'Ghost in the Shell' raises questions about identity (and Scarlett Johansson)

By Andrew A. Smith

Tribune Content Agency

Trailers for Ghost in the Shell, which premieres March 31, have been out for a while – and while Scarlett Johansson looks awesome, they’re a bit hard to decipher. Let’s demystify Ghost with a quick Q&A:

Q: Since this is the “Captain Comics” column, I bet you’re going to tell me “Ghost in the Shell” started out as a comic book.

A: Correct. But not an American comic book.

A serial titled "Mobile Armored Riot Police: Ghost in the Shell” debuted in Japan’s Young Magazine comic book (called “manga”) in 1989. Written and drawn by Shirow Masamune, it has had several sequels and been turned into animated movies (“anime”), video games and TV shows. It’s kind of a big deal in Japan.

Copyright Kodansha Comics

The original Ghost in the Shell manga is available in a deluxe format.

Q: Those trailers don’t look like any riot police I’ve ever seen.

A: That’s because, according to Screenrant.com, the “Mobile Armored Riot Police” name was forced on a young Masamune by his publisher. Masamune preferred “Ghost in the Shell” because it reflected some of the themes he had written into the story, whereas there really weren’t any riot police. He managed to use “Ghost in the Shell” as a subtitle, and subsequent efforts dispensed with the “Riot Police” tag.

Q: If it’s not about riot police, what is it about?

A: Set in the mid-21st century, Ghost in the Shell is about a world where not only do many people have cybernetic prostheses, but some have fully artificial bodies and/or brains. The action takes place in the fictional city of Niihama (New Port City), and follows Public Security Section 9, a special operations task force comprised of ex-military and ex-police who combat cyber-criminals and cyber-terrorists. In this world that means quite a bit more than just hacking into someone’s emails; cyberbrains can be controlled, memories changed, vast amounts of information selectively edited.

Section 9 is led by the intrepid Major Motoko Kusanagi, who has both cyber-brain and cyber-body, who regularly ignores traditional law-enforcement protocols to take down the bad guys. So in addition to adventures both in the real world and the cyber-world, Ghost in the Shell is also filled with jurisdictional disputes, corrupt government officials, criminal corporations, foreign agents and various other types of intrigue. Philosophical questions also arise as to the nature of souls and identity.

Copyright Paramount Pictures

The Ghost in the Shell one-sheet features Scarlett Johansson as The Major.

Q. I still don’t understand the Ghost part. Is it related to Arthur Koestler’s 1967 book Ghost in the Machine?

A. Very good! Yes, the title is a nod to the concept introduced in British philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s 1949 book The Concept of Mind and expounded on in Koestler’s work. They were refuting the Cartesian concept of mind/body dualism, where mind and body run on parallel tracks. If you’re into that sort of thing.

As far as Ghost is concerned, Masamune defines “ghost” as the soul or psyche.

Q. Ghost in the Shell sounds like it’s influenced by cyberpunk, sometimes called tech noir, the subgenre of science fiction first popularized by William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, which generally focuses on marginalized losers of the detective noir variety in a near-future setting where great technical advancement, generally in computers and cybernetics, is juxtaposed against societal breakdown.

A: Couldn’t have said it better myself!

Q: I think you just did. Now let me ask you this: If the story is set in Japan and features all Japanese characters, why is American actress Scarlett Johansson the star?

A: Hands up, everyone who saw Fist of the North Star, Oldboy or Speed Racer! If you did, you were one of the few. Movies based on manga don’t have a good track record in the U.S., so Paramount probably felt like it needed a big box office draw.

And you can’t go bigger than Johansson, who was the top-grossing actor of 2016, according to forbes.com, bringing in $1.2 billion at global ticketing booths. That’s no accident, as Johansson is one of the few actors who can “carry” a movie.

Q: I’m conflicted. I do want the movie to succeed, but I disapprove of cultural appropriation.

A: If it makes you feel any better, the Japanese don’t seem to mind. A Hollywood Reporter article from April of last year quoted a number of Japanese fans, critics and executives expressing surprise that anyone would expect something other than an American actress in an American-made movie. The publisher is delighted that the property will get more worldwide exposure. And it is, after all, a story about artificial bodies, with the nature of identity a dominant theme.

Think of it this way: The Major is Japanese. But she’s wearing a body that happens to look like Scarlett Johansson.

Q: Can my wife get one of those?

A: Shut up.

Copyright Paramount Pictures

Scarlett Johansson plays The Major in Ghost in the Shell.

Q: Sorry. So is the movie identical to the manga?

A: No – certainly not the first manga, where Major Kusanagi has a twentysomething body and is depicted as somewhat girlish. The first anime (1995) gave us a more mature Motoko, which is the model for this movie. In fact, some of the poses Johansson adopts in the trailers seem straight out of the anime.

Also, in the comics Motoko has been a cyborg since childhood, whereas in the movie The Major – the only name the Johansson character has – is freshly robot-ized after some sort of accident. And she appears to have all of her brain, whereas Motoko is down to a very few biological parts.

(This can lead to some philosophical nusings, such as when Motoko says “Sometimes I wonder if I’ve already died, and what I think is ‘me’ isn’t really just an artificial personality comprised of a prosthetic body and a cyberbrain.” Or when a robot declares, “Listen, if it were possible to create robots that close to humans, they wouldn’t be robots, they’d be humans! The only thing different would be their external appearance.”)

Another difference is that the movie Major is described as the first of her kind, whereas in the manga, prosthetic bodies are commonplace. Masamune says in one of his many margin notes, “Major Kusanagi is deliberately designed to look like a mass-production model, so she won’t be too conspicuous.”

Q: What are these margin notes of which you speak?

A: Masamune wrote a lot of notes in the margins of his Ghost books, and often they are highlights. Some just translate Japanese sound effects into English. Some are purely technical. But Masamune is nothing if not opinionated, so he also expounds liberally on philosophy, design, politics, sociological issues, how to settle “the Northern Territories” dispute with the Russians, police tactics, the death penalty and more.

Q: Do you have a favorite?

A: Yes. On one page, Togusa is driving in pursuit of a suspect. A few pages later we see Motoko at the wheel. In between is this note: “After this, there’s a scene where Motoko takes over the driving, and Togusa checks his gear and puts it on. But it was too much of a hassle to draw so I left it out.” I laughed for five minutes.

Q: Sounds like I should read this book.

A: That’s not a question. But yes, you should.

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