Ghost in the Shell: A Very Western Remake

When Paramount Pictures and Dreamworks announced plans for a live-action remake of the anime classic Ghost in the Shell, many were skeptical. When they cast a white actress, Scarlet Johansson as Major Matoko Kusanagi, internet outrage flared, many feeling understandably let-down by the producers, and the most recent image released seems to have only made things worse.

Above is said still. It shows Johnasson in the role of the Major while in production in New Zealand. As stated, this image has angered many, though some have praised how close to the original character concept Johansson has been made to look. I think it's easy to take issue with this. Firstly there's a hell of a lot more to a character than how they look. Secondly, there are thousands of Japanese actresses who wouldn't need to be made to look like Major Kusanagi, Thirdly, the only similarities between Johansson and the anime Kusanagi is that they've died Johansson's hair and cut it in the same style as the Major. Oh, and the green jacket; we can't forget the green jacket. Don't misunderstand, I like the hair and the jacket - I don't want anyone to go away from this article thinking, "Jeez, Sam really doesn't like Major Kusangi's hair or jacket, huh?" I do, I really do. All I'm saying is that I could dye my hair red and treat everyone around me terribly and it wouldn't make me Axl Rose. The idea that casting a white actress as a Japanese  character and picking arbitrary features to make her look vaguely similar is both erroneous and offensive. Unfortunately, this isn't even close to being the first time Hollywood has a cast a white actor in a non-white role and not all that long ago either.

This is Johnny Depp staring as Tonto in Disney's The Lone Ranger. Now, I'm going to contextualise this very simply, just so we're all on the same basic level of understanding going into this, okay? Tonto is a Native American (Contextualisation over). Do you know who's not a Native American? Johnny Depp. I think you can probably see where I'm going with this. It's fairly obvious that Johnny Depp isn't Native American and you'd think with the systematic abuse and repression of Native American communities by white European invaders that the least Disney could do when casting a Native American character is hire an actor of the same race. Instead what happened was they gave Johnny Depp face paint and got him to speak fractured English. Somewhat astoundingly, this wasn't the film's only problem. This two-and-a-half hour film was overlong by three hours, had a plot nobody could follow and featured a railway track that could only have been designed by M.C Escher. Despite this, Johnny Depp as Tonto was still the film's biggest issue.

There are, however, further problems with a remake of Ghost in the Shell. Anime and Manga are part of Japanese culture and, while it's great that we can enjoy these things in the West, the idea that Western film studios can reliably adapt anime and manga has a certain ring of cultural appropriation. Besides, there have already been Western films inspired by Ghost in the Shell. In 1999 a sci-fi thriller came out of Hollywood that turned the world of film on its head. That film was, of course, The Matrix. While not exactly a remake of Ghost in the Shell, the Wachowskis have always stated that it was a huge influence on them. If we look at what The Matrix is about, that's not really surprising; not so much in terms of story, but in its major themes. Ghost in the Shell is a film questioning whether technology and progress are synonymous, musing greatly on gender, reproduction, death and posing a somewhat philosophical take on the internet. The Matrix takes many of these themes and creates a new-ish story to present them to a Western audience, making points about capitalism, climate change and contemporary society. Inception did a similar thing with another anime called Paprika - a film which may have just been too strange to be palatable to many Western audiences. However, Chris Nolan took the core themes of dreaming and the unconscious mind and made a good film, inspired by an anime. It is possible to remake something from another culture, as long as you respect it.

If we look at this with the cultures reversed, the theory holds up. For example, the films of Akira Kurosawa based on the plays of William Shakespeare work because Kurosawa didn't try to recreate 16th century England. Instead, Kurosawa took the core themes and stories of these works and set them in feudal Japan; applying the plots of the plays to his own culture's history. More recently, Studio Ghibli's Spirited Away is clearly an adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, but instead of simply making an anime version of the story, Hayao Miyazaki changed parts of the story while keeping the same basic story and themes. These adaptions work because they admit that they understand the story and themes of the original works, but cannot represent a culture they are not a part of.

I understand why people are excited about a live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell; being able to re-live the film while allowing it to feel new at the same time is an enticing prospect; however, a Westernised version of it is inherently disrespectful. Suggesting Western producers can represent a culture they are not part of and can transform a classic of a completely different art-form shows a certain level of privilege and contempt, for me. Not only this, but the original Ghost in the Shell still stands up today. This film is only 21 years old and, while modern animation techniques may be slightly slicker, I don't think there's anything in there that would be a particular turn-off for contemporary audiences. People still watch Disney films from the 1950's, after all. It's great that people want to bring Ghost in the Shell to a new generation, but I don't think this live-action remake is the way to do it. A re-release of the original film would not only result in a far-superior movie being watched, but would show a mark of respect to the original work as well. There is clearly an audience for anime in the West - we need only look at Netflix listings and the popularity of Studio Ghibli to see that - and Ghost in the Shell is a wonderful example of what anime can be. There's an old adage which I'd rather not repeat, but in this case it seems fitting - "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" and the original Ghost in the Shell certainly ain't broke.

Sam Leeves is the author of the novels 'Endless Tides' and 'In the Footsteps of the Behemoth', they are also a member of The Fawcett Society. Find them on twitter, @CptSkyheart.

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