You probably didn’t know about “Ghost in the Shell” until the Scarlett Johansson live-action adaptation, out Friday, came around. That movie has now been clouded by the controversy surrounding alleged “whitewashing” of what was originally a Japanese character — a necessary, though complicated, conversation about the story’s origins and how Hollywood operates. But if nothing else, hopefully the new movie sends people back to the bold, brilliant manga and anime franchise on which it’s based.
“Ghost in the Shell” has had a cult following in the US since the 1995 release of the anime movie directed by Mamoru Oshii (and it’s big business in Japan). But it has also quietly influenced many of the movies you watch, and how we think about the future of technology and humanity for decades. You’ve seen bits and pieces of it before.
The Wachowskis openly cited the anime movie as an inspiration for “The Matrix.” James Cameron called “Ghost in the Shell” “a stunning work of speculative fiction,” and the future of his “Avatar,” in which humans remotely operate alien bodies, certainly bears a resemblance to the anime.
But the Wachowskis’ movie looks closest to “Ghost in the Shell.” The 1999 blockbuster even has the same holes in the backs of characters’ necks to “plug in.” The “digital rain” of green Matrix code contains reversed Japanese characters, a shoutout to its predecessor.
The ideas that drove “The Matrix” are also ripped straight (lovingly so) from “Ghost in the Shell.” Oshii and the creator of the “Ghost” manga (a type of Japanese comic) Masamune Shirow posed serious philosophical questions about a potential future when our human bodies have been intimately fused with technology — mechanically enhanced and able to plug into the internet straight from our minds.
In the ’95 “Ghost in the Shell,” Major Motoko Kusanagi is a brain inside a manufactured body, the “ghost” inside the “shell.” Her robotic parts are owned by the government, and she does the bidding of an anti-cyberterrorism task force known as Section 9. She questions who she is, who she was, and what it even means to be human. If even your brain has been augmented by technology, are you still you?
In one crucial scene, Major explains that she thinks about becoming someone else. She feels constrained by her cyborg self and dreams of something more. Meanwhile, a hacker known as the “Puppet Master” who was designed as a government tool has gone rogue and is hijacking people’s brains, implanting false memories.
At the end of “Ghost in the Shell,” in an unsettling twist that speaks to the deeper philosophical meaning of the movie, Major actually merges with her ostensible enemy, the Puppet Master, who is not chained to a body. The old Major does not exist, and neither does the Puppet Master, but rather they’ve created a new being, who’s free to roam around what Major calls “the net,” which is “vast and infinite.”
You know what else is vast and infinitie? The Matrix, where human beings live out programmed lives while their physical bodies atrophy in pods. As in “Ghost in the Shell,” their memories have been implanted. The question of what is “real” and what is virtual — and whether the difference even matters — is at the heart of both movies.
“Ghost and the Shell” and “The Matrix” became central to what was known as “cyberpunk” sci-fi in the 1990s. It’s often remembered for its aesthetics — the dark trench coats, that mix of grimy urban sprawl with futuristic computer enhancement — but cyberpunk was also a movement that, at the end of the millennium, challenged people to think about how technology would fundamentally change what it means to be human.
Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks bought the US movie rights to “Ghost in the Shell” nine years ago, and it’s not hard to see why. Spielberg’s 2001 movie “A.I.” resembles “Ghost in the Shell” not only in its cyberpunk atmosphere, but also in its own wrenching philosophical conundrum: If you build a “robot who can love,” is his love any different from a human’s? Is his love “real”?
Of course, “Ghost in the Shell” hardly invented these questions. They’ve vexed people as long as technology itself. But it did wrap up those themes in a cool-looking package that continues to hook filmmakers and cult-movie fans. The recent acclaimed indie hit “Ex Machina” imagines the power (and possible destruction) of a robot who can think for herself — and dress up just as if she were a real woman. (Sound familiar?)
The new “Ghost in the Shell,” while full of thrilling cyperpunk action and visual detail, sadly takes only small stabs at the deeper philosophy of the franchise. In the most provocative scene, Major hires a female prostitute simply so she can feel the woman’s flesh-and-blood body, what it’s like to be “fully human.” When asked what she is, Major says, “I don’t know.” You can feel Scarlett Johansson doing everything to convey the character’s anguished searching for herself, how she lives between cyborg and organic worlds. But by the end, the movie cops out with a corny and racially uncomfortable backstory reveal that, as one critic points out, is more “Bourne” than cyberpunk.
Johansson’s “Ghost in the Shell” may not live up to its source material, but the “vast and infinite net” imagined by the groundbreaking anime movie is still out there, haunting our dreams of the future.
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