How can this tweet become future-present reality? How can we make real a “sleek, hauntingly resonant feature-length homage” to genre-defining Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell?

Don’t Hold Your Breath… Waiting For Hollywood

Project 2501. Ghost In The Shell.

First: don’t hold your breath waiting for Hollywood. From Dragonball to Akira, the major movie studios are experts in mangling manga and anime.

A petition exists with over 27,000 signatures, but that won’t get a better movie made.

Instead, one goal may be to involve members of the Asian film community who are experienced with American independent film. Examples: Russell Wong, Kelly Hu, Dustin Nguyen and even popular younger actors like Sung Kang. See the 2006 indie film “Undoing” to enjoy Wong, Hu and Kang working together, under the direction of Chris Chan Lee. Ever since his role coolly upstaging Johnny Depp as a heartthrob undercover detective on the show 21 Jumpstreet, Dustin Nguyen has also learned hard, valuable lessons in navigating the landscape as an Asian-American actor.

Perhaps we could even attain the blessings of luminaries in the Asian film and social activism communities such as George Takei, the original Sulu from Star Trek. Keep reading below in the “Questions” section for more directly from Mr. Takei himself.

Finding The Funds: Chinafication of Ghost in the Shell?

In a conversation about how to quickly get moving on this project, someone mentioned appeasing a Chinese sensibility in order to secure funds.

Ever since Iron Man 3 and the innumerable recent Transformers films, Hollywood has built trend of “Chinafying” summer blockbusters for the sake of following the money. The Chinafication of Hollywood is an unfortunate acquiescence, not to Chinese culture, but to the dominance of greed in light of the mainland government’s inexcusable human rights abuses against artist-activists such as Ai Wei Wei.

A fascinating point to note, however, is to see the city in which Ghost in the Shell was visually set. The “city of the future” that plays such an integral role in embodying the spirit of the film is no other than Hong Kong. Considering Hong Kong’s historical and current fight against mainland government control, this setting for GITS may be even more spot-on than a “pure” Japanese location. As China grows in economic power and global influence, much of Asia (perhaps even including Japan) has a stake in the outcome of Hong Kong’s struggle to maintain autonomy while situated in the jaws of the voracious red giant.

This live-action Hong Kong walkthrough reveals its eery shot-for-shot relationship with the landmarks, objects, locations, and visual sensibilities of Ghost in the Shell:

In a sense, Ghost in the Shell was not a stylistic blend of China and Japan. It was an ingenious combination of Hong Kong and Japan. As long as Hong Kong retains its cultural identity, it will never be absorbed into China. Likewise, if Ghost in the Shell is to retain its identity, it must similarly defy Hollywood’s destructive magnetism (although the stakes are not quite so high for a live-action anime… or are they?).

Questions and Thoughts

Project 2501. Ghost In The Shell.

Q: “Motoko Kusanagi is a cyborg. She could take any form. She could be an old woman in a young mecha-body, or be played by a young woman inhabiting an aged cyborg. Why not make her a pretty young American like Ms. Johannsen?”

Why not, you ask? Because there are plenty of alternatives. It would be great to cast a GITS film with unexpected actors — after there exists at least one adaptation that’s faithful to the original.

Q: “But the characters in the anime look white to me. Why does it matter to cast Asian actors?”

Japanese actress Kikuchi Rinko.
Japanese actress Kikuchi Rinko.

For Hollywood to cast a white American woman when there is a multitude of capable Asian actors (American and otherwise) is yet another example of the pervasive phenomenon known as whitewashing in the U.S. film industry.

One major purpose of an independent Ghost in the Shell film is to enable Asian actors to play undeniably Asian roles. Although African-Americans have managed at least to play (largely stereotypical) roles involving black characters, Asian people are still largely ignored. One example, oddly enough, came from the Wachowski siblings’ Cloud Atlas, in which the city of Neo Seoul (South Korea) was populated almost entirely by everyone but Asian people. Worse, the non-Asians wore insultingly silly-looking prosthetics that gave the actors an appearance of being… non-Asian actors wearing insultingly silly-looking prosthetics.

It’s long past the moment for films to start casting real Asian people in Asian roles. If a film would go to the extent of making its characters look “sort of” Asian, they might as well use Asian actors — they’re not fooling anyone with Vaudevillian eye prosthetics and stilted “trying to be Asian-ish” performances, anyway.

Specifically for Ghost in Shell, the characters’ ethnicity matters because the story is Japanese, takes place in Japan (a fictional Hong Kong-like Japanese city), is designed within the context of Japanese culture and yes, the characters are Japanese people. The round-eyed anime style does nothing to change the fact that this is a modern Japanese story. A faithful live-action adaptation would be immersed in the cultural nuances that made the original film unique.

There’s already an American Ghost in the Shell. Its name is The Matrix, and it’s nothing like Ghost in the Shell.

The Wachowskis may have pitched the first Matrix film to producer Joel Silver as a “live-action Ghost in the Shell”:

Even though lead actor Keanu Reeves’ grandmother is Chinese Hawaiian, the film itself is American (some might even say, Chicagoan).

Enter Project 2501

Project 2501. Ghost In The Shell.

At the same time, it’s a pleasure to note that the lead actor/model in Project 2501’s homage, Christine Adams, is in fact hapa — of both Japanese and American ancestry. Mixed-ethnicity actors are an indication of the future of our world.

More than the mythology of race (there is only one human race, and we all belong to it), culture does matter. A Japanese story cannot simply be re-scripted as an American one without becoming a different story. The universal themes will still be there; you don’t need to be Asian to appreciate the impact of Ghost in the Shell and enjoy the original anime. It might even be interesting to see a Japanese version of the Matrix. In any case, a live-action Ghost in the Shell would inevitably be a Japanese story first and foremost, as Japanese culture was the foundation for both the manga and the 1995 anime.

It is, of course, ironic that the closest we have (2015) to a live-action GITS is Project 2501, a global collaboration spearheaded by American visual designer Ash Thorp. This note would be incomplete without a quote from Kusanagi Motoko herself: “the Net is vast and infinite”. Such an Internet-connected, worldwide collab of gifted and dedicated artists may hold the key to unleashing the true spirit of Ghost in the Shell. And Ash Thorp has shown the vision, willingness and ability to lead that collaboration. Film is a different animal, but the ability to marshal a group of individually-minded creatives is a skill that not everyone can claim to possess.

Q: “Movies are all about the money. That’s why Hollywood chose Scarlett Johanssen. You can’t blame Hollywood for wanting to make a profit.”

I’ll invite George Takei to tackle this one.

[ Transcript ]

Q: “Japanese people wouldn’t want a live-action Ghost in the Shell. Look at the lack of action movies in Japanese cinema, for example.”

For counterexamples, see the manga-turned-film series Gantz and Gantz: Perfect Answer. These films not only showcase brilliant special effects, they are also identifiably Japanese through the actors’ choices in portraying their roles. Hollywood could not have done a better job unless they re-wrote the story to take place in the United States. If they were to do so (as Mr. Takei noted in the video above) they might as well make a completely different movie. The same is true of Ghost in the Shell.

If we want the world to see a faithful, high-quality live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, there is no point in waiting for Hollywood. We’ll have to assemble a team of skilled professionals (I nominate Ash Thorp’s Project 2501 as the nucleus of that team), and create a production that is true to the vision of the original anime.

The passion is real. The vision exists. The anime is our blueprint. We even have a reference for the visual design of the film (see Project 2501). And the time is now.

Project 2501. Ghost In The Shell.
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