbrains. Individuals can have just their brains cyberized or undergo full-body cyberization and become a cyborg. The main character in Ghost in the Shell is one such cyborg, Major Motoko Kusanagi, the field commander of a law-enforcement counter-cyberterrorist organization in Japan.

Kusanagi is portrayed, somewhat controversially, by Scarlett Johansson. This casting decision has been criticized by some as yet another example of whitewashing, casting a white actor to portray a non-white character, although this example would appear to be a long way from such egregious portrayals as Mickey Rooney in the otherwise classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) or Peter Sellers in The Party (1968). The current situation isn’t dissimilar to the recent controversy surrounding Tilda Swinton’s casting in Doctor Strange (2016) as the Ancient One, a character who is an Asian man in the source material. However, I think in this case I’d have to agree with the director of the 1995 anime, Mamoru Oshii, who noted “What issue could there possibly be with casting [Scarlett Johansson]? The major is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one.” [Source: The Guardian, 24 March 2017.]

Other cast-members include some interesting connections to sci-fi and/or Scarlett Johansson:

Anyway, back to the plot … Given the nature of cyberbrains, it should come as no surprise to learn that they’re particularly vulnerable to cyber-attack. However, this goes way beyond stealing email passwords and credit card numbers, as we’re now talking about hacking and controlling people’s minds. Needless to say, some very bad people can do some very bad things through these means. And, of course, it’s up to Kusanagi to stop them. However, along the way, it seems she discovers some unpleasant truths about her origins as a cyborg.

The “ghost” in Ghost in the Shell refers to an individual’s consciousness or soul, the quality that distinguishes a human from a robot. Even though Kusanagi is a cyborg, she retains her “ghost.” This idea was explored in The Ghost in the Machine by Arthur Koestler, which was the original inspiration for Masamune Shirow’s original manga. There’s a fascinating philosophy that underpins the manga, which is briefly described in this Wikipedia entry.

I’m hopeful that the movie embraces these philosophical ideas to allow it to rise above being a mere action piece, albeit one that appears from the trailer to have stunning visuals. On viewing the trailer, I was immediately reminded of Blade Runner (1982), as many others have also noted. If this movie affects me half as much as that seminal film, I’ll be satisfied. And, if not, well there’s always Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 (2017) to look forward to.

Iain Pardoe is an online university instructor who enjoys the movies of Hayao Miyazaki even more than the kids and loves rewatching favourites from his youth with his family when he’s not playing soccer or skiing.