GHOST IN THE SHELL

Empire (Australasia) - - Contents -

The ter­ri­fy­ing story of a haunted crab.

As eerie mu­sic swells, a fig­ure takes shape on the gi­ant screen. Iden­ti­fi­ably fe­male, it rises from a pool of fluid, its ivory-white outer layer de­tach­ing and fly­ing from it in pa­per-like shreds. LED lights twin­kle on ei­ther side of the screen; the mon­i­tor glitches. And as the soundtrack builds to a crescendo, the fig­ure com­pletes its meta­mor­pho­sis. It’s Scar­lett Jo­hans­son.

Hol­ly­wood has for some time been on a quest to crack anime. With in­tri­cate mytholo­gies and de­voted armies of fans, the medium has ob­vi­ous ap­peal for movie pro­duc­ers. But adapt­ing it is no easy task. James Wong’s Dragonball: Evo­lu­tion (2009) is a cau­tion­ary tale, gross­ing $57 mil­lion from a $30 mil­lion bud­get but draw­ing scorn from crit­ics. Even the big­gest names in moviemak­ing have strug­gled. An adap­ta­tion of 1988’s land­mark sci-fi anime Akira re­mains un­made, de­spite 15 years’ worth of at­tempts (see page 69). James Cameron puz­zled over his spin on Bat­tle An­gel Alita for over a decade, be­fore pass­ing it on to Robert Ro­driguez (pro­duc­tion re­cently wrapped at Austin’s Trou­ble­maker Stu­dios). Shane Black toyed with Death Note, be­fore ul­ti­mately de­part­ing to make a new Preda­tor.

All of which means Ghost In The Shell is the first mega-bud­get anime adap­ta­tion to ar­rive in cin­e­mas. The tena­cious di­rec­tor who made it hap­pen is not the big name you might ex­pect, but Ru­pert San­ders, best known for 2012’s Snow White & The Hunts­man.

Empire sits down with San­ders in Novem­ber 2016 at Tokyo’s Tabloid gallery, a swish space in the Cre­ator’s Dis­trict. Tonight is Paramount’s launch event for the film, hence the showreel be­ing shown to press, ac­com­pa­nied by live score from com­poser Kenji Kawai and min­iorches­tra. The event is slick and high-en­ergy, but San­ders him­self is clearly tired. “It’s been a dif­fi­cult jour­ney,” he ad­mits. “But some­times the best ones are.”

It was ac­tu­ally Steven Spiel­berg who hand-picked him, af­ter see­ing the di­rec­tor’s 2009 ad­vert for video game Halo 3: ODST, and hav­ing al­ready com­mis­sioned sev­eral screen­writ­ers to wres­tle with the source ma­te­rial. “My im­me­di­ate in­stinct was to pitch a closer ver­sion to the anime than I think they had imag­ined,” San­ders re­calls. “The first thing I did when Steven ap­proached me was col­lage to­gether a pitch us­ing ev­ery­thing I loved from the fran­chise. Like a DJ look­ing for breaks!”

Any­one fa­mil­iar with Ghost In The Shell will un­der­stand that it’s a tough cara­pace to crack as a main­stream block­buster. Orig­i­nally a manga by Masamune Shi­row (se­ri­alised in Ko­dan­sha’s Young Mag­a­zine be­tween 1989 and 1997), it has been spun off into var­i­ous an­i­mated TV se­ries and movies, with such ex­cel­lent monikers as Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Com­plex — Solid State So­ci­ety (2006) and 2015’s Ghost In The Shell: The New Movie. But the in­stal­ment that gained the prop­erty in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion was Mamoru Oshii’s ac­claimed 1995 film. Its dis­ci­ples in­clude many prom­i­nent sci-fi film­mak­ers, in­clud­ing James Cameron, who called it “the first truly adult an­i­ma­tion film to reach a level of lit­er­ary and vis­ual ex­cel­lence”, and the Wa­chowskis, who have been cheer­fully hon­est about plun­der­ing parts of it for The Ma­trix.

Put as sim­ply as pos­si­ble, it’s the tale of cy­ber cops work­ing for Sec­tion 9, on the trail of a hacker known as the Pup­pet Mas­ter, who turns out to be no hu­man ter­ror­ist but a rogue ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence. But be­neath the fa­mil­iar manga tropes are em­bed­ded deep philo­soph­i­cal themes. The tit­u­lar “shell” refers to the ar­ti­fi­cial bod­ies that pop­u­late the tale: most of the fran­chise’s hu­man char­ac­ters sport cy­borg en­hance­ments. The “ghost”, mean­while, refers to the soul, or con­scious­ness within that frame: the in­tan­gi­ble, in­cor­po­real spark that makes us unique. If we’re re­plac­ing our bod­ies whole­sale, the se­ries asks, what keeps us hu­man?

Per­son­i­fy­ing that dilemma in the new ver­sion is Jo­hans­son’s hero­ine: ap­par­ently no longer named Mo­toko Ku­sanagi, but in­stead re­ferred to sim­ply as ‘the Ma­jor’. There have been many it­er­a­tions of this char­ac­ter over the years. San­ders’ take is that she’s the first-ever en­tirely ar­ti­fi­cial hu­man: a com­pletely cy­borg body and brain, in­hab­ited by the con­scious­ness of the hu­man she once was.

“It’s a woman who’s ba­si­cally try­ing to ask the ques­tion of, first, ‘What am I?’ and then later, ‘Who was I?’” says the di­rec­tor. “In a weird way, it’s a story about ado­les­cence.”

SIX MONTHS BE­FORE Tokyo, Empire is on set at Stone Street Stu­dios in Welling­ton, New Zealand. Out­side, a large cir­cu­lar plaza has been con­structed, based specif­i­cally on Ci­ty­plaza in Taikoo Shing, Hong Kong (a de­tail some­times missed, dat­ing back to Oshii’s anime film, is that Ghost In The Shell is not ex­plic­itly set in Ja­pan, but in a neb­u­lous pan-asian mega­lopo­lis in­spired by Hong Kong). An an­cient-look­ing wooden pagoda with a gnarly tree grow­ing out of it sits in­con­gru­ously be­side a high con­crete walk­way. The walls are rid­dled with bul­let holes, the streets lit­tered with rub­ble and burned-out cars. As the light fades to­wards evening, a crew scat­ters yet more pul­verised ma­sonry, and we watch a diminu­tive fe­male fig­ure tak­ing a se­vere beat­ing from one of the fran­chise’s in­stantly recog­nis­able spi­der-like tanks. The tank it­self will be CG, but there’s an im­pres­sive full-sized rep­re­sen­ta­tion

in situ for the Ma­jor to butt heads with. It’s only when she turns to face us that we re­alise we’re not watch­ing Jo­hans­son, but her stunt dou­ble, Carly Rees.

We catch up with Jo­hans­son her­self when we get back in­side the stu­dio. Wrapped in a black hoodie, her black hair streaked with elec­tric blue, she looks tired: drained both from the phys­i­cal ac­tion (Rees isn’t do­ing all the heavy lift­ing) and the cere­bral ex­er­tion of track­ing her char­ac­ter’s quest for iden­tity.

“She’s liv­ing a unique ex­pe­ri­ence,” the star ex­plains, deep in philo­soph­i­cal mode, “as some­body who has an idea of who she thinks she was, and then who she is now, and the per­son that she feels she is, this sort of gnaw­ing

feel­ing she has in her ghost. Be­ing able to play those three sides: the ego, the su­per-ego and the id… That was pretty en­tic­ing.”

While Rees was scrap­ping with the tank, Jo­hans­son has been oth­er­wise en­gaged on an­other set: a dark in­te­rior “lair” for the film’s nom­i­nal vil­lain Kuze, played by Michael Pitt. The scene it­self is kept se­cret from Empire’s pry­ing eyes — Jo­hans­son hints that it is “a tac­ti­cal ap­proach to a tar­get the Ma­jor’s been hunt­ing” — but we do catch a glimpse of thick black ca­bles trail­ing from a cen­tral hub to a bank of tall com­put­ers. Ap­par­ently they can be at­tached to peo­ple for “in­for­ma­tion har­vest”.

The plaza and tank tell us spe­cific scenes from Oshii’s film are be­ing faith­fully recre­ated, but the pres­ence of Kuze re­veals that changes are be­ing made. Kuze doesn’t come from Oshii or Shi­row, but from the sec­ond sea­son of Stand Alone Com­plex, a TV se­ries over­seen by Kenji Kamiyama. There, the mes­sianic hacker rev­o­lu­tion­ary wants to force hu­man evo­lu­tion by break­ing ev­ery­one free of their cor­po­real bod­ies and tak­ing their con­scious­ness into cy­berspace. In the live-ac­tion Ghost In The Shell, how­ever, Kuze’s mis­sion is to bring down Hanka Robotics, the com­pany that cre­ated the Ma­jor. The film be­gins with a tea­house-set as­sas­si­na­tion (by ro­bot geishas, no less) and an au­da­cious case of data-hack­ing, putting Sec­tion 9 on the case of who took it and why.

It is, in essence, a mash-up of Ghost In The Shell’s var­i­ous sto­ries and con­ti­nu­ities — a new story with fa­mil­iar set-pieces. It seems a nec­es­sary ap­proach to an orig­i­nal anime that would ba­si­cally be un­filmable as a Hol­ly­wood block­buster ac­tion-sci-fi. There’s some­thing uniquely dream­like about Oshii’s film, its som­nam­bu­lant pac­ing al­low­ing for se­quences like the word­less five min­utes where a char­ac­ter goes home and feeds his bas­set hound.

“Oshii was clear that we could use what we wanted but make it our own,” says San­ders. “So our driv­ing story is a sus­pense­ful, ac­tion-driven char­ac­ter dis­cov­ery, and around that is the the­matic stuff, which I hope comes across. It can’t be that the in­tro­spec­tion and phi­los­o­phy of the first anime pro­pels you for­ward, with the ac­tion se­condary to that. We had to do it the other way round.”

Other re­pur­posed set-pieces from the Oshii orig­i­nal — al­ready glimpsed in the first trailer — in­clude the Ma­jor’s iconic back­wards swan dive from a high build­ing and con­fronta­tion in an­kle-deep water with a flee­ing hacker. Ap­par­ently naked in both, Jo­hans­son is ac­tu­ally sport­ing a flesh-toned sil­i­cone cam­ou­flage suit. “I don’t wear that too of­ten, thank­fully,” she grins sheep­ishly. “It’s hot where you don’t want it to be and cold where you don’t want it to be.”

Empire doesn’t see her in it on set, but there are star­tling nude rep­re­sen­ta­tions of her all over the Weta de­sign de­part­ments, in­clud­ing a ny­lon-and-steel man­nequin in­tri­cately con­structed for the shelling se­quence from more than 200 3D-printed com­po­nents. San­ders jokes that when pro­duc­tion’s fin­ished he’s tak­ing it home.

Main: Scar­lett Jo­hans­son dons her flesh-coloured cam­ou­flage suit as the Ma­jor en­gages in soggy com­bat with a hacker.

Clock­wise from top

left: Pilou As­baek as Sec­tion 9’s Ba­tou; Di­rec­tor Ru­pert San­ders; The Ma­jor’s cy­ber core re­vealed; Be­ware the ro­bot geisha.

Clock­wise from

above: The Ma­jor, though fully cy­borg, is trou­bled by a “gnaw­ing feel­ing”; The colour­ful sky­line of the pan-asian mega­lopo­lis; What se­crets lurk in its neon­lit nightspots?; San­ders with Ja­panese leg­end Takeshi Ki­tano on set.

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