As an adaptation of a beloved and groundbreaking classic anime movie, Hollywood's Ghost In The Shell was always going to invite criticism. But when Scarlett Johansson's casting was announced this sparked a fierce debate about whitewashing, with people divided as to whether this was a problem or not. Now that #GhostInTheShell has been released, Rupert Sanders has certainly proven himself to be a visionary director, as the live action film deftly develops and adapts the anime movie's already stunning style.
The plot is part adaptation, part new story, radically changing who the Major is, and how she questions her identity. In the original anime, Major Motoko Kusanagi's journey is heavily existential, as she tries to discover who she is — the ghost of her consciousness, or her robotic shell body. Scarlett Johansson's Major is not so concerned with philosophical quandaries, but is rather hunting down her past, trying to find out who she was before her brain was placed in the shell.
The 2017 film is rather more simple in its approach to the Major's identity, and we are lead with her as she unearths the secret of her origins — her brain belonged to a young Japanese woman named Motoko Kusanagi, who was kidnapped and forced to take part in this experimental program. (Naturally, this only complicates the race issues, especially as the Major is frequently referred to as the next step in evolution, leading us to wonder why the scientists made her white... but I digress.)
The way the movie plays out suggests that the Major is Motoko, as she has her memories and refers to her past self as "I". And as we discover who she was, only more questions are raised about Motoko, and why she ran away. Crucially, we're also left wondering who the group of people were that Motoko fell in with — which is why Ghost In The Shell shouldn't get a sequel, but a prequel. Or perhaps both at the same time.
Evolving The Major, Discovering Motoko
If there something lacking in the live action Ghost In The Shell, it's the philosophical exploration that the 1995 movie was infused with.
Scarlett Johansson's Major is so obsessed with following her flashes of memory back into her past, that we lose a lot of Motoko's existential and cartesian ponderings that made the 1995 anime so groundbreaking. In the original, Motoko questions whether she is her cybernetic brain or her robotic shell, whether her consciousness makes her human or something new — and she discusses these questions at length. Unfortunately, we only get a hint of this in the live action Ghost In The Shell, but there's still plenty of time to explore this in sequels.
At the same time, we should look back on who Motoko was, and why she chose to live a dangerous life in the Lawless Zone. Her mother told the Major that Motoko was radically opposed to technology, which was apparently a borderline criminal view to hold in this tech-obsessed world. The anime made many comments on how cybernetic enhancements limited a person's agency and autonomy, as parts of them were owned by corporations — this especially applied to agents of Section 9.
By following Motoko's story, there's the opportunity here to paint her as an activist, or as someone who found out a terrible secret about these cybernetics, and what they mean for the people who choose to enhance themselves.
Sequel, Prequel, Or Both?
So how could a followup movie pick up on both these threads? There could always be two movies — one prequel and one sequel — which would expand the universe somewhat. But it would be very interesting to see the two storylines converge in one movie, which simultaneously showed Motoko's journey as the Major investigates a case that leads her into the same web of conspiracy that Motoko may have fallen into.
Dual timelines are always fascinating to see, and this would also allow a followup movie to show the difference between the Major and Motoko, leading to some of the existential questions from the original anime — as the Major fully embraces her new identity and questions if she's more cyborg than human.
Ultimately though, the merit of looking back to Motoko is that this would go a long way to repairing the racial issues that Ghost In The Shell is fraught with. Instead of erasing a Japanese woman and replacing her with Scarlett Johansson's Major, this prequel/sequel could make Motoko another protagonist — and having two parts of the Major's identity actively driving the story would rival the anime's philosophical complexity.
Of course, this is just an idea. Ghost In The Shell introduced us to a gorgeous, exciting, and dangerous world that is ripe for sequels to explore. More movies could delve into the culture of cyborg enhancement, or have the Major embark on a totally new mission that takes the franchise in fascinating directions. In any case, it'll be interesting to see what happens next — if Paramount even decides to pursue sequels. But with the Japanese Ghost In The Shell franchise stretching from manga to anime TV shows to film, there's no doubt that this is a narrative just itching for more exploration.
What would you like to see from 'Ghost In The Shell' next?
[Poll image credit: Paramount]