On the Ghost in the Shell Remake

by Derek Van Gorder

For as long as I can remember, my favorite film director has been Mamoru Oshii. He has accomplished something that, as far as I know, is unprecedented in cinema: not only do all his films share the same central theme (“modern life/the modern city as illusion”), but he has woven into every one of these films a cohesive, unified set of symbols (dogs; fish; birds; reflections; urban landscapes; development and decay; military hardware), employed within a recurring narrative structure that remains nearly identical from film to film.

As a result, the films begin to talk to each other. A line of dialogue in one movie will grant worlds of importance to a brief shot in another. These are not idle references or cute in-jokes; Oshii has devoted his entire career to painstakingly building a cinematic language unique to himself, through which he expresses a carefully considered philosophy.

That philosophy, to quote one reviewer on sensesofcinema.com:

“…reflects Oshii’s strong sense that there is another, deeper reality, a sort of Platonic numinal realm, underlying the surface world of objects…The protagonist of Oshii’s most famous film, Ghost in the Shell, quotes 1 Corinthians 13:11, ‘For now we see as through a glass darkly, but then we shall see face to face,’ and this passage could be taken as an epigram for Oshii’s overall aesthetic project. Indeed, one of the main functions of Oshii’s work is to draw attention to the limitations of human vision and bring the viewer to a point where he/she can recognize the abstract, possibly transcendental, world underlying the seemingly solid object-oriented one we inhabit.”

Ghost in the Shell has now been remade as an American special-effects blockbuster. For many, this is simply a popular Japanese comic-book franchise getting the Hollywood treatment. For me, it is as inherently distasteful and uninteresting as would be a remake of 2001, or Blade Runner [I’m afraid I have some bad news for you – Ed.], or Stalker.

There are so many layers of nuance behind Oshii’s use of imagery that even when his more obvious symbols or philosophical monologues are absent, every shot is filled with subtextual meaning. To remake a film operating on such an advanced level is, in my view, unthinkable: it can only be the result of hubris, ignorance, or pure, cynical devotion to market forces—most likely a combination of all three.

The remake is being marketed, rather aggressively, to geeks, comic book fans, and all over Reddit. I ask that if you are planning on going to see this movie, please consider watching a film by the original director instead.

Unfortunately, I often find it difficult to recommend Oshii’s films to people. Not only are they foreign films, most of them are also “science-fiction anime,” which comes with its own preconceived notions. Often, I notice that people mistake Oshii’s unique characteristics as simply “weird Japanese filmmaking,” and tether it to common genre stereotypes. But to dismiss a movie like Ghost in the Shell as “one of those Japanese cartoons with lots of violence and nudity” would be like dismissing No Country for Old Men as “one of those American movies where a bunch of Midwestern tough guys shoot at each other.”

I believe it’s this sort of cultural blindness at work behind the remake—the thought process is “The original had some cool stuff in it, but it’s a cartoon, and Japanese, and kinda slow. Let’s remake it with CGI and English-speaking actors so everybody can enjoy it.” Of course, in attempting to downplay the unfamiliar, the spirit of the work—the very thing that made the original so attractive in the first place—is erased. How could it be otherwise?

Some people have taken issue with the casting in the remake. But to belabor this point is to tacitly admit defeat on the more fundamental problem: that the remake is being made at all. This problem is so commonplace, so accepted as inevitable and ordinary, that it may as well be invisible to us.

In an effort to offer an alternative to the overwhelming influence of the modern American blockbuster film-recycling-system, here are some films by Oshii that I recommend, in order of personal preference:

* Patlabor 2: The Movie
* Angel’s Egg
* Ghost in the Shell
* Innocence
* Talking Head
* Avalon
* The Red Spectacles
* Patlabor: The Movie

For any of these, you should seek out the subtitled version, avoiding the dubs. There is one possible exception to this: the 1996 “Manga” dub of Patlabor 2 on the original VHS+DVD release is unusually good, true to the characters, and may actually improve the first viewing of the film for an English-speaker, but it might be difficult to find (you are more likely to encounter the recent dub, which is quite poor). So when in doubt, go with the original Japanese.

Angel’s Egg is currently available for free on YouTube. That would be jumping into the deep end—it’s his most difficult, experimental movie—but if you have the patience, I think you will be rewarded.

Derek Van Gorder is a cameraman and filmmaker currently living in Brooklyn.

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