Will ‘Ghost In The Shell’ Get Lost In Translation?

While the biggest controversy surrounding the live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell is the decision to cast Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi, there might be a bigger disconnect between the source material and the U.S. produced remake. To what degree will the influences and culture that made the now venerable 21-year-old classic a vanguard of its genre translate to a big budget live action feature?

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Sometimes The Location Is Not Just A Backdrop, It’s A Supporting Character

Imagine BBC’s latest version of Sherlock set anywhere but London, or any number of John Hughes’ love letters to Chicago filmed with generic city backgrounds instead of familiar Windy City landmarks.

Productions created without an intellectual and emotional connection to the provenance of the source material run the risk of feeling by-the-numbers to experienced anime fans. Stripping a work like Ghost in the Shell of its cultural context and its concomitant sense of place removes viewers’ ability to find a significant degree of purchase in the world of the story. A lack of connection can be the result when any sense of a recognizable home base is removed. It can mean a failure for the audience to connect with the story on a fundamental human level.

It is arguable that a live action production of Ghost in the Shell should be either immersed in a believable urban Japan of 2029, or relocated to another location that is better understood by the show runners. While a retread is not always desirable, sometimes a geographic and cultural refit can result in a more coherent work than something that has simply been plopped down into a new setting without considering the subtler place- and people-specific details.

Relocation isn’t always a bad thing. Yan Lee’s 1994 feature, Eat Drink Man Woman, was remade in 2001 as Tortilla Soup, with the family situation kept intact, but the setting and ethnicity changed from a Taiwanese family in Taipei to a Mexican-American family in Los Angeles. As Roger Ebert noted in his review of Tortilla Soup, the creators of the remake took care to respect the original story of the Chu clan and adapted or created scenarios that were more in keeping with what would be believable for the Californian Naranjo family.

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It’s Ozu Quiet, It’s Ozu Still

From a purely cinematic standpoint, the original 1995 film adaptation of Ghost in the Shell has more in common with the quieter, contemplative dramas of mid-century director Yasujir‍o Ozu than the more frenetic action films of the Wachowski siblings. Critics such as the Guardian’s Steve Rose have cataloged the movies that have been influenced by Ghost in the Shell. Such similarities are obvious.

Ghost in the Shell has plenty of action. The first ten minutes of the film are rife with gunfire, aerial combatants, and Scanners-level gore. Interspersed with those passages that seem to explode on the screen are transitions that stymie some Western viewers. Static images of city streets, closeups of small, seemingly unrelated details, ambient movement and sound that seems incidental are the hallmarks of Ozu’s influence.

This slowdown shows us the world through the eyes of the characters. There are two such montages in Ghost in the Shell. One is a street scene that ends with Major watching and being watched as an elevated train passes by. A brief vision she has as this happens changes her thoughts and feelings about the case she is investigating. The execution of the sequence is subtle to the point it is by design that this quiet moment in the middle of such a loud, splashy, violent movie is something that comes back after the credits roll.

It is in the quiet moments, when everyone onscreen is simply sitting and usually saying little, that so much is revealed. What is said is important. What isn’t said or done communicates volumes. The characters in Ghost in the Shell become multidimensional and they stick in our heads after we’ve stepped out of the cineplex and into the real world.

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The Cast Is Only One Piece Of The Puzzle

Decoding Ghost in the Shell is a delicate, detailed business that could lead to a cinematic masterpiece in the right hands. What if this year’s Ghost in the Shell turns out to be a big, loud, block-headed blockbuster in spite of the nuanced performance we can reasonably expect from Scarlett Johansson? Meet this decade’s Aeon Flux.

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[Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]