The freshly released second full trailer for the live-action Ghost in the Shell movie seems to confirm my worst fears that the movie has heavily “Americanized” its presentation of Major Motoko Kusanagi. Ghost in the Shell creator Masamune Shirow and the three Japanese directors who have adapted Koukaku Kidotai into film, Mamoru Oshii, Kenji Kamiyama, and Kazuchika Kise, have always been conscious and careful to avoid depicting Motoko Kusanagi as a victim. Plenty of anime depict a similar cyberpunk internet-dependent future as Ghost in the Shell, including Serial Experiments Lain, Guilty Crown, Ergo Proxy, Psycho Pass, Accel World, Midnight Eye Goku, and Mardock Scramble. But the singular characteristic that consistently sets Ghost in the Shell apart is Motoko Kusanagi’s unique characterization. She’s a self-assured, experienced, eminently capable individual who is comfortable with herself because she’s been a cyborg from birth. Motoko Kusanagi does not have a tragic back-story. She has never been “the first” or “only one of her kind.” She’s not manipulated by anyone. No one has “stolen” her life because suggesting that such has occurred to her weakens her independence and personal autonomy. Motoko Kusanagi is unique because she’s the best at what she does, because she has made her own life, not because some larger conspiracy has manipulated and controlled her destiny.
I don’t mind at all if an American live-action Ghost in the Shell film is less intensely intellectual. But giving Motoko Kusanagi a conventional American super hero’s origin, or trying to inject artificial drama into the narrative by giving the Major a pitiful tragic past is an unjustified and unnecessary alteration. The appeal of Ghost in the Shell is watching an assertive, confident and powerful protagonist navigate complex webs of political and economic crime. The narrative concept becomes more fascinating when the setting naturally evokes uncertainty about the defining characteristics of humanity and the philosophical question of whether by elevating to higher levels of consciousness we evolve into something surpassing humanity. The strength of Ghost in the Shell is showing viewers a strong, capable protagonist challenging a system that thinks itself untouchable and unimpeachable. Narratively going backward and compromising the independence and experience of the protagonist may create a more conventional empathy, but “conventional” is not what viewers want and expect from Ghost in the Shell.
I’ll certainly go out to see this new film, but I’m disappointed that my expectations are already compromised.