There’s a whisper floating in cyberspace. In April 2008, Steven Spielberg acquired the rights to make a live-action film based on Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell. Not much happened for six years, but to cut a long story short, that whisper has grown into an uproar. The film is finally underway with Rupert Sanders directing and Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi. It’s not due out until next March, but already people are angry over the choice of casting Johansson - an American - as a Japanese character. So far we’ve only had one photograph of Johansson in character, so it remains to be seen whether she’ll truly make or break the entire film - but there’s no question Ghost in the Shell will go through a lot of changes before it plays in cinemas. What thrives in manga and anime doesn’t always work in live-action (e.g. Dragon Ball Evolution). Today I’m here to discuss the setting, themes and characters of the GitS franchise and guess which elements we can expect to see in the upcoming film. There’s a lot of ground to cover, so I’ll make it as short and simple as possible.
The GitS manga and anime take place in a “near future” where technology has advanced so much, we depend on it in our everyday lives. It sounds a great deal like the world today (as it should), but Shirow takes it a leap further with cybernetic implants from augmentation of the brain to fully prosthetic bodies. What sets it apart is a world that, despite being animated, looks and feels like a plausible future. The only element not rooted in realism is Shirow’s depiction of cyberspace, which we all know isn’t as grand as the Major sees in the manga. The live-action film entered production in February, with reports confirming Johansson filming scenes on location in Wellington, New Zealand. While it all but confirms the “real world” setting GitS is famous for, there is no word yet on whether production will move to Japan or stay in NZ entirely. It’s a brilliant place to film (as Peter Jackson proved with The Lord of the Rings), but unless they film in Japan at some point - or use CGI to turn Wellington into Tokyo - it’s unlikely fans will enjoy the film when it finally plays in cinemas. Ghost in the Shell has always been home in Japan and, as far as we’re concerned, it always will be.
In all stories, you have one key element that must work for the entire thing to succeed. Jurassic Park had its dinosaurs; The Avengers has its superheroes; and Ghost in the Shell has Major Motoko Kusanagi. Her appearance and backstory change with each series, but in all cases she is a full cyborg with little to no memory of her human life. As a result, she’s every bit as strong and intelligent as she is beautiful. But what sets the Major apart from other anime heroines is what she gets up to off the battlefield. She broods over philosophical issues resulting from man’s changing relationship with technology, such as whether a soul can live on in a prosthetic body. It’s a deep prospect for a manga and anime series, but it’s handled with deep thought and attention to detail to match. In short, Shirow really did his homework when he created the Major. The role of the Major in the upcoming film was originally planned for Margot Robbie (Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad), but was given to Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow in the Marvel films) last October. Since then, she and the film have come under fire over the choice to cast an American actress as a Japanese character. This instance of “whitewashing” hasn’t been helped by the synopsis released by Paramount Pictures, which refers to Kusanagi simply as “The Major”. The film started production only two months ago, so it’s too early to judge whether Johansson’s role will make or break the film - but if the Major’s entire character has been changed for a mainstream audience, even they won’t be pleased with the final result. For now, we can only hope Johansson, Sanders and the writers do her justice.
Although Kusanagi is the main protagonist of the franchise, she isn’t the only one to root for. Enter Public Security Section 9; an elite team of operatives charged with protecting Japan from cybercrime and political threats from home and abroad. Run by Chief Aramaki, the Major’s unit consists of former military officers and detectives, each with their own story and skills. Their backstories and motives change in each series, but you can expect to see the same faces in some form or another throughout the franchise, including ex-Ranger Batou, detective (and family man) Togusa and data specialist Ishikawa. Each member of Section 9 has his moment in the spotlight in the manga and anime, but at the moment, it’s unclear whether they’ll get the same treatment in live-action. Apart from the Major, the only roles in Section 9 confirmed to be cast are Aramaki and Batou. Japanese actor and director Takeshi Kitano (Takeshi’s Castle) will play Aramaki, while Danish actor Pilou Asbæk (Euron Greyjoy in the new season of Game of Thrones) is playing Batou. We don’t know who’s been cast as Togusa, Ishikawa or Saito yet, or if they’ll even appear - but the lack of information is a poor sign. An hour and a half is only so much time, but if the creators of GitS could slot four secondary characters into eighty minutes, Sanders and co. have no excuse.
In GitS, one of the most common themes you’ll come across is machines becoming sentient. It’s a well-known concept, thanks to Western films like Blade Runner and the Terminator series, but few explore it as deeply as Shirow did in his franchise. Each series does it differently on both sides of the battlefield and one of the best examples, of all things, is the Tachikoma from the 2002 series Stand Alone Complex. A series trademark, Tachikomas are armoured tanks assigned to Section 9. Their roles range from attack vehicles to fully-fledged teammates, but they all have a collective A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) designed to make them independent. While they never turn on their comrades, the Tachikomas’ A.I. leads to them developing minds and thoughts of their own. They even build personalities to comic effect. Imagine a tank with the I.Q. of Steven Hawking and the emotional maturity of a child and you’re on the right track. In all its appearances, the Tachikoma appears, in some form, as a cute mechanical spider whose appearance and child-like demeanour bring comic relief to an otherwise gritty universe. Sadly, the very qualities that made them popular in Japan may have already worked against them in Sanders’ eyes. As I’ve said before, what works for Japan doesn’t always work for Hollywood. Unless they re-envision them as miniature pets (God forbid!), it’s unlikely Tachikomas will appear in the film. We may, though, see the theme of robots gaining sentience presented another way. If Ridley Scott could do it, so can Sanders.
The enemy takes many forms in the GitS franchise - some of them men, some machines. And unlike your typical villains, their motives are more complex than you might imagine. Two of the most iconic are the Puppeteer (from the manga and the 1995 film) and the Laughing Man (from Stand Alone Complex 1st GIG). The cases Section 9 take to bring them down are complicated, with twists and turns that would give even Sherlock a run for his money. No spoilers here, but I will say this: no two plotlines are ever the same. They never follow the same pattern. And their outcomes are never straightforward. Thankfully, they rarely disappoint. In some cases, you’ll even end up rooting for the enemy as much as for the Major. It’s unknown if the live-action film’s villain will get the same treatment. Details are so scarce at the moment, we don’t even know for sure who it’s going to be. In February, Michael Pitt was said to be cast as the Laughing Man - but recent reports claim he’ll be playing a different villain, Hideo Kuze (from Stand Alone Complex 2nd GIG). With only ten months before its release, the lack of facts about the film is unsettling, to say the least. No good action film is complete without a good villain, and GitS is no exception. If they don’t settle on a villain soon, the live-action film is as good as doomed. At least we’ll have the anime, in any case.
Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell will be released on 31st of March 2017, but for now the all of the anime films and anime series are out on DVD. For those who haven’t seen it before, there are three continuities - Mamoru Oshii’s films, Stand Alone Complex and Arise - and there’s no need to watch them all in order. You can start wherever you like and go anywhere from there. Three choices may not seem much, but as the Major says, the world of GitS is vast and infinite. And you don’t need a cinema ticket to dive in now.