Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Let’s get this first part out of the way:

If there is one thing I’m tired of in the realm of film and television, it’s pre-emptive complainers trying to de-rail everything before it even comes out. with any review of this live action American/Chinese Ghost in The Shell film, everyone has drawn battle lines in regards to the elephant in the room of “Hollywood whitewashing”; in fact, I would say you were almost expected to take a side, and if you took a side that many didn’t like you’d get lectured by the other. It’s annoying that folks are getting in fights and “unfriending” each-other because of opinions over a goofy sci-fi film, but that’s our modern society I guess. Some popular reviews from major sites didn’t even talk about the film, they just reviewed everything that was in some way perceived as racist to stoke the outrage fires, this honestly comes across like they never actually watched it.

I’m not going to dwell on this topic too much because I can see both sides and don’t think arguing over whether or not Scarlett Johanson should or should not be cast as The Major actually addresses the actual problem that Hollywood has with representation. The internet witch hunts and rage were nearly identical to what people attempted to do with both recent Star Wars films, and even last years re-boot of Ghostbusters, and I honestly don’t care anymore. I’d rather discuss a film based on an anime/manga property that I’ve loved for upwards of 20+ years, and how it turned out.

/end rant

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Ghost in The Shell has been a favorite of mine for a VERY long time. I recall being first introduced to it through my older stepbrother that loved cyberpunk stuff – he had the original Masamune Shirow manga laying around at some point when I was visiting and I was enthralled by what I saw. Not too long after that, I was able to rent the anime adaptation from one of our local video stores and was hooked on the franchise from that point forward. every continuation has been something I get really excited about – all the movies, games, TV shows etc. That said, I was torn when they announced that a western adaptation was going to be produced a few years ago.

Readers may recall that I’m pretty vocal about my dislike for most anime adaptations because they don’t treat the source material with respect and are generally bad (Dragonball Evolution is the king of this). That goes for live action adaptations produced in Japan itself. I am always annoyed when they discuss a possible Akira remake because the two directors that were vocally lobbying for it seemed determined to completely alter the entire premise of the story into something else. I recall at one point, the script going around had Kaneda and Tetsuo, protagonists of the film, gender swapped and made into former lovers – nope! Any such fears that I had with Ghost in the Shell were calmed when the released the first trailer – the logo was there, scenes appeared to be adapted directly from the 1995 film, characters looked almost correct – “wait?! was this going to be okay somehow?” the controversy I touched on above was something that troubled me a bit, but I figured I’d give it a shot and see what happens.

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Quick verdict – Ghost in the Shell 2017 is good, not great, and it’s not deserving of the critical heat it’s getting online.

An argument can be made that many of the visual flourishes in this film seem like a road often traveled, somewhat dated, nothing new. That’s by design, as many scenes are literally directly lifted from the 1995 film – keep in mind that the source material is nearing thirty years of age if you go even further back to the comic. it’s filled with typical cyberpunk aesthetics, and much like steampunk, or post-apocalyptic fiction – straying too far from the agreed upon tropes is never a great idea. Most “cyberpunk” properties follow a set groundwork laid by much older films like Blade Runner, books like Neuromancer, and the like. Ideas like megacities run by huge militarized corporations, dingy slums filled with bright holographic neon lights, weird Asian and Western culture amalgamations and the idea of trans-humanism seem passe today, but we seem to be ever closer to that very reality. it might not look the same, but in many ways cyberpunk is closer to our modern society than it was back in the 80’s.

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I mentioned that some scenes were directly influenced by the Mamoru Oshii film of the same name, and I would even go as far as to say that this was almost a shot-for-shot remake of that very film with a little bit of some of the sequel material sprinkled in. This is a double edged sword in many ways, as seeing scenes like the building infiltration, the spider mech fight, and the cloaked fight with the hacked garbage man was cool, but a lot of those scenes were a lot cooler and more fleshed out in the original film. This was because there was a decent amount of new material – some adapted from the comics or TV series taking up the runtime. Reading reviews online, a constant complaint I kept seeing was that “The Major got a new backstory” which is funny because Hideo Kuze and his revelations at the end of the TV series factor into this film quite a bit, meaning that people have not seen Stand Alone Complex and should not be commenting on it as if they are authorities on the matter.

For much of the film, we know The Major as Major Mira KIllian – a cyborg created by a large robotics company named Hanka Robotics. She was a survivor of a refugee boat accident – something that left her family dead and herself severely injured. Her brain was the only thing salvageable from her body, so it was put in a new body as a second chance at life as long as she’s cool being basically sold to the government as a weapon. Of course, this is all BS and the driving force behind The Major trying to piece her previous life back together.

Much like the backstory stuff, I saw people complaining that the inclusion of Hanka was a new addition to the franchise, but they were actually an organization from the original comic, although not as major as here. In both versions they are a VERY bad company, as the comic version of Hanka was caught in a scandal where they were dubbing the ghosts of children into a mass-produced consumer robot to achieve a greater sense of human personality. Here, without going into too much detail – they are trying to create a race of perfect soldiers with human brains in a cybernetic body, where they get these brains could be an issue.

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In some ways, making Hanka Robotics a major plot point in the film is actually going against one of the major philosophical ideas from the original manga. In a world where the internet is literally in and around you at all times, and cyber-warfare is something even low-level street thugs dabble in from time to time, old ideas like national sovereignty and borders are basically obsolete. Section 9 always skirted a fine line between acting within the scope of normal law enforcement, and treating the Networks as a free for all that the old ways stood against. Leaving out some of this diplomatic and political intrigue sort of boils down the role that Section 9 and Hanka have as nothing more than a Corporation acting as The Government and Section 9 acting as their willing lap-dog. I guess in some ways that’s a telling indictment of the current status-quo with our own corporations, but something that I wanted to point out as a major difference. Hanka is also a convenient way to have a blatant “villain” rather than the numerous ephemeral “gray area” antagonists the material usually features.

There are a few differences like this that are not huge deal breakers, but sort of “dumb down” the ideas from Ghost in the Shell to a more palatable product for those looking to see an action popcorn movie rather than a philosophical look into trans-humanism. I’m not annoyed by this in any way because no two versions of Ghost in the Shell are exactly alike. The manga, the Oshii films, The TV series, and the recent Arise films are all different parallel versions of this story, and none of them are very much alike to be honest. I actually prefer the TV series Stand Alone Complex, to the films and dislike the manga sequel. with a franchise like this, there are many ways to look at the story – something for everyone.

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When it comes to casting, I absolutely loved the job they did. And yes, Scarlett Johanson did a fine job no matter what internet folks want you to believe. Pretty much every character from section 9 is present aside from Paz, seemingly replaced by a new character named Ladriya, I’m pretty sure she’s not from any previous version, but could be wrong. Takeshi Kitano (As Aramaki) is my favorite Japanese actor, and having him be such a badass in this film was awesome. He has, by far, the best line in the entire film where he chumps out an entire squad of armored assassins with a briefcase and quips “Never send a rabbit to kill a fox”. I wanted to clap at that very moment, but that probably would have made everyone mad in the theater.

Chin Han is also great as Togusa, perhaps my favorite character from the TV series. He’s not a major part of the film by any means, but I was glad to see him in there. Finally, I wouldn’t be able to discuss this without talking about Batou, as played by Danish actor Pilou Asbæk. I’ve somehow missed him up to this point, but he was really good – he really captured the character and was perhaps the truest to the source material of anyone in the film.

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I’ve already written a lot here, and I don’t want to spoil more than what I have since the film does have a few mysteries and twists. To reiterate from above Ghost in the Shell 2017 is a good, but not great film that stayed close to the source material with a few alterations. Yes, these alterations sort of “water-down” some of the themes of the source material itself, but this was a summer popcorn flick, I was never under the assumption that this was going to be a complex film for jaded otaku. I enjoyed the casting despite the online backlash, and would be up for a sequel if one ever materializes. That is unlikely as the film hasn’t really caught the box office on fire, but who knows. I am sad that there was no reference to any sort of mobile tank unit like the Fuchikoma / tachikoma / Uchikoma /or Logikoma units from the numerous iterations of the franchise. This was no surprise as they are not present in the 1995 film either unless you count the spider tank.

I’d say ignore the haters and see this for yourself – I’m not saying you’ll like it, but it’s not the bucket of dog turds everyone wants it to be.

 


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Black Magic M-66 (1987) OVA

Black Magic M-66 Screenshot

Science fiction stories, and more specifically cyberpunk stories, are by far my favorite type of anime and manga; and one of the grandmasters of the genre would have to be Masamune Shirow. Not only did he unleash the beast that was the Ghost in the Shell franchise to our defenseless eyes, but also brought a helping of Dominion Tank Police, Gundress and even Appleseed. Rest assured, as this blog continues, I will be posting more of his stuff than you can handle.

So, what makes Shirow’s work stand out so much? Despite his foray into erotic pin-up art for the last decade or so, Shirow’s work was essentially the formula that most 80’sand 90’s cyberpunk anime followed. His productions were characterized by sexy leading ladies, philosophical plots, and a procedural police drama flavor. On top of all of this, Shirow is known for his highly detailed level of world building; this is seen most notably in his vehicles, mecha, firearms, and cybernetics.

Black Magic M-66 Screenshot

Before Ghost in The Shell or even Apleseed, Shirow penned a science fiction manga simply called Black Magic. Bandai eventually got the rights, and produced a short OVA (original video animation) based loosely on a small portion of the comic. Hiroyuki Kitakubo also co-directed this piece, and later went on to work on such films as Akira, Gundam: Char’s Counterattack, and Roujin Z usually as a key animator or storyboard director. So here we go – let’s look at Black Magic M-66, one of Shirow’s earliest works!

Black Magic M-66 is the story of a hard-as-nails and usually scantily-clad journalist named Sybil out for the scoop of her career. She learns about a crashed military transport and two lethal combat androids on-board. She assumes that the military is going to battle a “violent, armored thing on the road”, but little does she know, it’s worse. Perhaps because of the crash, or a fault in programming, these mechanical murderers get loose and set out to kill the granddaughter of their own creator. Sybil has a choice, if she wants her big payday, she better protect the girl from the bots.

Black Magic M-66 Screenshot

The plot essentially boils down to a prolonged chase scene that somewhat reminded me of the first Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator film. M-66 is like the Terminator and has been programmed to kill Ferris (Sarah Conner) who is only safe because she is being protected by Sybil (Kyle). Yeah, it lacks the time travel plot and other aspects, but the similarity is there. I wish that Black Magic M-66 could have been a tad longer, because the plot really gets rolling about 10-15 minutes into the movie, and rushed to the ending from then on. To me, It needs a bit more breathing room.

This video has a lot of what I like to call “the pervy side of Shirow”. I mentioned earlier, that Shirow basically exclusively produces erotic pin up art ever since he completed his manga Ghost in the Shell II: Man Machine Interface. People thinking that this career turn is a new thing, need to go back and watch Black Magic M-66. Not only is Sybil’s very first scene one where she is not wearing any clothes, but other characters seem to be border-line nudists as well. Ferris, The aforementioned granddaughter in question, walks around in what I can best describe as her underwear with shoes on for a good chunk of her early scenes.

Black Magic M-66 Screenshot

A special nod goes out to the way the android M-66s are designed and their “fighting style”. When they finally are spotted by the military and engaged, the inhuman,near animalistic way in which they move is almost unsettling. The “male” M-66, which meets a grizzly end by way of military might towards the beginning of the feature, is vaguely monkey like and sticks to the ground, whereas the “female” M-66 lumbers around shooting things with laser eyes and retracting knives as fingers. These monstrosities really bring this film into it’s own,and keep the whole thing full of “on the edge of your seat moments”.

Before I sat down to write this, I had never actually seen this anime for some reason. I think this boils down to the scarcity of the older Manga Entertainment DVD when I used to work at a retail store, and my unwillingness to spend large amounts of money on it. I believe the older DVD was released in 2001, and it wasn’t until a few months ago that a new company, Maiden Japan, re-released it minus any English dubbing. If in a pinch, I bet you could find it on any popular video sharing site, but I don’t condone that due to an actual American license, but whatever floats your boat.

Black Magic M-66 Screenshot

In conclusion, Black Magic M-66 is not as polished as later works from Masamune Shirow, but it still retains a lot of his trademark style. You have the procedural cop drama trope with the military guys, the mecha, the androids, and even the sexy female lead. All it’s missing is the philosophical treatment with the plot. If anything, it’s always fun to see where a director honed his chops.

Black Magic M-66 Screenshot