Wednesday, April 19, 2017

REVIEW: Ghost in the Shell (2017)

This is coming in a bit late, but as a fan of the franchise in all its animated/manga incarnations, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to give you my 2 sensei's worth of opinion about the Hollywood adaptation.

Unlike many people I was never concerned about the casting decisions. Frankly, as someone who has been making this movie in his own head for a good long while, I would've made similar casting decisions to set Ghost in the Shell outside of Japan and use that as a basis to explore what the rest of the world might be like outside of the future Tokyo. So take that as you will while I delve into this with a bit of a different approach compared to other reviews on this blog.

The problem with the Hollywood Ghost in the Shell is not that it is a terrible film (it's not really a good one either). But it is very unremarkable. There is in fact little there worth discussing within the film. For fans of the anime films, and even those who didn't like Mamoru Oshii's films; preferring Kenji Kamiyama's anime TV series; this is the biggest drawback. Oshii's movies, for all their overly philosophical pretense, actually do manage to be something worth discussing. The Hollywood Rupert Sanders movie, however, is more akin to 'Ghost in the Shell for Dummies.'


Whereas Oshii and Kamiyama try to break new ground with complex material, Sanders and his writers try to dumb it down and instead fill the frame with visual pomp and homages to all the material from the manga, Oshii films, the TV series; even the recent ARISE OVAs. I feel that video game creator, Hideo Kojima, said it best in his summary of the Hollywood movie. That while all the hallmark visuals and moments of Ghost in the Shell are in the movie, they are devoid of context. The filmmakers failed to realize why those particular scenes and moments existed. In a sense, Kojima referred to the Hollywood film as being only a 'shell' of the originals, devoid of the 'ghost' that gave them their spirit.

Another problem is that the film doesn't really take the time to comfortably show or explain the various abilities and things people in the future are accustomed to doing. So while those familiar with the franchise can more easily figure things out... newcomers may be left confused by the random things they see spontaneously occurring at any given moment. One example being dialogue between people who speak two different languages directly to each other during the same conversation without a translator. Those familiar with the franchise might more quickly grasp that in this world dialogue is automatically translated in each person's cyber brains. But in the film it is presented very awkwardly every time it happens.


If it's simply eye-candy you want with a helping of action, then the film could be satisfiable. But if that was what the filmmakers were going for, it would have been better to strictly make the movie all about that; rather than to clumsily maintain some of depth of the franchise; even to the cheesy point of having an on screen character basically spell out the themes you're supposed to think about.

Yes, the anime versions do have very verbose dialogue that you might think sounds the same as what the Hollywood movie is doing... but there is a big degree of difference. For one thing the conversations in the anime flow naturally from the fact that the Major and her team are essentially police detectives who are trying to figure out the motives, politics and philosophies of the groups and antagonists they are trying to apprehend. So in there it is a perfectly natural matter of necessity. The anime adaptation also avoids the cartoon-villainy on display in the Hollywood movie.


The other downside is that the American adaptation felt the need to focus on the Major's character and essentially adapt the story of Robocop in the process. Attempting to make the Major unique as a full body cyborg is in stark contrast to the anime/manga where this is actually quite normal in the world. There the Major is unique because she is the best at what she does in a world where many people are already like her. Despite all this, the Hollywood movie also doesn't really justify the Major's uniqueness in any remarkable way for their own story.

The other problem with focusing on the Major as a character is to detract from what makes the world of GITS appealing in the first place. It's because the franchise is more concerned with ideas rather than characters for which the cast is a vehicle. Sure we get bits and pieces of their lives here and there when related to the plot, but their pasts are otherwise left way out of the picture and the only thing that matters is their attitude, ways of thinking, and professional relationship to each other as far as working together to solve the case goes. The Hollywood film doesn't feature much of the teamwork present in the TV series nor the closer partner relationships of the Oshii films for that matter. At best Batou is featured as muscle to back up the Major. The film's antagonist, Kuze, a master hacker, is also a disappointment. There are a few stand out moments with some other characters, but largely there is not much for any of them to actually contribute to the movie.

The Hollywood Ghost in the Shell, is a disappointing venture. Given the movie's performance at the box office, its doubtful we'll see more of it; which sucks as this could've been a very good sci-fi franchise that could've served the studio very well far into the future if they cared.


Was it a problem that much of what made Ghost in the Shell great in the past had already been done from adaptations by many other sci-fi films during that time? Perhaps if you were strictly concerned with literally adapting the same areas Oshii had explored, topics that are not uncommon to other films such as the Matrix, Ex Machina, or Blade Runner. But to say that Ghost in the Shell couldn't be adapted in 2017 is incredibly lazy. There are so many topical things that it could've touched upon in our times from themes of terrorism, government surveillance, abuse of political power, social media, digital data manipulation, robotic and A.I. economies etc. etc. All this in addition to the themes of what ethnicities, sex, transhumanism, religion etc. mean in a world where people can be fully cyborg with entirely customizable bodies and longevity that may not even necessarily resemble anything human. There was much to choose from to make an entirely original work based on the shell of the original story that would give it new meaning and relevance for a universal audience living in this day and age.

That's the biggest crime of the Hollywood Ghost in the Shell - being a very big missed opportunity that fails to take advantage of a vast and infinite world offered to it on a platter.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

YOUR NAME Review

One of the highest grossing films of 2016 throughout Asia is Makoto Shinkai's latest anime 'Your Name.' It has been playing recently in select North American cities with a limited release on certain dates. Luckily, I managed to catch one of them!

I saw the version in the original Japanese language with English subtitles. But for many of you, especially if you're interested in taking friends and family who are not hard-core anime enthusiasts, I'd highly recommend trying out the English dub if you're not particular. This is because the subtitling is hard to read on a large theatre screen. Also, as someone who loves to look at the art and animation, in particular a Makoto Shinkai film with its stunning beautiful backgrounds, having to go between the visuals and the subtitles is a conflict of interest. If that's also what you're into, then you'll want to appreciate this on the big screen as comfortably as possible. Hard to do when you're trying to read the subtitles at the bottom... Of course, there are certain Japanese language jokes that might be missed; or rather there are some good jokes in there that I have absolutely no idea how the dub version handled... But if it were up to me I'd have personally made the trade-off in favour of enjoying the movies' wonderful visuals as much as I could.

'Your Name' is a supernatural story where a young girl, Mitsuha, the countryside daughter of an influential family; and a Tokyo architecture student city boy, Taki; both begin waking up in the morning to discover that they are switching bodies. Much like other body swap genres of stories, these two opposite personalities must become accustomed to being someone of the opposite sex and upbringing. They experience each others lifestyles and problems, and must cope with it as best they can so as not to arouse suspicion. Attempting to maintain the other's way of life until they find a way to fix what is happening proves to be difficult, but there are also certain advantages where one of them can attempt to overcome issues in the others life that the other can't. A strategy of  communication goes back and forth between them using notes and cell phone messages to instruct the other about what happened while they were swapped. Then provide advice so that when they swap back the other person can now 'remember' what they did the previous day and how to handle certain things. Much hilarity results from this complicated process and both characters become very endearing as they grow closer to each other through living each other's lives.


Now, unlike other body-swap stories 'Your Name' doesn't stop there as the body-swapping isn't the entirety of its plot. The film takes a VERY interesting turn and tonal shift in its story partway through for which the body swapping only serves as the set up. To say any more would be to spoil it, so it's best that you go in there with as little information as possible! What begins as a supernatural slice of life comedy soon becomes a thrilling race against the clock as events are set in motion where we suspect that the experience that both Mitsuha and Taki are going through might be related to a phenomenon of a passing comet in the sky.

Makoto Shinkai once again revisits the same theme of all his previous films about people separated by distance, time and space. You might imagine this would get repetitive, but he proves us wrong with 'Your Name' being his most interesting lovers separation story by far! Everything in 'Your Name' is an improvement on his past work, from characters to plot. In fact, 'Your Name' is perhaps his most mainstream movie thus far; and its success across Asia, even doing well in North America, helps to prove it! In my humble opinion, out of everything in his career, this is his best movie by far!


Once again, animation fans will love the attention to detail of backgrounds and scenery and animated visual effects that are stunning and vibrant as always. A fine reason to appreciate it on the big screen if you get the chance!

Now, while I greatly enjoyed the film, I wouldn't oversell it. If you are wondering whether this film is better than some of Hayao Miyazaki's classics such as Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke... then your expectations are too high. In my opinion, 'Your Name' is not better than Hayao Miyazaki's best films. I don't want anyone to go into 'Your Name' with over-hyped expectations just because it broke Studio Ghibli's previous records at the Japanese box office.

'Your Name' is a very good movie with a lot of heart, great production values, and will be very appealing to a wide number of people due to it's very clever take on a familiar and not uncommon genre of story. Essentially it is a charming 'feel good' movie that also manages to be thrilling; but it is not without some nit-picks where certain cases of convenience or mcguffins occur to get the story moving forward.


'Your Name' is most definitely worth checking out! And a must-see for any fan of Makoto Shinkai! Here's hoping the film's success brings on many many more! Don't miss it!