‘Ghost in the Shell’ takes fans to the late 21st century.
In a world that is increasingly wireless, unbearably connected, and one where technology becomes an extension of ourselves, both online and off, we are often given to ponder a variety of questions.
What is real? What is reality? What makes us human? Can artificial intelligence (AI) find a place in the fabric of society?
As anime properties go, Ghost in the Shell has perhaps done more than almost any other series in addressing these key questions. Moreover, its influence stretches out from manga to American comics, cinema, books and most recently the Hollywood treatment.
Despite some PR problems for the production according to various sources, the Ghost in the Shell live-action movie hit theaters March 31. As with any beloved series making the transition from one medium to another, it’s yet to be seen whether fans and critics will support this adaptation.
Before you see the film, now’s the perfect time to catch up on Ghost in the Shell. Here’s your guide to the late 21st century.
Gateway Drug: The Manga
If you dial the chronometer back to the early ’90s, you’ll find a new innovative manga published by Young Magazine in Japan. It was a different take on the idea of how technology influences and potentially merges with us, mind, body and soul. Writer and artist Shirow Masamune introduced readers to a new kind of female protagonist in this near future: a cyborg superagent named Major Motoko Kusnagi, who works to defeat cybercriminals and “ghost hackers.” Essentially, these “ghost hackers,” by way of hacking into these ubiquitous cyborgs, can render human/machine hybrids as puppets. The aptly named Puppeteer is a master hacker who proves to be a formidable opponent for the Major. The manga, reprinted by Dark Horse Comics, has a parental advisory label on the cover of most copies you’ll find. That’s because the Ghost in the Shell manga has violence, more-than-suggestive sex scenes and topless nudity. The panels are a little tight in places, but Masamune provides these lovely vignettes about the Ghost in the Shell universe. It’s not just sexy, but you get to stretch your mind by learning about “growth-type neurochips,” “fiber-optic film,” “Fuchikoma” and other delightful terms.
The tradition of manga moving from the page to the big screen is perhaps best exemplified by Akira, which was released in theaters (1988) and received high praise from critics, including most notably Roger Ebert. As a piece of art, Ghost in the Shell, which released in 1995, took the world that Kusnagi constructed on the page and truly brought it to life with stunning animation and some early computer graphics as well. There was nothing like it in American theaters (The Matrix wouldn’t be released for another four years), and it made a big impact on how anime was perceived. Moreover, it set the stage for something much more important — a TV series.
The ‘Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex’ TV series greatly expanded on the world created in the manga and the 1995 animated film. Via Anime News Network.
Building on the concepts in the 1995 movie, a Ghost in the Shell series called Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex took our heroine deeper, all the ideas of the 1995 movie could be stretched and expanded on. In fact, the format in many ways is superior to the movie because the world of Major Motoko Kusanagi seems really lived-in and richly imagined. The supporting characters grew, and the concept seemed to be elevated thanks to a serialized tapestry that played well to the source material. The most recent attempt at a Ghost in the Shell continuation is 2013’s Ghost in the Shell: Arise series.
The Matrix, the World of Cyberpunk, and Ghost in the Shell Live Action
Scarlett Johansson will star in the live-action adaptation of the manga and popular 1995 film ‘Ghost in the Shell.’ Via Paramount / DreamWorks.
The Wachowskis (then the Wachowski Brothers) acknowledged a deep love and respect for anime and manga, name-dropping Ghost in the Shell as one of their influences. Thanks to The Matrix, audiences were provided a sampling of what a live action anime might look like. Although it’s not a direct connection, it’s easy to see how even something like HBO’s popular sci-fi series Westworld owes a tip of the hat to Ghost in the Shell. Whether marginally or not, the show touches on many of the themes of the anime, albeit through a different lens. Both Ghost in the Shell and Westworld probably owe a slight debt to William Gibson, the man who coined the term cyberspace and brought a poetry to the cyberpunkian landscape with his famous Sprawl trilogy, particularly 1984’s Neuromancer. It’s a world of hacking and AIs and, as with Ghost in the Shell, cybernectically enhanced human beings.
The term “whitewashing” has been used to describe the casting of Hollywood favorite and box office magnet Scarlett Johansson in the lead role (although known this time as The Major), and while Hollywood still has a way to go in covering the full spectrum (an Asian lead would have been ideal), the fact that the Ghost in the Shell live-action movie now exists at all is, if not a welcome addition, inspiring a robust curiosity for fans of the series and, yes, even newcomers. Because — and this is the crux of the matter — anime has historically been more cinematically propulsive than most Hollywood movies, even the innovative ones. Simply due to budget constraints, anime, as an extremely stylized genre rich in imaginative content, has always done it better. Now, with more sophisticated CG at a director’s disposal, the sky is pretty much limited to the budget itself. As a fan of the series who, at the time of this writing, has yet to see the new film, my most pressing question about Johansson’s casting is this: can she do the manga, the TV series and the influential 1995 movie justice? We’ll soon find out.