Friday, May 5, 2017

The "Ghost in the Shell" Post-Mortem

Well, "Ghost in the Shell" is an undisputed bomb at the box office.  It's time for a post-mortem and some thoughts on future anime adaptations.  I was pretty excited for the new "Ghost in the Shell" myself, but after the crummy reviews and audience reactions, I may end up skipping it entirely.  So what happened?

There are two significant factors to keep in mind about the new "Ghost in the Shell" adaptation.  First, it is an adaptation of a fairly obscure Japanese franchise that has an ardent fanbase, but not an especially large one.  Second, there was the whitewashing controversy, which dogged the movie from the moment it was announced that Scarlett Johansson would be playing the lead role.  Both of these hurdles could have been overcome with the right approach to the material, but sadly the filmmakers kept making bad decision after bad decision.

First, the fact that "Ghost in the Shell" was relatively obscure wouldn't have mattered if the finished product could find a way to appeal to mainstream moviegoers.  Unfortunately, the reviews reveal a film that's heavy on flashy visuals without much going on underneath.  One red flag I should have noticed early on was that nearly all the early sneak peeks of film were essentially live action recreations of scenes from the original animated movie: the "Birth of a Cyborg" opening, the invisible fight sequence, and even the iconic rooftop shot of the Major in her thermoptic suit right in the film's first five minutes!  The marketing was definitely aiming at the fanbase, and didn't do enough to reach new viewers.

However, the movie definitely wasn't all that concerned with fidelity to the source material.  While many of the visuals of "Ghost in the Shell" were direct homages, a big departure was that our heroine, The Major, was now played by Scarlett Johanssen, a caucasian actress.  My position on changing the ethnicity of a character has always been that you can do it, but you've got to do it right.  It's one thing to adapt material into a different context, like taking the Hong Kong action thriller "Infernal Affairs" and remaking it as a Boston crime picture, "The Departed."  It's another when you're trading off of the existing goodwill toward a property and purposefully evoking the original, keeping the same title, character names, referencing the visuals, and so on.  Thus, having a Caucasian Major doesn't sit right  when the setting, concepts, and many of the other characters are practically identical to the Japanese originals.

And, mild spoilers here, the filmmakers really screwed up by trying to make the whitewashing of The Major into a plot point within the movie itself.  It wasn't handled well at all, so the result was essentially underlining how problematic the change was in the first place.  I highly recommend reading the Hollywood Reporter piece where four Japanese-American actresses break down all the cultural landmines that were inadvertently stepped on in the course of creating and marketing the new film.  And while I doubt that much of the intended audience actually cared about the whitewashing issue one way or another, the controversy provided very poor optics for "Ghost in the Shell," signaling that the filmmakers didn't know what they were doing.  That more or less proved to be true.

"Ghost in the Shell" could have been a more generic action film that pumped up the action and only incorporated bits of the original film's premise.  And it could have been a more faithful film that really committed to the idea of translating the anime to the big screen.  Instead, they tried to compromise, did it badly, and stumbled.  The original fanbase wasn't happy with the film's approach of cobbling together bits from the different "Ghost in the Shell" films and series, and then dumbing down of the headier, more existential narrative.  Meanwhile, newcomers weren't hooked by the expensive eye candy, and may have been turned off by all the apparent pandering to a fanbase that ended up unsatisfied with the finished product anyway.  

So where does that leave the anime and manga fans hoping for more adaptations?  Well, "Death Note" is finished and on its way shortly via Netflix.  Adam Wingard had the sense to do a near total cultural transplant, so his hero is a white kid living in Seattle, and the main antagonist is black.  "Battle Angel Alita" is coming next year from Robert Rodriguez with a Latina heroine.  Warner Bros.' "Akira" project is somehow still not dead, and Jordan Peele is being courted for it.  Plenty of other titles are in development.  

However, the failure of "Ghost in the Shell" is definitely going to affect how these movies are greenlit and made in the future.  The whitewashing controversy was so central to the discussion of the film's failure, it can't be ignored anymore.  I worry that the studios will take the wrong lesson here, and assume that these projects aren't viable without Asian leads, who are still considered major box office risks.  And then they won't make these films at all.      

However, the landscape is changing fast.  What I suspect may really affect how these adaptations look in the future are a couple of projects that have nothing to do with anime and manga: Disney's "Aladdin" and "Mulan," which have committed to Middle-Eastern and Asian casts, and "Crazy Rich Asians," which is making a concerted effort to show that Asian-American leads can be viable at the box office.  I wish them the best of luck.


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