So the live-action Ghost In The Shell movie came and went, and with it, the dream of seeing a high-quality Hollywood produced live-action anime, such as Akira or Battle Angel, took another big step backwards. Fans and critics were, for the most part, on the same page, as the film only made $40M in its first month in the US, and it’s Rotten Tomatoes score sits (at the time of this writing), at 46%. So the immediate reaction is to say that this movie is a bust. But that may or may or be the case. In fact, I am positive that in a few years, future critics and audiences will react more favorable to this film.The film will probably break even after all is said and done, that to the foreign markets, and home video sales. No one outside of the Hollywood studios knows exactly how Hollywood accounting works, but it is obvious that its success was going to be heavily dependent upon the Pacific markets (e.g. China and Japan).
In the domestic market, this film went up against some stiff competition. This wasn’t always the case for the month of March, but the Hollywood calendar is evolving, and the major studios are now releasing big budget tentpoles films earlier and earlier in the year. I dubbed the month of March, 2017 as “Live-action cartoon month” for movies, since Hollywood released films that were based or remade from animated franchises. First, 20th Century Fox released Logan, which is set in late 2020’s (just like Ghost in the Shell), and may perhaps be Hugh Jackman’s final performance as the titular mutant superhero. The following week, Warner Brothers released Kong: Skull Island. While not technically based on a cartoon, the studio intends to use this movie to set up a crossover between Kong and Japan’s Godzilla. Japanese movie monster, a.k.a.: kaiju, were traditionally men dressed up in a monster suit, rampaging over a miniaturized city set, which makes them, for the most part, live-action cartoon characters. That same weekend, Disney released a live-action Beauty and the Beast, a shot-for-shot remake of the 1991 animated classic. The week after that, Lions Gate released Power Rangers, yet another reboot of the very popular children’s franchise. Finally, GitS was released on the same weekend as Fox and Dreamworks’ animated feature, Boss Baby. All of these films made more money, and only Power Rangers and Boss Baby received a lower RT score (barely).
The two biggest critiques of the 2017 version was, 1) “they cast a Caucasian (i.e.: non-Asian) for the lead role of the Major (Motoko Kusanagi)”; and 2) “it was not the same as the 1995 anime.” Let’s discuss the former. This was made into a big deal in the Western world. White people, many of whom do not know or care much about non-white culture, suddenly became deeply concerned that a live-action film adaptation from a Japanese source material did not have an Asian (or at the very least an Asian-American) in the lead role. This is an interesting time for westerners to develop their sense of white guilt. Yet, a couple of months later, these were the same people who complained that the cast of Spider-Man: Homecoming had a cast that was “too diverse.” I thought the film’s script took advantage of the casting by making the Major’s “lack of Japanese-looking” a significant plot point. In fact, self-identity has always been one of the key themes of this franchise. This film adds an additional layer, as the Major not only contemplates her identity as a sapient being – man / cyborg / machine, but a sub-plot where her ethnic identity is also questioned, i.e. why doe she identify herself as “Mary”? Even if you agree with the critics in the general point that perhaps choosing ScarJo was a bit of a miscast, their alternate casting choices also displayed a lack of ethnic awareness, and thus also equally latently racist. When presented with their ideal versions of the Major, the critics listed actresses that were Asian, or Asian-American, but most of them had no Japanese heritage. To a Japanese native, a Chinese or Korean actress is just as foreign as a white American. But most importantly, the Japanese fans did not care that a gaijin, Scarlett Johansson, was cast in the lead. So while white critics were accusing Paramount of “cultural appropriation” with their casting, it was they themselves doing the appropriation – imposing their prejudices upon the Japanese audience.
As far as the latter argument, many contemporary film critics overvalued and overrated the 1995 movie directed by Mamoru Oshii. Almost none of the critics were professional reviewers in 1995. If you look at the Rotten Tomatoes page, only 4 of the 46 reviews were written before 2000. And it was Roger Ebert’s “thumbs up” that help propel the ultra-niche sub-genre of anime slightly towards the mainstream. All of this love towards the original anime is revisionist history. And if critics wanted Paramount to follow Disney, and do a shot-for-shot remake… well that was never gonna to happen. The 1995 film is listed as a 83 minute runtime. And since that includes the rolling of the credits, we’re really looking at roughly 75-77 minutes of animation. That barely qualifies as feature-length. What most folks do not realize is that the original magna artist, Shirow Masamune, is heavily into drawing fanservice – so much that borders on softcore pornography. I’m not sure if ScarJo has a “no-nudity” clause in her contract, but she has enough cache in Hollywood that she will not go topless on-screen if she doesn’t want to. Sorry boys.
As far as copying the directing style of Mamoru Oshii is concerned, let me ask you this, “How much did you love the last part of The Matrix Reloaded? You know, the part where Neo and the old man talked philosophy for 20 minutes with zero action on-screen? Did that grip you? Also, you can not say you want an Oshii-style film and complain about whitewashing at the same time. Oshii does not do character development. His best films are ones based on already established franchises where the main characters are already known and fully developed (Urusei Yatsura, Patlabor). Movies that navel gaze and make you contemplate life and/or the human condition may be a great work of art, but will folks pay $12-$15 at the multiplex to be forced to use their brains for 2 hours? Not enough – that’s why art houses exist. Sure there is enough source material (the magna) to make 3, or even 4 legitimate feature-length movies, but the way Oshii condensed the story for his film, he expunged as much action scenes as he could in favor of his patented sweeping pan shots where the emphasis is on the background and the iconic imagery it contains. No matter how good you are as a cinematographer, it is near impossible to transfer Oshii’s animation style into live-action.
The bottom line is that the 2017 Ghost In The Shell was not given a chance by its initial audience. The movie was criticized by professional and self-proclaimed critics for its “whitewashing” casting of the lead. Movie critics, who are supposed to judge each film in a vacuum, on its own merits, failed to do so. And SJWs, Bernie Bros, and other left-wing activists decided to focus their anger toward this film instead of something more tangible, like local and national politics. Future audiences will care less about what other films were released in early 2017, or the issue of whitewashing, and will probably have a slightly lesser opinion of the 1995 animated version. And thus, with a more neutral perspective, I believe future critics will appreciate this movie more than us. And thus earn the title “cult classic.”