Ghost in the Shell
“The camera pans across the metropolis, displaying legions of women depicted solely as sex workers or fetishized, Orientalist fantasies.”
Title: Ghost in the Shell (2017)
Director: Rupert Sanders 👨🏼🇬🇧
Writers: Screenplay by Jamie Moss 👨🏼🇺🇸, William Wheeler 👨🏼🇺🇸, and Ehren Kruger 👨🏼🇺🇸; original comic by Shirow Masamune 👨🏻🇯🇵
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Ghost in the Shell is uninspired and boring as hell—the cardinal sin of any action film whose most rudimentary function is to entertain. Before you ask, I have not seen the original anime, so I’m judging this film on its own missteps rather than any unrealized potential.
I’d give this a 1 since it’s a total “Skip” for me. You want technicolor urban landscape? Watch Blade Runner, Wong Kar Wai’s 2046, or the latest TRON. More interested in the themes of robotic consciousness? Japan has the genre on lock with Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis or the entire anime series Serial Experiments Lain, or if you’re not a big anime person, go with the more recent Ex-Machina which is a solid film if you can stomach the Asian sex-doll trope. Meanwhile, if you literally just want to zone out to pretty entertainment, our recently reviewed Kong: Skull Island is mindless and fun, or you can watch some ridiculous explosions in The Fate of the Furious. There are so many better ways to spend two hours than sinking it into this quagmire of a film.
However, we always grade this category with an eye on outside sources to remove bias, so I’ll meet Metacritic halfway (critics averaged 52/100) and round this up to a 2.
- The film has a female lead!
- Oh, but there’s only one other female with speaking lines.
- Dammit, she just died.
- Wait, why is literally every other woman either a geisha, a robot, and/or a prostitute?
Literally every female representation beyond Dr. Ouelet (played by Juliette Binoche) is a sex fantasy of some kind. For example, here’s a subservient robot geisha:
Said robot geisha winds up begging for her existence, only to get her face blown off by Scarlett Johansson:
Obligatory strip club scene where all the dancers are Asian:
Sex worker surrounded by Orientalism:
In short, Ghost in the Shell treats women as if they are playthings in a world of men. Having one female agent who kicks a lot of ass does not a feminist make—instead, Major, played by Scarlett Johansson, is a weapon deployed and used by men.
To be fair, the screenwriters clearly attempted to give Major a backstory in hopes of infusing this film with some much-needed substance. But it never coalesces and she remains as lifeless in dialogue as she does on camera, despite everyone’s best efforts.
The only reason I’m giving this half a point is the simple fact of having a female headliner. I can’t possibly give it any more; the sheer grossness I feel when the camera pans across the metropolis, displaying legions of women depicted solely as sex workers or fetishized, Orientalist fantasies is too stomach-churning for me to even consider this a passable portrayal of gender parity.
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 17% of creative decision-makers were female
Ghost in the Shell is mired in accusations of whitewashing, which is the Hollywood practice of erasing Asian-Americans from media—a practice that has a long history full of complexities that I won’t get into here, largely because I already cover whitewashing in my review of The Great Wall and can only flog a dead horse for so long.
Instead, check out Eliza Berman’s primer on the controversy, which sheds light on why audiences have slapped a scarlet letter (a white ‘W’?) on this film.
Moving away from the lightning rod that is Johansson in the role of Major, what else can we look at to measure diversity in this film? The cinematographer, Jess Hall, has said he “found the casting controversy quite weird,” and that “it’s really very diverse casting.”
It’s true, they’ve checked the boxes in displaying black, multiracial, Japanese, and other Asian appearances across the film. But the moment you examine how race is distributed among roles, the issues becomes patently obvious. For example, while it’s true that these are Asian actors:
...shouldn’t we pause for a moment to wonder why Asians are peppered throughout the film as whores, perverts, and cartoon villains, but were passed over for the role of Motoko Kusanagi?
As for other portrayals, here is a room full of POC who have no speaking lines (that I can remember...I’ll be honest, I was super bored at this point so might be misremembering details):
I mean, I guess thumbs up for casting some POC for non-speaking roles. What do these filmmakers want, a pat on the back for not making this film entirely white, in an age where white people only make up about 16-30% of the world population? (Actual share depends on how you're defining "white.")
Lastly, I can’t overlook Takeshi Kitano in the role of Aramaki. Kitano is an acclaimed actor/filmmaker and I’ve been a fan of his since first seeing him act in Taboo. His character Aramaki is the sole reason I’m giving this category 1.5 points instead of 1; I appreciate how filmmakers left his dialogue in Japanese, as it was the only whiff of authenticity in this entire film which pillages Asian culture for fetishized window dressings of kanji characters, neon cityscapes, and kimonos and Buddhist monk garb. Other than Aramaki as anomaly, Ghost in the Shell balks at humanizing any of its non-white characters.
There is one LGBTQ moment in Ghost in the Shell:
My initial reaction was the same as Hannah-Rose Yee's, as she writes on Whimn:
“This tokenistic lesbian scene...feels slapped into the narrative, haphazardly and without precursor, and is steadfastly never mentioned again. It seems to be there purely for the tongue-wagging headlines: Scarlett Johansson Kisses Model In Ghost In The Shell - rather than for inclusiveness, diversity or representation.”
In fact, even the framing of the shot is purposefully voyeuristic, framed by the doorway as if you are watching a private performance.
However, I think Yee either doesn’t realize or skips over the fact that Motoko Kusanagi is canonically queer—either lesbian or bisexual, according to the manga. It leads me to wonder if the filmmakers were trying to make a nod to the original series with the inclusion of this kiss. Unfortunately, much like the rest of the film, the virtues of the source material get utterly destroyed through the Hollywood sausage-maker and in the end, this scene comes off as an opportunistic ploy made to titillate straight, male audiences.
Mediaversity Grade: F 1.88/5
Ghost in the Shell is a total wash. The cast and creators clearly do not understand the concepts of gender and racial equality and have the gall to defensively mansplain and whitesplain their well-deserved controversy via comments such as the cinematographer telling us the film is “really very diverse,” or ScarJo saying she “would never want to feel like [she] was playing a character that was offensive” (but who did and never owned up to it.)
Honestly, is it any surprise that this is the end result of a creative roster comprised entirely of straight, white men and a stable of male producers? While 33% of the producers listed on IMDB are Japanese men, we must keep in mind that Japan is NOT the United States, and Japanese viewers have extremely different tastes and needs than Asian-American viewers. Meanwhile, it would take an entire essay to even scratch the surface of Japan’s own set of cultural issues when it comes to misogyny and the worshiping of white Westerners, so I will simply headdesk at the myriad of cultural problems Ghost in the Shell embodies, then heave a large sigh of relief at headlines such as this from Vanity Fair:
“Ghost ultimately earned a meek $19M in its opening weekend, beat out by a talking baby and anthropomorphic houseware.
“I think the conversation regarding casting impacted the reviews,” one exec says.”
After whitewashed films The Great Wall, Aloha, Cloud Atlas, and now Ghost in the Shell have flopped at the box office, I can only cross my fingers and hope for a slow, sea change that sees more opportunities for Asian-American actors and creatives to tell their own stories.