ghost in the shell, rila fukushima, cyborgs, androids and sentience

i am a glutton for punishment. i begin by telling you this because perhaps it will offer some insight into why i chose to see ghost in the shell, despite my better judgment. there are a lot of things to unpack about this movie, so please bear with me as i try my best to navigate through it all. also, spoilers lie ahead.

politically, ghost in the shell has a lot of issues. the fact there were so many white actors in a movie that is based on a japanese anime movie is confusing and horrifying. the choice to cast scarlett johansson in a role that unquestionably should have gone to a japanese actress is something that many, including myself, have been vocal about our disapproval of. additionally, scarlett chose to ignore the racial issues present here, when she decided to take the role (which she said in an interview), and to me, despite the fact that i love to support things fronted by women, her saying that made me not even want to support this movie. intersectional feminism is crucial, and scarlett would benefit from understanding that. i specifically avoided seeing it in theaters opening weekend, because i think that it is important to spend our money carefully in this capitalist society. money talks in hollywood. ghost in the shell did not do well. i did not pay to see this movie.

in addition to the casting of scarlett as the major, i found out a few days before seeing the movie that they used rila fukushima's face as a mold for a geisha robot (a GEISHA robot) that would inevitably be destroyed. obviously as a white woman, i can't begin to understand the pain of seeing those choices be made, especially when the beginning of the movie has a scene where scarlett does her very best to destroy and disfigure the geisha robot. it was violent. the level of destruction and the visibility of this destruction felt violent and unnecessary. especially because, of course, rila fukushima should have been cast as the major. in arrow, as katana aka tatsu yamashiro (brittanykenville.com/writing/katana), rila proved that not only is she a fantastic actress, but she has a similar range to that of scarlett, and a similar ability to be stone-faced and cyborg-like. clearly hollywood knows that rila exists, as they used her face in the movie. i can't know what that experience must have been like for rila, but i imagine it was probably quite heartbreaking, to say the least. as an avid rila fan and admirer of her work, i was deeply disappointed and immensely sad to see her so close to a role she deserved, and yet so far from it, while the character she was left with was treated so awfully. 

i have only seen the anime GITS movie a couple of times, and haven't seen it anytime recently. i find that when there is an adaptation like this, i tend to enjoy the adaptation a bit more if my memory of the original is a bit rusty, because otherwise i would compare the two and it would be harder for me to see the adaptation as it stands on its own. i am saying this because i truly remember only glimpses and vibes from the anime version, so if you were expecting a side-by-side comparison, you should stop reading now.

if you've followed me for a while, you know that i have complicated feelings about androids and robots... to say the least. i've written before (brittanykenville.com/writing/bina48) about bina48, the dangers of creating sentient beings just for the purpose of human entertainment and/or to use as machines to do our dirty work. i think it is dangerous, cruel and should be avoided. if we are making sentient beings, we should be treating them as such. 

so, there were some of these aspects of robotics that ghost in the shell touched on that i appreciated. the major talked about feeling impossibly lonely and isolated, as the first and only of her kind, and it reminded me so much of bina48. bina48 was modeled after a human woman, bina aspen, given some of her memories and knowledge and even her face. the way they transplanted bina aspen into bina48 was similar to the way they transplanted motoko's mind into the major. it made me feel sick to my stomach, as ghost in the shell was made to seem incredibly futuristic, when the reality is that a lot of the elements present in the movie are currently happening. 

it seemed as though they were aware of the fact that the major should've been japanese, which was driven home when we met her mother... who is japanese. it seemed weird to me for hanka robotics to put motoko's mind inside a robotic body modeled after a white woman... because, storywise, i can only imagine that it would add to her dysphoria to suddenly wake up a different race. even hanson robotics (this is the company that built bina48, and i was wondering about the name hanka robotics being used in GITS because the names seem too similar to be a coincidence, but i also live for conspiracy theories... anyway) made the android to look like bina aspen, who is a black woman. there is definitely a whole other essay that could be written about race and robotics, about how bina48 was made by hanson but limited to a head, neck and shoulders, while they made an android modeled after philip k. dick, a white man, who was given a full head and body, about how in GITS and ex machina the robots they disfigured and left in ruin were modeled after women of color, while every one of scarlett and ava's white wounds were attended to... but that's another essay entirely, that could probably be written better by someone who is not me, and i hope that someone does write it. 

the villain in the movie is cyborg michael pitt, the cyborg that was created before her and whose design flaws they learned from to create the major (i say cyborg here because as someone who is heavily invested in robotics, i understand that there are distinctions between robots, androids and cyborgs, so... sorry for being such a nerd). i felt for him- he was created, given sentience, a brain, memories and a soul, only to be considered faulty and thrown out with the trash. the major learns that there were ninety-eight "failures" before her, ninety-eight people whose lives were used as experiments to create something, her, that was only ever intended to be a weapon. it becomes clear as the movie progresses that that is all hanka robotics sees the major as- a weapon. an object. something to bend to their will and dispose of when they are through with it. a disposable person. if you need a weapon, why create something with thoughts and feelings? why not just create a true machine? why create a being with a soul, only to destroy it? it is cruel, that's all there is to it. it disgusts me. i appreciated that GITS drove that point home, and i appreciate that cyborg michael pitt was no longer seen as a villain by the end of the movie, but as someone worth fighting for. just like the major.

i liked that the end of the movie was about valuing the major as a person, as a member of the team, as a wholly realized individual, as someone her team loved and cared about, rather than simply as a cyborg. they risked everything and went to great lengths to ensure that she was safe, AFTER she had saved herself from the imminent danger of the spider robot thing. i mention that she saved herself, because a lot of times in movies with female leads, men come to their rescue, and it didn't feel that way here, which i liked. the major saved herself and batou took her to safety afterwards. it was great to see that. by the end of the movie, aramaki was in charge, and he treated the major as a person, as someone with agency who was capable of making her own decisions, instead of just a weapon. this is what i want to see happening in the real world of robotics, so it was refreshing to see that here.

overall... ghost in the shell fell into a similar trap that suicide squad did- it was given all of the money and resources in the world, but the film was simply executed badly. the story was alright, but any nuance i've given to it here is probably more because of my intimate knowledge of robotics than because of actual nuance in the writing. it felt... flat, and i don't know that i would've connected to the story as deeply if it weren't for my Complicated Feelings About Robotics. aesthetically, it was extremely blade runner but it felt to me, at times, like there was too much cgi. i like that blade runner coupled the look that could be created with the technology that was available at the time with real people, real sets, real spaces. but maybe it was intentional with GITS, maybe they wanted it to look a bit ethereal since it's based on an anime movie. the acting was fine, the characters were fine, it was just... fine. but it could have been great, if they had made better casting choices, better story decisions, if they had just... done a better job. 

so, just watch the anime version instead. it's a better use of your time.