Ghost in the Shell is, without a doubt, one of the icons of modern animation. Any conversation about influential anime in the West that doesn’t include the franchise (along with Akira, Cowboy Bebop and Gundam) isn’t a real conversation. The series is a mixture of philosophy and action that has yet to be competently replicated in any entertainment medium: East, West or otherwise. And, of course, that makes me a massive fan of the franchise.
So when it was announced a few years back that Hollywood would be making a Western adaptation, I was cautiously optimistic. The film could be done right and Hollywood has shown it is capable of delivering on intelligent thrillers in the past: specifically Ex Machina, which shares several themes of humanity and the cost of technological advancement. However, I noted at the time that a very thorough understanding of the source material was needed if it was going to be done correctly, because GITS is as intellectually and philosophically deeper than 90% of what Hollywood puts out. Unfortunately, since 2015, the news on Ghost in the Shell has turned my cautious optimism into total skepticism. The recent news of Michael Pitt being cast as either The Laughing Man or Hideo Kuze is the icing on a cake I had hoped wouldn’t be made. Yet, here we are; staring down the barrel of what could be the worst Western anime adaptation Hollywood has made. Yes; worse that Dragonball Evolution. Yes; worse than Speed Racer. And, although I know this is going to open me up to some broadside shots, that isn’t because a Caucasian woman is playing Motoko Kusanagi. Even if they had an Asian actress in the role, it would be heading down this self-destructive road.
How dare I say this? Well, let me ask you a very simple question: why does The Major have to be Japanese? I know some already have a knee-jerk response to this question; probably lining up with some form of, ‘Because that’s what she is JP!’ However, that answer isn’t good enough for me. Why? Because I can figure one or two ways out of it, most of them using adaptation practices and marketing to a general audience; not the niche crowd that loves GITS. For me, the true answer lies in knowing the series itself. For now, just keep that question in mind and let’s peel back exactly what the first season of Stand Alone Complex is about. And that’s a solid spoiler warning for everyone so if you, for some ungodly reason, haven’t see the first season of SAC…it’s one of the greatest anime series of all time for a reason. Stop reading this and go watch it, then come back. Cool? Cool.
The first season of Stand Alone Complex is essentially a detective story tied into a political thriller and it all starts with the advent of cyborgs. As cybernetics became more popular in this world, new medical issues began to put the human populace as risk. The biggest new illness was dubbed ‘Cyberbrain Sclerosis’ which was brought on when implants into human brain tissue caused that tissue to harden and kill the patient. Because no immediate cure was available, the fact that it was 100% fatal stunted to growing cyborg market the many governments around the world began to take finding a cure much more seriously. Japan, in particular, looked to medical nano-machines for an answer as anti-cybernetics movements began to spread in the country and the world.
Ironically, the answer came from old medicine. A doctor named Chitose Murai who was helping care for cyber-brain sclerosis patients began to experiment with vaccinations to ease the symptoms of the disease. Not only was he effective in doing so, the good doctor effectively cured it. Dubbed the ‘Murai Vaccine’, Dr. Murai attempted to get the Japanese government to approve it for widespread use. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Heath, Labor and Welfare refused to give it final approval: stating that because Dr. Murai couldn’t provide evidence on how the vaccine worked: it just did. So the vaccine was banned, research into nano-machine treatments continued and life continued on for the most part until February 3, 2024 when the CEO of a nano-machine conglomerate, Ernest Serano, was abducted.
The abduction of Serano ended when his abductor, dubbed The Laughing Man by the media due to the iconic graphic that obscured his face from the cameras, gained massive public attention. The icon became a pop culture meme and anarchistic symbol for young people in the country, as well as inspiring other hackers to attack nano-machine firms. The actual Laughing Man wasn’t seen again after the incident, but the chaos caused by his short appearance would continue sporadically until 2030 when he mysteriously reappeared and threatened the life of the National Police Commission’s Superintendent-General; a man named Daido. This would bring Section 9’s attention to the case and they slowly began to pull apart the truth about the entire affair.
That, believe it or not, is the brief synopsis of the entire first season. There is one other thing of note here and that’s something that SAC often mentions in both series, but doesn’t explain why it’s important until midway through 2nd Gig: The Japanese Miracle. The Japanese Miracle is the common term for a type of nano-machine technology that could negate the effect of nuclear fallout. While it didn’t stop a nuclear bomb from wrecking your shit, it could lessen the damage of a nuclear attack by allowing for nuclear missiles to be intercepted without fallout affecting anyone in the blast radius. It allowed Japan to become a major international player in the post-war era the show takes place in and while we don’t have an exact date on it, the canon claims that it was one of the technologies that was developed while research was being done into Cyberbrain Sclerosis. If Murai’s vaccine would have been allowed, it can be inferred that Japan wouldn’t have developed the technology and been in a much weaker political position.
So yeah; that’s about twenty or thirty years of in-universe canon boiled down to a few paragraphs. Let’s talk about how Stand Alone Complex uses it.
One of the biggest points about the series that is left out of every review I have ever read about it is that Section 9’s most consistent and powerful enemy is the Japanese government itself. What? You didn’t notice it? To spin ahead a little, a politician named Kaoru Yakushima is behind everything and has been using the disease, the vaccine and even the Laughing Man to maintain a corrupt network of wealth and influence. When Section 9 has enough evidence to arrest Yakushima the Prime Minister of Japan blocks them and orders the team to be taken out. He does so because there is a national election coming up, Yakushima is the head of his party and he wants to satiate Yakushima until after the election is secured and he has gotten another term as PM: even if that means sacrificing Section 9. In the second season Kazundo Gouda (one of the greatest anime villains ever) and the Cabinet Intelligence Service had grown in power with the absence of Section 9 and Gouda has decided to use that to ‘restructure’ the Japanese government using a refugee crisis no one was addressing at the time. In the film, Section 6 is the big bad guy as they attempt to hunt down and destroy Project 2501 AKA the Puppet Master before anyone becomes aware that they created it in for government use.
Simply put, I have seen no evidence at all that the people handling the GITS movie understand anything I just told you. I have a strong suspicion that if I sat down the with the writers in the movie and asked them how they would incorporate the fact that the Laughing Man ended up just being a kid acting impulsively after reading something on the Internet, they’d just kind of shrug it off. Same thing with Yakushima and the role an election played into Section 9’s near demise. Same with the Murai Vaccine and how it inadvertently pushed Japan into a prominent position on the global stage. All of these are the building blocks of the narrative of the first season of Stand Alone Complex and if you can’t grasp that, can you grasp why Gouda’s public manipulation and use of the Individual Eleven was so effective? If you cannot get the intellectual and philosophical roots of the franchise you’re adapting correct, what can you get right?
With the current casting decisions getting attention, the answer is slowly but surely becoming, ‘Nothing’.
I make no secret about the fact that I grew up on a different brand of anime. I completely missed the ultra-violent schlock years and really started to get into the genre just as Western media began to understand it wasn’t just a bunch of kids shows. To be fair, anime isn’t the only thing that has changed as I’ve aged, but it is the last one to get to the party thanks to a relatively insular group of fans who are, no offense, easily satiated. If the audience doesn’t demand creators challenge them, or support studios who are trying to be more than fandom bait (pick whatever fandom you wish on that one), then of course they’re just going to keep cranking out the exact same thing. Ironically enough, the excuses being used to prop up the current status quo in the anime market is the same one being used to prop up the GITS movie: it has to make money.
The conventional wisdom is that just by existing, the GITS movie will get more exposure for the original production because that’s how that has worked in the past. Don’t get me wrong. I am a capitalist at heart. However, what is this potential profit going to cost versus what you can make by being loyal to the original series? Or, to put it more bluntly; who in the Hell says that you can only profit from something by ripping out its brain? We have had a flood of original television shows and movies that have shown you can be philosophically and intellectually rich while being entertaining. This isn’t some mystery art that only a handful of old masters can accomplish. It is literally being done every week on basic cable now. You do not have to dumb down your story for your audience; in fact, there is a massive reward waiting for you if you go as far as you can in the opposite direction of dumbing down.
There is no reason why the GITS movie has to be this way: none. Yet, that seems to be what’s happening here and that’s what pisses me off. The Major casting isn’t the biggest problem, but it is a reflection to what the movie is to the people behind it: yet another attempt at a cash grab because ‘well, they’ll buy it anyway’. Why on Earth should I want more anime from my childhood to be adapted on the big screen when the king of that nostalgic mountain, and one of the reasons anime is even a thing in the West mind you, can’t even get respect? I hope I’m wrong, because the series deserves so much more thought and investment than what seems to be going into it. But, more than likely we’ll get yet another watered-down, basic cyberpunk tale with the same tired strain of ‘corporations bad, rebels good’. Hell, maybe then it’s best that they do whitewash the cast. That way, no ones career will be hurt by having their name attached to a potential dud.