Already at the time of me writing this, there seems to be a general agreement among movie goers of the Western Hemisphere: stop with the live action adaptations of anime. The disappointing box office performance of Ghost in the Shell seems to be evidence enough of this. Hollywood studios are slowly realizing a painful fact: the anime fandom is among the hardest to please. They are not like your casual comic book, ski-fi, or Disney fandom, who are often just happy to see more of what they love on the big screen. Anime fans demand a bit more purity. For example, many anime would regard someone like me (who has been heavily into anime for half my life) as a “filthy casual” because I would happily watch an English dub, instead of the original Japanese voices with subtitles. How can Hollywood even hope to even try to please these people?
The thing is, they don’t. The main goal is not to only appeal to fans, who make up very little of the market, but to recycle a story that has been proven successful in one demographic in order to create a film that draws in the masses. The film industry has always been a numbers game, and appealing to the lowest common denominator often yields the highest returns. But that’s where Hollywood misunderstands both the casual film-goer as well as the anime fan. Without me trying to sound elitist, the stories of most anime are complicated and…weird, at least for people who are not used to them. It kind of defeats the purpose of introducing a story in a new medium to a different audience if the mere idea is intimidating and unappealing to them. In the meantime, the fans of the original will continue to snub it entirely because for the sheer fact that it’s not the original. A lose-lose situation.
Which brings us back to the recently released live action version of Ghost in the Shell. It suffered in the box office for the above reason and for another sin that Western adaptations are often guilty of: “whitewashing”. Because they cast white actress Scarlett Johansson as Major, a character who is Japanese in the original animated film and series, it as seen as another denied opportunity to give a role to an Asian actor. Normally, I would absolutely agree. I am just as sick of Hollywood whitewashing as everyone else and long to see more racial diversity in films. But this one time and one time only, I forgive this for happening. Mainly because…***SPOILER ALERT*** Major’s brain (ghost?) came from Motoko Kusanagi, a Japanese runaway. That makes the character technically Japanese in this film. At least, she started out as such. The main plot follows the character as a newly awakened cyborg who has an entirely artificial body but a human brain. (For newcomers to the franchise, think of it as a very advanced version of Robocop.) Because her body is an artificial “shell,”it could look like anything, in this case it looks like a very sexy Scarlett Johansson. Major Kusanagi didn’t even choose this shell, as it was designed by Hanka Robotics who forced her brain into it. So her being “white” is literally the fault of the bad guys in the film. I repeat, the bad guys made her white! THE BAD GUYS!***END OF SPOILER***
So, yes, I actually enjoyed the casting of this film. Scarlett Johansson is actually growing on me as an actress as she portrayed Major in both a subtly strong and troubled demeanor. The supporting cast is also surprisingly strong (as well as racially diverse) including Pilou Asbaek, Juliette Binoche, and legendary Japanese actor Takeshi Kitano. But did the film do justice to the original in terms of every other element? Well, yes and no. Visually, it was an absolute love letter to the original film, with many of the more iconic scenes faithfully recreated. Over all, the film was exceptionally pleasing on the eye, as it tried and succeeded in navigating the fine-line of a realism and over-the-top anime future scenery.
The real meat of the difference in the original versus the remake is, of course, the way the story and the characters were handled. I will be the first to admit, the story in the live action has been dumbed down quite a bit. The original threw you in with zero explanation and assumed you would eventually get it. (For this reason, I will admit that even I had a hard time watching it the first couple of times as a teenager.) The live action holds your hand and gently spells out everything that is going on for you. Another major difference is how the characterizations were handled. The original puts emphasis on philosophy and politics, whereas the live action puts more importance on emotions of the characters, especially that of Major. For those hard-core Ghost in the Shell fans who’ve read the manga, one might actually say the live action felt more like the manga than the animated film did, as the manga also put more human characterization into Major.
In the end, Ghost in the Shell was not a ground breakingly fantastic film. But at the same time, it really didn’t deserve all of the hate that people slung at it. It was still a decent film that made an honest attempt to introduce the source material to a new audience. Thats more than I can say about other anime adaptations (*cough, Dragonball Evolution.*cough.) But the questions still remain: Are these live action adaptations anime even necessary? And, what would it take for one to be both critically and commercially successful? I’m not sure if Ghost in the Shell brought us any closer to answering this, but I at least don’t resent its existence, none-the-less.