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Ghost vs Ghost: Ghost in the Shell

Promotional posters, Ghost in the Shell animated movie (1995) and live-action adaptation (2017)

Ghost in the Shell is one of those classic anime movies that seasoned fans recommend to newcomers. Like most anime, it began life as a manga. Ghost’s progenitor was the cyberpunk-themed series by Masamune Shirow which ran from 1989-1990. Its original Japanese name was Kōkaku Kidōtai which means “Mobile Armored Riot Police.” This was the publisher’s idea. Shirow preferred the title Ghost in the Shell, an homage to Arthur Koestler’s classic book The Ghost in the Machine.

As I said, the 1995 animated version is a classic. It spawned several follow-up stories with the same setting and characters, including a 2008 revision that updated some of the original’s animated scenes. Following the recent trend, there was a live-action version in 2017, directed by Rupert Sanders and starring Scarlett Johansson. There was controversy surrounding her role, which I’ll address later.

Having missed seeing the live-action movie in the theaters, Mrs. Desperado and I recently rented the DVD. We were surprised to discover that, unlike the majority of these anime adaptations, it was quite well done. It was also seemed faithful to the original, as far as we could recall. Since we hadn’t seen the animated version for several years, we re-watched the original online. It was fascinating to compare the two.

Ghost in the Shell is a sci-fi adventure set in a not-too-distant future (2029!) where many people enhance their bodies with technology to become cyborgs. The show’s title refers to the notion that even a cyborg has a soul, or “ghost.” Its protagonist is Major Motoko Kusanagi, a badass action hero whose brain is her only organic component. She works for the Japanese government’s Section 9 investigating crimes involving technology. Her sidekicks are Togusa, an unmodified human ex-cop, and Batou, a Schwarzenegger-like cyborg with creepy electronic eyes. In the movie, these roles are played by Chin Han and Pilou Asbæk respectively.

The plot of the original animation was complex, involving several interrelated conspiracies. Its imagery is amazing, all the more impressive for having been made in 1995. The 2017 movie incorporates many elements from the original, including the Major’s “naked” plunge from the top of a skyscraper. The nudity isn’t gratuitous; she removes her uniform because her plastic robot skin incorporates thermoptic camouflage. Somehow she controls her descent and crashes through the window on a lower floor where a violent criminal gang is holding hostages.

The Johansson movie drops some of the anime’s side-plots and focuses on the Major’s primary investigation. She’s fighting an epidemic of “ghost-hacking,” a technique which allows criminals to take over the brains of enhanced humans, forcing them to commit acts of violence and other crimes. In both versions, the prime suspect is a mysterious entity called “the Puppet Master” with mysterious motivations. In the movie, everything becomes clear at the end. In the anime, we’re not so sure.

We then went on to see some of the related animations. The animated film Ghost in the Shell 2015 has little in common with the original story, excluding the setting and characters, though we found it to be a fairly good (albeit confusing) cyberpunk detective story. Another was Ghost in the Shell 2 Innocence (2004) which features Togusa and Batou almost exclusively. This one has animation that’s not just good, it’s breathtaking. We found it amusing to hear the two investigators spout quotations by philosophers of all stripes, including Buddha, Confucius, and the Old Testament.

Of course, we can’t ignore the related controversy. Certain sensitive types were scandalized that a white woman was cast in a Japanese story that takes place in Japan. Though since Japan is a very homogeneous society, you would think social-justice types would welcome the diversity. In terms of the story, the Major is a cyborg, her race is irrelevant. Recently Johansson has courted controversy again, saying in an interview with As If Magazine that as an actor she should be able to play whatever roles she wants. I agree. Brava, Scarlett!

Regarding our comparison of the two shows, I liked the original animation, with its complex and intricate plot, slightly better. Mrs. Desperado strongly preferred the live-action, which I believe is a first for her. As for our rating, I would give both of them 4.5 out of 5 gears. I strongly suggest you check them both out! The other two I mentioned are still pretty good, rating a solid 4 out of 5 gears.

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