I’m not really a big fan of Ghost in the Shell. I didn’t watch the anime series, but I did watch the anime films and really enjoyed them. Among these, the most notable is the 1995 movie, as it’s both considered an anime and a science fiction classic. It’s also a groundbreaking cinematic triumph and had inspired filmmakers like the Wachowskis, the creators of The Matrix. However, when I watched it for the first time as a kid, I liked it but it didn’t quite resonate to me as it should.
And the fault, I believe, lies on Armitage III, which has some similarities with Ghost in the Shell. It’s because I watched both of them around the same time – during the early formative days of my anime fandom – and Armitage III sort of absorbed most of my available fondness for an anime about a kickass cybernetic heroine (that’s likely why Armitage III’s Naomi Armitage had already managed to get into one of my fictional character lists but Ghost in the Shell’s Motoko “The Major” Kusanagi still hasn’t). I re-watched both movies recently, and Ghost in the Shell is definitely superior, both in narrative and animation. However, back then, Armitage III somehow made more of an impression on me than Ghost in the Shell.
Nonetheless, I was definitely looking forward to the Ghost in the Shell live-action movie. Half of me was excited because it’s one of the top three anime properties that I believe can translate well as an “Americanized” or “Westernized” big-budget movie (for the record, the other two are Cowboy Bebop and Fullmetal Alchemist). But the other half of me was anxious because the last time Hollywood adapted an anime, the atrocious Dragonball Evolution was the result, and thus, the possibility of Hollywood screwing up another revered anime is a legitimate fear.
Thankfully, Ghost in the Shell turned out being terrific! It’s the best live-action film adaptation of an anime I’ve ever seen next to the Rurouni Kenshin trilogy. It doesn’t have the rich philosophical and aesthetic rewards of the 1995 anime film, but it’s absolutely gorgeous and thought-provoking. It has fantastic visuals, a magnificent soundtrack, and a wholly interesting storyline.
Moreover, it faithfully captures the tone, themes, characterizations, and world of its source material. In fact, some scenes are direct recreations of iconic scenes from the anime, and they don’t feel cheap servicing but delightfully organic. Kudos to director Rupert Sander, who made an apparent effort to understand the source material and handled its conversion to live-action with the respect it deserves.
Though the anime is generally superior, one thing that the live-action somewhat does better is fleshing out the character of Major. In addition to this, Scarlett Johansson delivered a homerun performance. Unfortunately, it’s probably not enough to silence her critics, as her casting was met with disapproval (fiercest of all were the whiny, political correctness-obsessed social justice warriors) since many felt a Japanese or Asian actress should have been cast for the role. I also personally preferred an Asian actress, but only because it was revealed that it was going to be set in Japan, as was the anime. If the setting was reimagined to an American city, ScarJo would easily make sense to me. Nonetheless, this was just a personal preference, and her casting wasn’t a very big problem to me. And now, after watching the movie, I think the fact that ScarJo isn’t Japanese actually improved the impact of a certain reveal about the Major’s backstory.
One minor thing I disliked about the movie was its depiction of the “spider-tank.” It was kind of crude and sluggish. I may be wrong, but I think the anime’s “spider-tank” was more refined and mobile. Also, I wish Section 9 was shown using some “think thanks” of their own, like in other editions of Ghost in the Shell. Still, this is just a petty disappointment in my part.
In the end, Ghost in the Shell is awesome in my book. Sure, it has some pacing pitfalls and a few moments that it fails in its attempts to be intellectually satisfying. But, overall, I was happy of how it turned out because it’s arguably Hollywood’s first triumph in adapting an anime property (by the way, I enjoyed Speed Racer, but it’s an “acquired taste” rather than an outright great adaptation).
Now I would be a bit more confident if Hollywood ever decided to adapt Cowboy Bebop (Please???!!!).